The story's protagonist is a young, popular, and successful lawyer living with his mother and sister in an elegant New York City house. Since childhood, his life has been shaped by the customs and expectations of upper-class New York City society. His engagement to May Welland is one in a string of accomplishments. At the story's start, he is proud and content to dream about a traditional marriage in which he will be the husband-teacher and she the wife-student. His life changes when he meets Countess Ellen Olenska. Through his relationship with her—first friendship, then love—he begins questioning the values on which he was raised. He sees the sexual inequality of New York society and the shallowness of its customs, and struggles to balance social commitment to May with love for Ellen. He cannot find a place for their love in the intricate, judgmental web of New York society. Throughout the story's progress, he transgresses the boundaries of acceptable behavior for love of Ellen: first following her to Skuytercliff, then Boston, and finally deciding to follow her to Europe (though he later changes his mind). In the end, though, Newland Archer finds that the only place for their love is in his memories. Some scholars see Wharton most projected onto Newland's character, rather than Ellen Olenska.
Newland Archer's fiancée, then wife. Raised to be a perfect wife and mother, she follows and perfectly obeys all of society's customs. Mostly, she is the shallow, uninterested and uninteresting young woman that New York society requires. When they are in St. Augustine, though, May gives Newland a rare glimpse of the maturity and compassion he had previously ignored. She offers to release him from their engagement so he can marry the woman he truly loves, thinking he wants to be with Mrs. Rushworth, a married woman with whom he had recently ended a love affair. When he assures May that he loves only her, May appears to trust him, at least at first. Yet after their marriage, she suspects that Newland is Ellen's lover. Nonetheless, May pretends to be happy before society, maintaining the illusion that she and he have the perfect marriage expected of them. Her unhappiness activates her manipulative nature, and Newland does not see it until too late. To drive Ellen away from him, May tells Ellen of her pregnancy before she is certain of it. Yet there still is compassion in May, even in their loveless marriage's long years after Ellen's leaving. After May's death, Newland Archer learns she had always known of his continued love for Ellen; as May lay dying, she told their son Dallas that the children could always trust their father, Newland, because he surrendered the thing most meaningful to him out of loyalty to their marriage. May is a picture of Innocence.
May's cousin and Mrs. Manson Mingott's granddaughter. She became a countess by marrying Polish Count Olenski, a European nobleman. Her husband was allegedly cruel and abusive, stole Ellen's fortune and had affairs with other women. When the story begins, Ellen has fled her unhappy marriage, lived in Venice with her husband's secretary, and has returned to her family in New York City. She is a free spirit who helps Newland Archer see beyond narrow New York society. She treats her maid, Nastasia, as an equal, offering the servant her own cape before sending her out on an errand. She attends parties with disreputable people such as Julius Beaufort and Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, and she invites Newland, the fiancé of her cousin May, to visit her. Ellen suffers as much as Newland from their impossible love, but she is willing to live in emotional limbo so long as they can love each other at a distance. Ellen's love for Newland drives her important decisions: dropping divorce from Count Olenski, remaining in America, and offering Newland choice of sexual consummation only once, and then disappearing from his life. Her conscience and responsibility to family complicate her love for Newland. When she learns of May's pregnancy, Ellen immediately decides to leave America, refusing Newland's attempt to follow her to Europe, and so allow cousin May to start her family with her husband Newland. The reception of Ellen's character has changed over time. From a willful temptress to a fabulously independent woman, far ahead of her time, one thing is for certain: “Ellen has only to walk alone across a drawing room to offend its definitions.”
Mrs. Manson Mingott
The matriarch of the powerful Mingott family, and grandmother to Ellen and May. She was born Catherine Spicer, to an inconsequential family. Widowed at 28, she has ensured her family's social position through her own shrewdness and force of character. She controls her family: at Newland's request, she has May and Mrs. Welland agree to an earlier wedding date. She controls the money—withholding Ellen's living allowance (when the family is angry with Ellen), and having niece Regina Beaufort ask for money when in financial trouble. Mrs. Mingott is a maverick in the polite world of New York society, at times pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior, such as receiving guests in her house's ground floor, though society associates that practice with women of questionable morals. Her welcoming Ellen is viewed skeptically, and she insists the rest of the family support Ellen. Mrs. Mingott was inspired by Edith Wharton's own portly great-great-aunt, Mary Mason Jones, who is said to have given rise to the phrase "Keeping up with the Joneses", due to her belief that fashionable society would always strive to keep up with her.
Mrs. Augusta Welland
May's mother, who has raised her daughter to be a proper society lady. May's dullness, lack of imagination, and rigid views of appropriate and inappropriate behavior are a consequence of this influence. Augusta has effectively trained her husband, the weak-willed Mr. Welland, to conform to her desires and wishes. Mrs. Welland is the driving force behind May's commitment to a long engagement. Without her mother's influence, May might have agreed sooner to Newland's request for an earlier wedding date. After a few years of marriage, Newland Archer foresees in May the attributes of his mother-in-law — a woman who is stolid, unimaginative, and dull. Later he comes to experience the same molding by May which was imposed upon Mr. Welland.