In the first chapter of The Age of Innocence, Wharton runs a master class on exposition. She opens the novel at the old Academy of Music in New York, where the Fifth Avenue social elite has gathered to attend an operatic performance of Faust. With impeccable timing, the curtain goes up just as our protagonist, Newland Archer, enters the music house. So who is the stage performer: is it Christine Nilsson, the opera singer, or Newland Archer, a highly imaginative yet conventional man? Judging by the “emerald green cloth” that festoons the music hall, and judging, too, by the winking opera glasses and roaming gazes, the real drama is unfolding in the box seats and balcony. Here the players perform for, observe, and judge each other on a much larger and unforgiving stage. Over yonder is Mrs. Manson Mingott, the great matriarch (representing the power of family); and Lawrence Lefferts, the high priest of form (the power of fashion); and Sillerton Jackson, a naturally gifted insight genealogist (the power of knowing a family’s secret pain); and May Welland, Newland’s recent betrothed (the power of simplicity and convention); and Ellen Olenska, sitting beside May, a radiant, complicated woman with a checkered past (the power of passion and freedom). And then there’s Newland Archer, a deeply confused man, torn between duty and romantic love. Although he hasn’t an inkling of the conflict he will endure for many years, the reader, because of Wharton’s finely wrought exposition, is ready to find out.
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton