The Age of Innocence Plot Summary
At a New York opera, a young lawyer named Newland Archer watches his fiancée, May Welland, from across the room. May is a well-bred young woman admired by upper-class New York society, and Archer is proud to have her as his fiancée. May's cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, joins her. Archer and the Countess knew each other as children before she had gone to Europe and married a Count. Now, she has returned to her family in New York amid scandalous rumors that she had divorced her husband and run off with his secretary.
Archer's male friends gossip about the Countess, and Archer is irritated by the scandal that Ellen is bringing upon his future family. In fact, he and May decide to announce their engagement earlier than planned in order to show May's family in a good light.
New York society does not know what to do with Ellen. On one hand, she is a member of one of the most powerful families. On the other hand, she is extremely eccentric and defies the rules of society in many ways. When Ellen's family decides to throw her a welcome party, almost no one attends - a sign of society's low opinion of her. When Ellen plans to get a divorce from her husband, it is too much for New York society to take. Archer's boss asks him to talk to Ellen in private, and to convince her not to go through with the divorce. Archer, wanting to stay out of the mess, reluctantly agrees.
As Archer learns more about Ellen's painful past and her miserable marriage to a husband she did not love, he feels closer to her. Ellen opens his eyes to the stifling New York society in which he has always lived. When she agrees to cancel the divorce, Archer is not completely relieved. He has begun to think more critically about society's view of acceptable marriages, and of divorce. More importantly, he thinks about Ellen long after he leaves her home.
They form a friendship, and Archer feels freer with Ellen than he does with anyone else, especially May. He even follows her to Skuytercliff, the vacation home of their family friends. Here, he realizes that he cares for Ellen as more than a future cousin. The thought scares him, and he escapes to St. Augustine, Florida, where May is vacationing with her parents. Archer tries unsuccessfully to convince May that they should have an earlier wedding. It is only after he returns to New York that he realizes that he truly loves Ellen, and wishes to be with her. Immediately after this realization, Ellen and Archer receive word that May and her mother have agreed to an earlier wedding (only a month away).
The wedding goes off perfectly, and May and Archer go to Europe on a traditional honeymoon tour. Ellen, by this time, has moved to Washington, D.C. Archer feels increasingly confined by May's traditional, narrow views of their social roles. But he puts his feeling for Ellen in the back of his mind, and tries to be a good husband.
Archer and May spend their second summer together at Newport, Rhode Island, the resort town where all the fashionable New York families vacation. Ellen, to Archer's surprise, is here, too. Although they never see each other in Newport, his longing for Ellen comes back with renewed force. When he accidentally learns that Ellen will be in Boston, Archer immediately goes to see her.
In Boston, Archer learns that Ellen's husband is trying to get her to return. Ellen is very depressed, so Archer takes her on a steamboat ride. They passionately talk about their love for each other, and Ellen agrees to remain in America as long as Archer continues to love her. She returns to Washington, and Archer returns to New York with the understanding that they will love each other from a distance. He thinks about her constantly, even as he and May give off the appearance of a happy married life. May, though, has begun to sense the emptiness in Archer.
When a crisis hits May's grandmother, Mrs. Manson Mingott, Ellen is called to return. Archer picks her up from the train station, and they talk in the carriage about the impossibility of their love. Archer leaves feeling frustrated and hopeless. Although he is overjoyed when Ellen decides to stay in New York to take care of her grandmother, the situation is too difficult and complicated. Ellen finally offers a suggestion: she will spend one night with him, and then return to Europe to live with her husband.
Archer is torn, but finally decides that he will take the offer. A few days later, though, he learns that Ellen has suddenly decided to return to Europe without giving him any explanation. May tells Archer that Ellen made this decision after the two cousins had a talk one afternoon. May hosts a farewell party for Ellen, and Ellen treats Archer formally all evening, as though they had never shared deeper feelings for each other. After the guests leave, May tells Archer that she is pregnant. When Archer learns that May had told Ellen of the pregnancy even before she was certain, he understands the reason behind Ellen's sudden departure.
Twenty-six years later, May has died and their oldest son, Dallas, stands with Archer in front of Ellen's apartment. Archer and Ellen have not seen each other since the night of the farewell party. As he looks into her apartment, Archer is torn by memories of their love, and the knowledge that they have led separate lives since they parted. He realizes that Ellen is more real to him in his memories than in person. After much thought, Archer decides not to go inside with Dallas. He sits by himself until dark, then walks away.