It is a January evening in the early 1870s at New York City's fashionable Academy of Music — where the conservative, old rich families come to see and be seen. Faust is the opera and the theatregoers are watching the stage, but they are also observing the delicious dramas in the exclusive boxes of old New York's First Families.
Newland Archer, young lawyer and man about town, arrives stylishly late and, like his friends, observes the box of old Mrs. Manson Mingott where Newland's soon-to-be fiancé, May Welland, is sitting with family members. Newland considers with warmth and approval the virginal white of May's dress, gloves, and flowers. His mind leaps to the intimacies of the honeymoon and he thoughtfully considers his role as husband in initiating her into the sexual pleasures of married life.
Newland is sitting with two other gentlemen of New York society: Lawrence Lefferts and Sillerton Jackson. Lefferts is an expert on social etiquette, while Jackson is the acknowledged source of information on family connections, characteristics, and scandals. Both gentlemen are staring in amazement at the Mingott box where an unknown woman has just entered and seated herself near Newland's girlfriend. Her entrance causes Jackson to question the Mingott's decision to allow her presence here among the elite of New York society.
Wharton's first chapter sets the tone of irony and hypocrisy that delineates the fabric of her old New York, the 1870s setting of The Age of Innocence. In her first, richly detailed chapter, she introduces old New York's social order, its code of conduct and superficial values, and the main characters that will interact within its boundaries.
The reader begins to see a motif: New York society is composed of closely knit families that close ranks and follow behavior codes handed down from mother to daughter, father to son. Wharton opens her story in that cultural symbol of the Gilded Age, the Academy of Music. Wharton is very accurate in her knowledge of the building, the seating order, and the patrons' behavior. Because members of old New York society use the Academy of Music as a marriage market to reproduce their class and facilitate marriages within their ranks, they seat debutantes modestly near the rear of boxes. Married ladies sit near the front displaying valuable possessions — jewels. This way others can envy the husbands who provide the jewels, and the husbands can display the wives they possess. The carefully proscribed social seasons also are a way for the old rich to retain control because interlopers — the New Rich — are trying to break into their ranks (see "Introduction to the Novel").
It is through Newland's eyes that we view the society of 1870s New York. Ironically, Newland sees himself as cosmopolitan, but Wharton belies this sentiment by describing his acceptance of "the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists . . . [and] . . . translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences." This is Wharton's humor, but Newland sees this as perfectly understandable. He parts his hair "with two-silver-backed brushes with his monogram in blue" and he has a gardenia — the socially acceptable flower — in his buttonhole. Everything about Newland Archer screams conformity.
Edith Wharton exposes the society's double standard regarding marital beliefs. May, Newland's soon-to-be fiancé, is a virgin with no "past," dressed in white and carrying white lilies of the valley. In contrast, Newland takes pride in his own sexual experience gained in a previous two-year with a married ("safe") woman. May is the perfect society bride: Newland's role will be to train her in social tact, wit, and the art of "attracting masculine homage while playfully discouraging it." Ironically, Wharton mentions that if Newland dug down deeply enough in his vanity, he might realize that a sexually knowledgeable wife would be much more sophisticated and eager to please. Throughout the novel she undercuts Newland's opinions to expose the hypocrisy of the social code.
While Newland broadcasts "conventional," May Welland radiates "innocence." Sitting forward, her face slightly flushed, she watches the opera whose words she likely does not understand. Wharton purposely chose an opera based on a play by Goethe where the older, more experienced Faust falls in love with the young, beautiful village girl, Marguerite, whose innocence parallels that of May Welland. May does not understand Faust's efforts to seduce Marguerite, but her romantic innocence is underscored as she looks at Newland's flowers and blushes.
Watching all these actions are two minor characters, yet their presence throughout the book enforces Wharton's themes of societal hypocrisy. Lawrence Lefferts is one of the biggest hypocrites in the novel. While judging others who break the social code, he is later protected by the very code he breaks. Sillerton Jackson is a prudish, prim, and pretentious Victorian who excels at gossip and back stabbing. He, like Lefferts, uses his opera glasses to peruse the crowd and comment on their behavior. Throughout the novel these two will provide words and actions that propel the plot and sometimes cause mistaken assumptions in their social group.
Above the Forties farther out from the fashionable center of the city.
Mr. Luther Burbank's...prodigies students of Luther Burbank (1849–1926), an American plant breeder and horticulturist.
chemisette a detachable shirt front formerly worn by women to fill in the neckline of a dress.
Josephine look a gown in the style of the first French Empire (1804–1815) named after Napoleon's wife, Josephine, empress of France (1804–1809); with a short waist, decollette bodice, flowing skirt, and short, puffed sleeves.