The Age of Innocence Major Characters
Newland Archer: Newland Archer is the protagonist of the story -- a young, popular, successful lawyer. He lives with his mother and sister in an elegant New York home. Since childhood, his life has been shaped by the customs and expectations of upper class New York society. His engagement to May Welland is one in a string of accomplishments. In the beginning of the novel, he is proud and content to dream about a traditional marriage in which he will be the teacher and his wife, the student. When he meets Ellen Olenska, his life changes. Through his relationship with her -- first friendship, and then love -- he begins to question the values with which he was raised. He comes to see the inequalities between sexes in New York society and the shallowness of its social customs. Archer struggles to balance his commitment to May with his love for Ellen. He cannot find a place for their love in the intricate, judgmental web of New York society. As the novel progresses, Archer is increasingly willing to break the boundaries of acceptable behavior. He follows her first to Skuytercliff, then to Boston, and is finally willing to follow her to Europe. In the end, though, Archer finds that the only place for their love is in his memories.
Mrs. Manson Mingott: Mrs. Manson Mingott is the fat, feisty matriarch of the powerful Mingott family and the grandmother of Ellen and May. At several points in the novel, she exerts tremendous control and influence over her family. At Archer's request, she convinces May and Mrs. Welland to agree to an earlier wedding. She also controls a large amount of money. When the family is angry with Ellen, Mrs. Mingott withholds her allowance. Her niece, Regina Beaufort, turns to her in a time of financial trouble. Mrs. Mingott is a maverick in the polite world of New York society. At times, she pushes the boundaries of acceptable behavior. For instance, she receives guests in the ground floor of her house even though New York society associates the practice with prostitutes. Her decision to welcome Ellen is accompanied by skepticism, but she insists that the rest of the family support Ellen as well.
Mrs. Welland: Mrs. Welland, May's mother, has raised her daughter to be a proper society lady. May's lack of imagination and rigid views of appropriate and inappropriate behavior can be largely traced to her mother's influence. Mrs. Welland is a driving force behind May's commitment to a long engagement. Without her mother's influence, May might have agreed early on to Archer's request for an early wedding. After a couple years of marriage, Archer sees in Mrs. Welland the woman that May will become - solid, unimaginative, and dull.
May Welland: May Welland is Archer's fiancèe and later, his wife. She has been raised to be a perfect wife and mother, and she follows all of society's customs perfectly. Most of the time, she seems to be the type of shallow, uninteresting young woman that New York society adores. When they are in St. Augustine, though, May gives Archer a rare glimpse into maturity and compassion that he had not known was in her. She offers to release him from their engagement so he can marry the woman he truly loves, thinking that he wants to be with Mrs. Rushworth, a married woman with whom he had recently finished an affair. When Archer assures her of his love only for her, May returns to her usual, shallow self. May struggles to reconcile Archer's love of her cousin with the desire to appear happy in front of society, and to give the illusion that she and Archer have the perfect marriage expected of them. Her unhappiness brings out a manipulative side that Archer doesn't realize until too late. To drive Ellen away from Archer, May tells Ellen of her pregnancy even before she is certain of it. Yet there is still a level of compassion in May, even in the long, boring years of marriage after Ellen leaves. Archer learns after May's death that she had known of his continuing love for Ellen. May, as she lay dying, told Dallas that the children could always trust Archer because he had once given up the thing that meant the most to him to remain loyal to their marriage.
Ellen Olenska: Ellen Olenska is May's cousin and Mrs. Manson Mingott's granddaughter. She became a Countess through her marriage to Count Olenski, a European nobleman who never actually appears in the novel. At the time 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. Ellen is a free spirit who helps Archer to look beyond the narrow scope of New York society. She treats her maid, Nastasia, as an equal, even offering the girl her own cape before sending her outside on an errand. She goes to parties with disreputable people like Julius Beaufort and Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, and she invites Archer, the fiancée of her cousin, to visit her. Ellen suffers just as much as Archer from their impossible love, but she is willing to live in limbo as long as they can love each other from a safe distance. Ellen's love for Archer drives many of her important decisions -- the decision to drop her divorce, to stay in America, and the choice she offers him to sleep with him once and then to disappear from his life forever. Her love for Archer is complicated by her conscience and sense of responsibility to her family. When she learns of May's pregnancy, Ellen immediately decides to step out of the picture completely. She refuses Archer's attempts to follow her to Europe, and through this, allows her cousin to start her family with Archer, her husband.
New York Society: New York society is made up of the people from the powerful, wealthy families of the city. These people follow a strict, rigid code of social custom and behavior, and judge the people who do not follow the rules. Ellen has difficulties adapting to the behavior that society thinks is appropriate for a woman separated from her husband. New York society's judgment is clear; almost everyone refuses to attend a dinner party in honor of Ellen's return.
Lawrence Lefferts: A wealthy young man and a member of Archer's social circle. He is considered the expert on manners. Archer believes that Lefferts is behind New York society's rude refusal to attend the welcome dinner for Ellen. According to Archer, Lefferts makes a big show of his morality every time that his wife, Mrs. Lefferts, suspects that he is having an affair.
Sillerton Jackson: The expert on the families that make up New York society. He knows who is related to whom, and the history of every important family. Mrs. Archer and Janey invite him over for dinner when they want to catch up on gossip.
Julius Beaufort: An arrogant banker who tries to have an affair with Ellen. He even follows her to Skuytercliff during the weekend that Archer goes to visit Ellen. His banking business eventually fails, and he leaves New York society in disgrace.
Mrs. Archer: Archer's widowed mother. She doesn't get out to events often, but loves to hear about society. She and Janey strongly believe in the values of New York society. Like Janey, she views Ellen with suspicion.
Mrs. Lemuel Struthers: A woman on the fringes of New York society. She is treated with mistrust and scorn until Ellen befriends her. She eventually becomes popular; at the end of the novel, May thinks it appropriate to go to her parties.
Count Olenski: Ellen's husband. She fled with his secretary to escape the miserable marriage. At first, Count Olenski is content to let Ellen go. Later, though, he sends his secretary to America to ask Ellen to return.
Louisa and Henry van der Luyden: Cousins of the Archers, and the most powerful people in New York society. They only mingle with people when they are trying to save society. Mrs. Archer goes to the van der Luydens after New York society snubs Ellen. They invite her to a very exclusive party in honor of the Duke of Austry to show society that they support her.
Ned Winsett: A journalist. He and Archer are friends, despite their different social circles. He is one of the only people with whom Archer feels that he can have a meaningful conversation. Ned Winsett challenges Archer to think of things outside of society.
Marchioness Medora Manson: The aunt who took Ellen to Europe as a child. She now lives in Washington, where Ellen goes to take care of her. During a visit to New York, she tries to persuade Archer to convince Ellen that she should return to the Count. Beaufort's bank failure eventually ruins Mrs. Manson's fortune, and she moves back to Europe with Ellen.
M. Rivière: The French tutor of Mrs. Carfry's nephew. He fascinates Archer with his life story and intellect. Later, Archer learns that he was Count Olenski's secretary and the man who helped Ellen escape her marriage. The count sends him to Boston to try to convince Ellen to return to Europe.
Miss Blenker: The youngest daughter of the Blenker family. When Archer visits her empty family's house on the day of Sillerton's party, she is there. Archer briefly confuses her with Ellen, and she flirts with him. Through Miss Blenker, Archer learns that Ellen has gone to Boston.