The next evening, Archer and May dine with the van der Luydens, who have come into the city to help stabilize society after the Beaufort scandal. Mrs. Archer thinks this is just the time when common people like Mrs. Struthers will try to get a footing in society, and she has told the van der Luydens they need to help maintain the status quo. This evening, they have invited Sillerton Jackson, Mrs. Archer, Newland, and May to go see Faust.
The Beaufort scandal spells change for society, and Mrs. Archer is worried that the change will bring down the caliber of families involved in society. The van der Luydens represent the most distinguished part of society, so she hopes their presence will prevent change from occurring.
Due to his work, Archer hasn’t seen May since the night before. Now she seems pale but overly animated. The group is talking about the Beaufort failure, and Mrs. van der Luyden asks May whether Mrs. Mingott’s carriage was really seen at the Beauforts’ house. Mrs. Archer says if it was, Mrs. Mingott surely didn’t know it was there. Mr. van der Luyden says that Ellen’s kindness might have unwisely led her to visit Mrs. Beaufort. Mrs. van der Luyden and Mrs. Archer are disappointed in her.
Archer doesn’t know why May is acting strangely, but it’s undoubtedly because of the potential lie she has told Ellen about her pregnancy in order to break up the affair. Mrs. van der Luyden and Mrs. Archer judge Ellen harshly for her refusal to accept society’s judgment of the Beauforts; their worship of convention prevents them from recognizing the value of compassion.
Mr. Jackson interjects that at the French court, moral standards were very lax. Ellen’s foreign upbringing might have affected her sense of right and wrong. Mr. van der Luyden is still appalled at her actions. May says that Ellen surely meant to be kind, but the older women don’t think this improves the situation much. The ladies leave the dining room, and the gentlemen settle to their cigars.
Once again, New Yorkers blame what they perceive as immorality on foreigners’ liberal views rather than actually taking the time to evaluate their own beliefs. Now that May knows she has vanquished Ellen, she can afford to defend her unconventionality.
After the first act of the opera, Archer goes to the back of the box to watch the same scene he saw when he first met Ellen two years before. He almost expects her to appear in Mrs. Mingott’s box, but she doesn’t. He looks at May, who is wearing white as she did on that night, but he realizes it’s her wedding dress. It’s customary for brides to wear their wedding dresses a few times in the first year or two after they’re married. May looks almost exactly the same as she did two years ago, and he’s moved by her continued innocence. He remembers how generous and understanding she is, and he wants more than anything to ask her for his freedom.
In an ironic repetition of the opening scene of the novel, Archer watches the same opera; then he had just proposed to May, and this time he intends to leave her. May’s wedding dress acts as an additional painful irony, bringing attention to the sad state of their marriage. Additionally, the fact that they’re watching Faust foreshadows May’s announcement of her pregnancy, since Faust abandons his lover after he finds out she’s pregnant.
Archer is used to conforming to society’s rules, and he doesn’t like being conspicuous. But suddenly he’s unaware of the demands of society. He enters Mrs. van der Luyden’s box and asks May to come home because he has a headache. May excuses herself, and the older women smile significantly. In the carriage, May worries that Archer is being overworked. He asks if he can open a window, and does so, watching the houses pass by.
Archer’s disregard for society’s rules surrounding opera etiquette paves the way for a much larger transgression—leaving his wife. Ironically, the older women seem to think they’re going home to make love. Just as he did in an earlier scene in the library, Archer opens the window, symbolizing his need for freedom.
At the door of their house, May catches her wedding dress on the carriage and tears it. She and Archer go upstairs to the library. May is pale and says Archer had better go to bed, but he insists he’s all right and needs to tell her something. The distance between them seems unbridgeable. He says he needs to tell her something about himself. She’s very pale, but calm. Archer is determined not to make excuses for himself. When he says Ellen’s name, the light strikes May’s wedding ring, and she protests that she doesn’t want to talk about Ellen. May knows that she’s been unfair to Ellen, and Archer has been good to Ellen, but it’s all over now.
The destruction of May’s wedding dress symbolizes Archer’s intention to destroy their marriage. Her paleness suggests that she knows what Archer is going to say to her. Wharton lays a heavy emphasis on the trappings of marriage, not only with the destruction of the wedding dress, but also with the timely mention of May’s wedding ring. These items, however, are only surface representations of marriage; the real relationship is already in tatters.
Archer doesn’t understand. May clarifies that Ellen is going back to Europe soon, since Mrs. Mingott has agreed to make her independent of her husband. Archer has to steady himself against the mantelpiece. May says she thought he was taking care of the business arrangements at the office that day. He stares at her awfully, and then buries his face in his hands. Five minutes pass in silence.
Though Archer has often heard news about Ellen from sources other than herself, this is the first time he hears it from May, which is fitting but cruel, since this is the most important news of all. His reaction leaves no doubt that May must know about the affair.
Eventually, Archer asks how May knows this information. She brings him a note that Ellen sent her that afternoon. Ellen writes that Mrs. Mingott understands that she must return to Europe with Medora, and she is going to Washington immediately to pack before sailing the next week. Furthermore, if anyone wants to convince her not to go, May should tell them it’s useless. Archer tosses the note away, laughing. His laughter reminds him of the night he learned that his marriage was to be sooner than expected.
Ellen has finally decided to take decisive action to break off the affair, leaving even before she and Archer can spend the night together. As always happens in this relationship, Archer’s desires have been thwarted just at the moment he thought they were going to finally be satisfied. He was in the same situation on the night he remembers now, and both times, his reaction is to laugh bitterly at his helplessness and hopelessness.
Archer asks why Ellen sent this letter, and May replies that it’s due to their conversation the day before. May had acknowledged that she never really understood how hard life was for Ellen in New York, and she wanted Ellen to know that she was just as much a friend to her as Archer was. Ellen understood why May wanted to tell her this. May presses Archer’s hand to her cheek, then says her head aches too and leaves with her torn wedding dress dragging behind her.
In typical New York fashion, May talks around what she actually means, but Ellen has understood what she intended her to understand—that she knows about the affair and forgives her. Notably, May omits the fact that she also told Ellen that she’s pregnant. By bringing attention to the torn wedding dress, Wharton points out that their marriage is still ruined, even though the affair is technically over.