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Newland Archer is a well-educated lawyer from a wealthy New York family. He is an important figure in the novel with respect to its two main concerns: social conventions and their power to determine human relationships and the changing role of women.
Because of the many books he has read, he considers himself above his friends and the genteel New York circles he associates with. In fact, his relationships with women, particularly with May and Ellen, show that he is not as unconventional and enlightened as he would like the others to believe. After all, he grew up in a society that prized conventions and respectability above all else and cannot bring himself to reject that belief completely. Therefore he advises Ellen against filing for divorce and cannot leave May for her. Newland is willing to undergo all the social rituals that New York society prescribes and, because of his sense of social conventions and rules, cannot bring himself to see Ellen even though he is now a widower.
In spite of his self-expressed belief that women should be as free as men, Newland is unwilling to practically concede such freedom to both May and Ellen. She regards May to be below him and plans to educate her, not realizing that she has more knowledge of human relationships than his bookish education affords him.
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