Archer is feeling embarrassed to have everyone focused on the box where his betrothed sits, particularly since he momentarily can’t figure out who the woman attracting attention is. Then he realizes that she’s May Welland’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, who recently arrived from Europe. Archer admires the Mingotts’ willingness to stand by the odder members of the family, and he’s glad that May is kind to Ellen Olenska in private. However, he’s indignant that the Mingotts would bring Countess Olenska to the opera with them.
Here, Archer displays his conformity to the rules of society. While the Mingotts are expected to support members of their own family through whispers of scandal, Archer and his friends think their support should be approached carefully and doesn’t need to extend to bringing Ellen out in public. This is just one of the hypocrisies of the society in which Archer lives.
Archer knows that the matriarch of the Mingotts, Mrs. Catherine Mingott, is quite daring. Despite initial social disadvantages, she managed to marry into the wealthy Mingott family, marry two of her daughters off to foreigners, and build a large, unconventional house. Mrs. Mingott’s foreign daughters never come to see her, and she remains at home, enthroned in the house that proves her moral courage. Mrs. Mingott has never been beautiful, and some people say that she’s been successful only because of her stubbornness.
Mrs. Mingott is established as a force that has thwarted the expectations of society. She is a woman who has risen above the limitations placed on her, though she has never truly rebelled against society, but only forced it to stretch its mind a bit. Her unusual background makes her a fitting champion of her granddaughter, Ellen, against the conventionalities of society.
Mrs. Mingott’s husband died when she was young, but she went on boldly mingling with all kinds of people, both noble and socially questionable. Her reputation has never been doubted. Mrs. Mingott’s husband’s money was initially tied up after his death, and though she was able to get access to it, she still lives thriftily. In particular, her food and wine are of mediocre quality, much to her relatives’ dismay. People continue to visit her in spite of this.
If marriage is a weakening and destructive influence in this novel, it is notable that Mrs. Mingott, one of the strongest characters, has lived for many years without a husband. Her social strength, however, also comes from her avoidance of any situation that might give her the taint of scandal—in other words, from following society’s most important rules.
Archer turns back to the Mingotts’ box. May Welland is the only one who looks the slightest bit aware of the significance of having Ellen Olenska there. Countess Olenska watches the stage, her dress revealing a bit more than is typical in New York. Archer hates few things more than people going against “taste,” and Countess Olenska’s dress shocks him. He doesn’t like to think of May being under her influence.
Again, Archer displays his wholehearted belief in the value of propriety as defined by society. He and May seem united by their concern over Ellen’s presence, making this one of the few times that Ellen will bring them together rather than tearing them apart. Archer also wants to protect May’s innocence.
The men in Archer’s box are talking about Ellen Olenska, who left her brute of a husband. Lefferts confirms that he was an awful womanizer and spent freely, but she ran off with the husband’s secretary. The affair didn’t last long, and one of her relatives retrieved her from Venice. The men think it’s not right for her to be at the Opera, particularly with May Welland, but Lefferts attributes this bold move to Mrs. Mingott’s influence.
Although the men sympathize with Ellen because her husband treated her badly, their sympathy is limited because they believe she became lovers with another man. They seem to think this impropriety is almost contagious, and the innocent May will somehow be spoiled by association with her.
As the act ends, Archer feels a sudden need to go to Mrs. Mingott’s box and help May through her social difficulty. He hurries to the box, where he can tell that May understands why he’s come. The fact that she can immediately understand this delicate matter makes him feel very intimate with her. Mrs. Welland introduces Countess Olenska, and Archer sits down next to May. He tells her quietly that he wants to announce their engagement at the ball that evening. She says he can do so if he can persuade her mother to let him, and he should tell Countess Olenska now, since he used to play with her when they were children.
Again, Archer and May connect over their inherent understanding of the social rules that Ellen doesn’t know. Archer wants to announce their engagement immediately because it will allow him to publicly defend May and the Mingott clan, since everyone will know that he’s about to become connected to the family. As the first of many ironies in Archer and Ellen’s love affair, her appearance instigates the formal engagement of Archer and May.
Archer goes to sit next to Ellen Olenska, who reminds him that he was an awful child and once kissed her. Being here is making her think of everyone as she knew them when they were children. Archer is shocked that she’s thinking of these honorable people in such a way, particularly when they’re all judging her. She says she’s been gone so long that she feels she’s died and New York is heaven. To Archer, this seems a very disrespectful description.
That Ellen remembers the people around her as children gestures to the fact that Archer will eventually think Ellen’s worldly experience and trials make her seem much wiser than everyone else. It bothers Archer that Ellen doesn’t understand that people in New York are judging her; to Archer, this misunderstanding comes across as disrespect for New York society.