The Age of Innocence
The main characters are: Newland Archer, May Welland and countess Ellen Olenska. Newland Archer is a wealthy, respectable man, belonging to the upper-class New York èlite, and engaged to a nice girl, May Welland, of the same background. He follows unquestioningly the social code of this world, often smiling at the rules of its members, but accepting them with tolerant irony. He is happy with his choice of May as his wife, she is beauiful, exquisitely mannered, perfectly "innocent". The matriarch of May's grandmother.
The third main character, besides Newland Archer and May Welland, is Countess Ellen Olenska, a cousin of May's. Unfortunately she has a bad reputation, as she left her husband, the wealthy Polish Count Olenske, a brutal immoral man, who abused and betrayed her, and has returned to New York. May's family have decided to help her and Mrs Mingott invites her to live temporarily in her house. Owing to their position, the members of the family except that their society will accept Ellen into their restricted world. Ellen has fresh spirit, new ideas, and consequently free, unconventional behavior, often in opposition to the rigid constrictions of the New York upper class.
At first, Newland judges Countess Olenska as too free and unconventional a woman, but when he meets her and sees the freshness and honesty of her ideas, he changes drastically, and feels attracted to her. His attraction grows into love, and gradually into passion, but his engagement with May cannot be called off, so Newland and May are married.
After marriage, Newland tries to forget Ellen, but, a year and a half later, he meets her in Boston: they confess to each other their reciprocal love. But Ellen clearly realizes that there is no possibility for them, and at a second meeting she makes it quite clear that she does not want him to live a double life, as a husband and as a lover, neither will she live a sordid and mean existence. After a few weeks of anxiety, Newland decides to confess his love for Ellen to May, but, to his surprise, she puts him off, telling him that she has received a letter from Ellen, informing her that she has decided to leave New York and settle in Europe, having now the possibility of living by herself as old Mrs Mingott has made a generous allowance in her favour. Besides, May tells her husband, still taken aback by the sudden development of the events, that she plans to give a formal dinner party in honor of Ellen before her final departure.
On th enight of the dinner, Newland suddenly realizes that Mrs Mingott's allowance, the dinner itself and all the events leading to this formal farewell, are fruit of a silent family conspiracy; the "group" had decided to insist that there had never been anything wrong in Ellen's conduct, that no love-affair had ever existed between Newland and Ellen, and that no cloud could menace the stability of Newland and May's happy marriage.
Later in the evening, after dinner, when Newland and May are alone, May tells her husband that she is pregnant, and that she had told Ellen so two weeks before. Only this fact, then, quite unknown to Newland , had therefore induced Ellen to leave New York and put an end to their love affair, so as not to destroy May's marriage and her calm happiness.
In the last chapter of the novel, the time setting is the early 20th century, thirty years after these events. Newland is in his library, reconsidering his life in the thirty years elapsed after his passionate love for Ellen. He still thinks of her with fondness, but their love now appears to him as an unattainable past dream. He has remained faithful to the family, faithful to May, to his profession, to his country. He has lived as an active citizen, also serving in Congress, respected and loved by his community; he recognizes that order and stability were the right choice.