Newland Archer, a handsome and eligible young attorney engaged to lovely May Welland, learns that the engagement will be announced at a party to welcome his fiancé’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. This reception for Ellen constitutes a heroic sacrifice on the part of the many Welland connections, for her marriage to a ne’er-do-well Polish count did not improve her position so far as rigorous and straitlaced New York society is concerned. The fact that she contemplates a divorce action also makes her suspect, and, to cap it all, her rather bohemian way of living does not conform to what her family expects of a woman who made an unsuccessful marriage.
Archer’s engagement to May is announced. At the same party, Archer is greatly attracted to Ellen. Before long, with the excuse that he is making the cousin of his betrothed feel at home, he sends her flowers and calls on her. To him she seems a woman who offers sensitivity, beauty, and the promise of a life quite different from the one that he expects after his marriage to May. He finds himself defending Ellen when the rest of society is attacking her contemplated divorce action. He does not, however, consider breaking his engagement to May but constantly seeks reasons to justify what is to the rest of his group an excellent union. With Ellen often in his thoughts, May’s cool beauty and correct but unexciting personality begin to suffer in Archer’s estimation.
Although the clan defends her against all outsiders, Ellen is often treated as a pariah. Her family keeps check on her, trying to prevent her from indulging in too many bohemian acts, such as her strange desire to rent a house in a socially unacceptable part of town. The women of the clan also recognize her as a dangerous rival, and ruthless Julius Beaufort, whose secret dissipations are known by all, including his wife, pays her marked attention. Archer finds himself hating Beaufort very much.
Convincing himself that he was seeing too much of Ellen, Archer goes to St. Augustine to visit May, who is vacationing there with her mother and her hypochondriac father. In spite of her cool and conventional welcome and her gentle rebuffs to his wooing, her beauty reawakens in him a kind of affection, and he pleads with her to advance the date of their wedding. May and her parents refuse because their elaborate preparations cannot be completed in time. Archer returns to New York. There, with the aid of the family matriarch, Mrs. Manson Mingott, he achieves his purpose, and the wedding date is advanced. This news comes to him in a telegram sent by May to Ellen, which Ellen reads to him just as he is attempting to advance the intimacy of their relationship. Archer leaves Ellen’s house and finds a similar telegram from May to him. Telling his sister Janey that the wedding will take place within a month, he suddenly realizes that he is now protected against Ellen and himself.
The ornate wedding, the conventional European honeymoon that follows, and May’s assumption of the role of the proper wife soon disillusion Archer. He realizes that he is trapped, that the mores of his society, helped by his own lack of courage, have prepared him, like a smooth ritual, for a rigid and codified life. There is enough intelligence and insight in Archer, however, to make him resent the trap. On his return to New York, he continues to see Ellen. The uselessness of his work as junior attorney in an ancient law firm, the stale regimen of his social life, and the passive sweetness of May do not satisfy that part of Archer that sets him apart from the rest of his clan.
He proposes to Ellen that they go away together, but Ellen, wise and kind, shows him that such an escape would not be a pleasant one, and she indicates that they could love each other only as long as he does not press for a consummation. Archer agrees. He further capitulates when, urged by her family, he advises Ellen, as her attorney and as a relative, not to get a divorce from Count...
(The entire section is 1,523 words.)