The novel opens in the new opera house, where all of New York's high society has assembled in its expensive box seats to see and to be seen. Newland Archer, the protagonist, has just arrived fashionably late and joins his friends in time for the climax of the opera. As he glances across the filled theater, he spots May Welland, his new fianceé, seated in the box of her aristocratic old grandmother, Mrs. Manson Mingott. Archer, struck anew by her pure and innocent beauty, dreams of blissful married life with May.
His reverie is abruptly interrupted by his acquaintance Larry Lefferts, who notices a stranger entering the Mingott box. A slim young woman wearing a theatrical and low-cut dress takes a seat in the box, seemingly unconscious of all the attention she attracts. With shock, Archer realizes that this woman is no other than the Countess Ellen Olenska, cousin to May Welland, who has returned to New York after having lived abroad for many years. Lefferts, considered to be the authority on "form," or style and fashion, and Sillerton Jackson, the unofficial archivist of all family histories and scandals within the upper class, are both shocked that the Countess would appear in good society with the rest of her family. We learn through their gossip that it is rumored that she had left her unfaithful husband, a Polish count.
Newland admires the fiery and somewhat unorthodox determination of Mrs. Manson Mingott to support this 'black sheep' of her family by not only hosting her indefinitely in her home, but also by allowing her to appear publicly in the family box at the Opera. Yet at the same time he is bothered that all of New York society will see such a scandalous figure sitting next to his innocent young fiancee. As the men continue to gossip, Archer feel compelled to take decisive action. As the fiancé of May Welland, he decides that he has the responsibility to defend the Mingott clan.
During intermission, he hurries over to the Mingott box. Although no words are exchanged between May and himself as to the reason for his sudden appearance, she shows her understanding of the situation and her gratitude to Archer with her smile. Both she and Archer are aware that by appearing in the Mingott box with the Countess Olenska, Archer is demonstrating his connection to that family and his support of their decision to include the Countess in their social activities. Archer is introduced to Olenska, who was one of his childhood playmates. He is struck by her flippant, friendly manners and finds her descriptions of New York society rather disrespectful.
After the opera, many of the wealthy New York families attend the annual ball at the Beaufort residence. Julius Beaufort, we learn, is a handsome, charming, and disreputable Englishman with a shady financial history and a strong tendency toward infidelity; his wife Regina is a pretty but dull woman of reputable family background. Although many consider the Beauforts to be "common," no one would ever pass their elaborate and ostentatious balls, which provide a cornerstone for New York social activities.
At the ball, Archer and May officially announce their engagement. In a moment alone together in the conservatory, they express their happiness. May suddenly asks Archer to announce their engagement to her cousin Ellen Olenska. Ellen, to the relief of her family, did not attend the Beauforts' ball.
In the opening chapter of The Age of Innocence, Wharton immediately evokes a specific time, a place, and a society. Her panoramic description of the opera is highly effective as an introductory setting, for it not only acclimates the reader to the fashions and entertainment preferences of Old New York, but it also presents the members of this society as if they were an assembly, a closely-knit collection of individuals and families. The fact that everyone in good society attends the opera demonstrates immediately their similar tastes in art and entertainment. Yet the opera does not serve merely as a bonding activity for the very rich. Indeed, the members of the audience scrutinize each other far more than the opera itself, singling out in particular the fashions and manners of their peers. One goes to the opera to see and to be seen, to judge and to be judged.
This may explain why Wharton is quick to introduce two characters who are otherwise minor to the plot. She singles Larry Lefferts out of the crowd as "the foremost authority on form." Form, or a code that indicates the acceptable tastes in fashion and manners, is extremely important to this society, which is so concerned with appearances. And an unusual dress or a flippant attitude may, in fact, signify more than just a lack of taste but also a lack of proper moral values. Such a potential wantonness threatens to destabilize the delicate existing code and is therefore judged harshly. In addition to Lefferts, Wharton pauses over the character of Sillerton Jackson, the unofficial archivist of family histories. Not only does Jackson know every blood and marital relationship within the tight clan of Old New York, he also knows each family's scandals, whether real or rumored. Thanks to Jackson, one's private history does not remain a secret for long.
Here and throughout the novel, Wharton employs certain imagery by which to portray Old New York society. She describes the evening at the opera as an extremely predictable event: one arrives there fashionably late, every family has a carriage waiting for them at the entrance, and even the ball at Beauforts' that follows is an annual tradition. On a basic level, Wharton's language indicates how boring such a world can be; no one acts differently from anyone else and there is no variation in the course of events from year to year. In the following chapters, Archer will become more and more frustrated with the monotony of this stultifying environment. On a more symbolic level, Wharton ironically compares the traditional behaviors and codes of cultured Old New York with those of primitive or ancient cultures. Both are obsessed with ritual events and behaviors, she indicates, and Archer's concern with acceptable behavior is no different from the "totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago."
It is, of course, the arrival of Countess Ellen Olenska that brings tension to this perfectly ordered scene. Thanks to the good memory and loose tongue of Sillerton Jackson, Ellen's appearance is preceded by her reputation. It is important to note Jackson's exclamation upon seeing Ellen in her family's opera box: "I didn't think the Mingott's would have tried it on." With this statement is the implication that the actions of an individual reflect upon the family. Jackson is shocked not only because a woman of somewhat ill repute is seen amongst good society, but also because her family is choosing to support such a black sheep.
Newland Archer is aware of the crucial importance of the Mingott family's sense of solidarity. When he sees how his friends negatively respond to the appearance of Ellen, he rushes over to the Mingott family box. Since May is a member of this family and Archer soon will be, it is his duty to defend their decision to include Ellen. Simply by appearing in the Mingott box, Archer is sending a clear non-verbal signal to the rest of the New York clan. This gesture, just like May's grateful glance at Archer, is a subtle but unequivocal form of communication. Throughout the novel, Wharton must interpret these actions for her readers, for often the spoken words of her characters do not contain as much meaning as (and in some cases relate the opposite meaning of) the gesture.
In the third chapter, the character of Julius Beaufort provides a clear example of the discrepancy of appearance versus reality. His personal history is spotty at best, and he is notorious for his womanizing. But because of his immaculate dress and public display of manners and hospitality, he is accepted by the New York clan. As long as Beaufort—or anyone, for that matter—can hide the unpleasantness of his past, he will be welcomed into good society.