The opening line of The Age of Innocence sets the scene by describing how Faust was being performed at the Academy of Music in New York in the early 1870s. This is an allusion to the 1859 opera written by Charles Gounod based on the German legend about an unhappy man (Faust) who sacrifices his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and pleasure. The opera added some twists and turns, including Faust seducing an “innocent” young woman named Marguerite who eventually kills their love-child and dies after Faust abandons her.
This allusion both establishes that Wharton did her research about New York in the 1870s—adding to the realism of the story—and foreshadows the drama in the story to come. Like Faust, Archer convinces a woman known for her purity (May) to be with him and then (emotionally) abandons her for a time, leaving her distraught.
Archer and May even go back to the opera near the end of the novel and see Faust again, almost as if Archer is being warned not to make the same mistake that Faust made in abandoning his lover (and the mother of his child) to die. Archer ultimately does make a different choice than Faust in deciding to stay with May. Though he never fully lets go of his feelings for and fantasies about Ellen, he chooses to prioritize his marriage and the rules of his society.
For much of the novel, Archer views May as overly sheltered and naïve. It is not until the end of the novel that Archer realizes she has known about him and Ellen all along and is far more perceptive than he ever believed her to be. May’s perceptiveness at the end of the novel is actually foreshadowed about halfway through when she reveals that she is aware of the previous affair Archer had with the married Mrs. Rushworth:
“You mustn’t think that a girl knows as little as her parents imagine. One hears and one notices—one has one’s feelings and ideas. And of course, long before you told me that you cared for me, I’d known that there was some one else you were interested in; every one was talking about it two years ago at Newport. And once I saw you sitting together on the verandah at a dance—and when she came back into the house her face was sad, and I felt sorry for her; I remembered it afterward, when we were engaged.”
Here May tells Archer directly that he “mustn’t think that a girl knows as little as her parents imagine,” a truth that he promptly goes on to forget. But May’s speech here proves her point—she is capable of noticing small details, such as Archer’s unusual physical closeness with Mrs. Rushworth two years ago while sitting outside at a dance, as well as that the woman’s face looked “sad” once she was inside. These are the sorts of details May likely picks up on throughout Archer and Ellen’s emotional affair as well, despite the fact that Archer believes he is successfully keeping his feelings for Ellen a secret.