On a January evening in the 1870s, the opera singer Christine Nilsson is singing in Faust at New York’s Academy of Music. Though a new and grander opera house is going to be built, fashionable New Yorkers still come to the Academy because it’s traditional and has good acoustics. The audience has come in private carriages or in Brown coupés, which allow the passengers to take the first one in line after the show, rather than waiting for their carriage to arrive.
The opera Faust deals with cursed love and loss of innocence, making it a fitting background for the beginning of this story. Notably, New York society is immediately characterized by its adherence to tradition in the form of the Academy of Music, and yet change is on the horizon with the construction of a new opera house.
Newland Archer arrives late. He could have made it on time, but punctuality isn’t fashionable, and he cares terribly about being fashionable. Besides, he enjoys thinking about a pleasure to come more than actually partaking of it. He arrives at a perfect moment, when Madame Nilsson is singing, “He loves me—he loves me not.” In fact, she’s singing in Italian, though it’s a French opera with German text in translation. This is simply a convention of opera that seems as normal to Newland Archer as all the other conventions of his life.
Since Archer will change immensely over the course of the book, it’s important to note his state at the beginning—he’s characterized, first and foremost, by his adherence to the conventions of his society, even if they’re somewhat ridiculous. Archer’s preference for thinking about pleasure rather than partaking in it helps explain his decision at the end of the novel not to enter Ellen’s apartment.
Madame Nilsson sings her line triumphantly, gazing up at the male lead playing Faust. Archer looks at the audience opposite him, where he sees the box of Mrs. Mingott, who is too obese to attend. Her daughter and daughter-in-law are there, and a girl in white is watching from just behind them. As she watches Madame Nilsson sing, she blushes and touches a bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley on her knee.
This first view of May, the girl in white, establishes much of her character. Her innocence is symbolized by her flowers, and this innocence has been nurtured and protected by the women from her family with whom she is sitting. Notably, May is wearing white, the color of maidenly purity.
Archer turns back to the stage, which has been decorated beautifully even by the standards of European opera houses. The foreground is covered with green cloth. Beyond that are rose trees with giant pansies beneath them. Madame Nilsson stands in this garden listening to M. Capoul (who plays Faust) and pretending not to understand what he really wants as he tries to coax her into a villa. Archer looks back to the girl in white, thinking that she doesn’t understand the opera and treasuring her purity. He imagines them reading Faust together by Italian lakes on their honeymoon. That afternoon May Welland, the girl in white, agreed to marry him, and his imagination is running wild.
Wharton begins already to compare American culture with European culture, implying that Europe usually has finer cultural landmarks, though New York’s Academy is an exception. In this scene of the opera, Madame Nilsson feigns a lack of sexual knowledge. May, too, is expected to act innocent, though much of her innocence is still genuine. Archer will not always be so glad of this fact as he is now. For now, he dreams about peeling away this innocence and exposing the world to her by helping her understand this opera about vice.
Archer wants his future wife to be sociable and witty enough to match other young married women. It’s fashionable for them to simultaneously attract and discourage men’s attentions. Though he doesn’t admit it, Archer also wants his wife to be similar to the married woman with whom he was infatuated for two years, though he doesn’t want her to be as frail as that woman was. He never considers how unrealistic this female image might be, but he doesn’t feel the need to analyze it, since he knows that all of the other New York gentlemen think in the same way. He thinks he’s intellectually superior to most of these men, but as a group, they represent a moral authority that he obeys without question.
Even as Archer thinks approvingly of May’s innocence, Wharton points out that Archer himself isn’t innocent at all—he’s already had an affair with a married woman. At this point, Archer doesn’t think about the assumptions he makes; he accepts them blindly because society has taught him to do so. Wharton, on the other hand, is already suggesting that society has impractical expectations for women and wives that might cause difficulty in marriage.
Next to Archer, Lawrence Lefferts exclaims. Lefferts is an expert on “form,” partly through having studied it carefully, but also because it comes naturally to him with his handsomeness. He carries the highest authority about all matters of fashion. He gives his opera glass to Sillerton Jackson. Archer realizes that Lefferts exclaimed because another woman has entered Mrs. Mingott’s box, wearing a band of diamonds in her hair and a dress with an unusual cut. Mrs. Welland gives the woman her place in the front of the box.
“Form” is society’s term for how to act in a respectable and fashionable way, and Lefferts represents the quintessential member of society who cares about little but keeping up appearances no matter what illicit activities he engages in. Ellen, entering the opera box, is unconventional from the first, contrasting with Lefferts. She wears a dress that no New Yorker would wear.
Archer’s group turns to Mr. Jackson, who knows everything about New York families, such as who is connected to whom and the dominant characteristics of each family. He’s also an expert on all the scandals of New York society for the last fifty years, but he never reveals this knowledge due to his sense of honor and the fact that being trustworthy helps him learn about more scandals. Archer’s group waits with suspense for him to speak, and he says that he didn’t think the Mingotts would have done such a thing.
The men’s deference to Mr. Jackson displays the petty interests of society, as he can hold an important social place simply by keeping up with all the gossip. The group’s amazement at the appearance of someone they don’t recognize proves how insular high society is. From the first, Ellen is associated with an aura of impropriety that she’ll never truly shake.