The story is more than a traditional love triangle; it is also about the cruel words that remain unspoken in the polite society of old New York. This society ignores reality and pretends to act innocently to the extent that physical violence doesn't exist, and a kiss in public, much less sex, is scandalous.
Wharton’s book points out many of the contradictions of wealthy New York society during the 1870's, showing the reader how individuals in this society acted as hypocrites by hiding these contradictions. Not only were people, particularly women, expected to be pure and innocent, pretending not to know the occasional unpleasantness of reality; they really did fulfill this expectation. For example, May pretends that she doesn't know about Newland's passionate feelings for Ellen. We learn after May’s death that she knew the entire time that Newland and Ellen loved each other and how Newland sacrificed his happiness to keep everyone’s reputation intact.
Both men and women enforced this society's superficial values of who was socially acceptable to associate with, how to behave, who to marry, and what were proper professions. For example, when everyone privately disapproves of Ellen leaving her husband, her family and friends intentionally do not attend her welcoming dinner party to send a message of disapproval for breaking the proper codes of society. Everyone appears gentle but most are actually vicious human beings.
Another type of hypocrisy was the double standards set by society. Women could not have sexual affairs, but as long as husbands kept their affairs hidden from their wives, men committing adult ery was acceptable. This is the case for Mr. Beaufort and Fanny Ring, his mistress. Everyone looks down upon her for having an affair while they at the same time ignore Mr. Beaufort’s behavior.
Society not only places expectations on women, but on men too. Men are expected to have distinguished business careers and provide well for their family. Even though Mr. Beaufort has an affair with an another woman, only his business failure causes New York society to lose respect in him. A business failure is considered the ultimate disgrace a men can face while divorce disgraces women, such as Ellen. Unfortunately, parents are taught the unspoken double standard and other contradictory codes by their parents and pass these expectations down to their children. The cycle makes it nearly impossible for anyone to break away from these traditions or to speak freely and think independently. For most people, this unspoken and "innocent" lifestyle is all they know.
Unlike most characters in the novel, Ellen shows she is able to break from this code because she has been away from New York for several years and because her aunt raised her to think her mind. She initially returns to New York believing she would be welcomed back into a society who would forgive her actions of leaving and wanting to divorce the adult erous husband who treated her poorly. Not only does she want to forget her horrible past in Europe, she expects to learn and love the ways of New York, a city she anticipated to be superior to European cities. But by seeing her family and the rest of society's evasion of emotions and actions, she soon realizes most of New York lives a life full of contradictions, hypocrisies, and superficial traditions. Rather than suppress her feelings and beliefs, she rebels against their "innocent" masquerade by creating her own set of moral values. She doesn't divorce her husband, but she doesn't return to him either. In addition, she chooses not have an affair with Newland because she doesn't want to pretend she isn't having one and hide under false pretenses (which is what Mr. Beaufort and Fanny Ring do). If she is going to be with someone sexually, the relationship is not going to be a secret. Because Archer will not have an open affair with her or leave May for her, Ellen refuses to be with him. Instead, she decides to remember him for his positive qualities, and leave for Paris to be independent and make a new start. She will not live in the facade of a gentle land with vicious people.