In the following scene, the setting shifts to the opera. By returning, near the end of the novel, to the setting that opened the novel, Wharton allows us to compare the two and reflect upon what has changed since that time. On the surface, very little has changed. The same families sit in the same boxes, and they still gossip more than they attend the stage. Ellen Olenska is still a topic of discussion, and her recent decision to call on Mrs. Beaufort is greeted with just as much shock as her low-cut dress was a year before.
But now instead of leaving the opera excited to announce his recent engagement, Archer feels trapped by guilt. Having decided to tell May the truth about his feelings for Ellen and to ask for his freedom from their marriage, he persuades May leave the opera early. As they return home, Wharton includes a small but foreboding symbol. May, who has worn her wedding dress to the Opera now trips and tears its hem. The torn and muddied wedding dress suggests that their marriage is threatened by Archer's feelings for Ellen and that his decision to meet with her sullies the wedding vows he made to May.