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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
It is a January evening in the early 1870s at the Academy of Music in New York. A famous opera singer is singing Faust. All the families of old wealth are attending the performance. The Academy of Music building is rather old and worn, but the idea of constructing a new opera house is not well-received by the more distinguished families; its inconvenience keeps out the new people, people who have recently acquired their wealth but who have none of the requisite social background.
Newland Archer has arrived at the performance late because it is fashionable to do so and because he has stayed at home lingering over his cigar in pleasurable anticipation of the evening. When he arrives, the opera singer is singing "M'ama . . . non m'ama" (He loves me . . . He loves me not). Archer looks over at the Mingott opera box and sees May Welland, the young woman he has been thinking about. He's pleased to see her blush at the words of the opera singer and finger her lilies-of-the-valley flowers that he had sent her this afternoon. Archer knows that May is completely ignorant of the opera. Her innocence is darling to him and he imagines how much he will teach her once they have married. He wants his wife to have a great deal of social tact and readiness of wit. He is not introspective enough to realize that in this desire, he wants May to be more like a married woman with whom he had an affair for two years long ago.
Sitting near him in the opera house is Lawrence Lefferts, the local authority on social "form." Lefferts notices someone through his opera glasses and exclaims aloud. Archer follows his gaze and realizes the stir is an unfamiliar young woman sitting in May's box. Lefferts hands the opera glasses to Sillerton Jackson, the local gossip, who also turns to look at the Mingott box. The chapter ends with his vocal expression of surprise as well.
This first chapter does two things: it establishes New York society at the turn of the century, and it introduces the main three characters around whom most of the action will revolve. New York society, which is a prominent setting and character in most of Wharton's books, is characterized best in this chapter by a description of the opera house as traditional but well worn. To the social elite, the old opera house represents establishment and history; the building need not be the best or most well kept as long as it represents a status of wealth that cannot be denied.
The social elite of New York appreciate the inconveniences of the old building because they believe its dignified air keeps the keep the "new rich" away. After all, the new rich can never compete with the old rich, whose family names have stood the test of time. Newland Archer unwittingly observes that most of the members of this audience are as self-consciously artificial as is the preserved building's air of austerity. That is, most of the audience comes to the opening night of opera not out of a love for the art or even a knowledge of its intricacies, but out of a desire to be seen and thought refined. In the same way, the building remains dated and inconvenient out of a desire to keep its air of refinement. Except for a conventionally agreed upon scene, the disinterested members of the audience talk and gossip with one another rather than pay attention to the opera.
This background knowledge of this society is crucial to an understanding of the situation and plot in The Age of Innocence. There are enormous pressures on the members of the social elite to act according to a preconceived code of behavior. Every act and decision has enormous consequence on one's standing in society. In just a few moments, one of the three main characters will be characterized by her defiance of this social pressure. For now, however, she is just a woman at the opera whose presence has caused a marked but inexplicable stir among the elite.
Newland Archer's character is most clearly defined in this chapter, because it is through his perspective that much of this initial narrative unfolds. Archer is deeply and self-consciously enmeshed in the workings of the social situation, despite the fact that he sees himself as being of somewhat slightly broader experience and knowledge than his peers. Interestingly, for all his self-stated perspective, he adheres to the ideas of his social peers rather than expresses his own opinions. From the beginning, Archer is not introspective enough to recognize his own faulty logic and irrational desires. For example, he likes his soon-to-be fiancé's innocence because it reveals his sophistication in contrast, yet he wants her to become witty and worldly after he marries her. He comes across as somewhat pompous and proud, in a harmless way. The narrator calls him a dilettante; that is, someone who pursues pleasure in an amateurish way. It seems clear that Wharton wants the audience to observe Archer critically, rather than identify with him wholeheartedly. He must be recognized as somewhat insecure and overly confident.
The final of the three major characters, May Welland, is characterized at this point only by her beauty and her ignorance, and her fiancee's high hopes for her transformation.