At the beginning of the story, in January in 1870s, we meet the young attorney named Newland Archer, who possesses all the virtues of a proper gentleman. He is going to announce his engagement to not less virtuous May Welland on the party that will be held soon in the Mingott-family opera box. This is a welcoming party for May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who comes to New York from Paris, but Newland feels that it is an appropriate time to tell everyone about his and May’s plans to marry.
Countess Ellen Olenska is not a simple character. She is lovely and strong, but her decision in life made her not welcomed in the upper class society. Newland and May risk a lot, throwing this party - accepting Ellen may cost them their social connections. The most scandalous thing about Ellen is the fact that she has recently decided to divorce a wealthy and respected Polish count, moreover, she behaves in a way not suitable for the divorced woman. Her marriage was unacceptable enough, her divorce just made it worse for her and the fact that Countess dares to enjoy life after all that just drives the whole family crazy.
The long-expected news about the engagement of Newland and May is received well. But the Countess is not. Everyone present at the ball make her the object of gossips and when it comes to the dinner held for introducing Ellen back to the society, no one accepts the invitation. The MIngott family has to ask the two well-known and respected society members from an ancient family for help. Henry and Louisa van der Luyden agree to become hosts of the dinner dedicated to Ellen and show their support to her. They send the invitation no one dares to ignore and the dinner goes fine with everyone present. Ellen, though, considers New York charmingly provincial in comparison to Paris and the high society here looks adoringly straightforward to her.
But the van der Luydens aren’t the only ones who protect Ellen. Newland is shocked to find himself attracted to Ellen’s beauty and exotic personal traits. He tries to persuade himself and the rest of the society that he is just trying to comfort the Countess among the hostile gossipers, but the very next day Newland sends Ellen yellow roses and comes to see her. The house of Ellen is just as exotic as she is: too small for her social status and situated in the socially unacceptable Bohemian part of town (her choice enraged Ellen’s family once more), it is filled with different things one can’t expect to find in the house of the proper and conservative lady. Ellen’s friendship with Julius Beaufort, a shady financier, also repulses Newton, but also makes him jealous and curious simultaneously.
This innocent meeting makes Newland fall in love with her completely. He sees Ellen’s loneliness and insecurity, but also her beauty, courage and the possibilities that will be forever lost to him if he chooses the proper life with May - equally beautiful, but cold, proper and ordinary. Newland starts fiercely defending Ellen, standing against the rest of the upper-class society and proclaiming that her divorce doesn’t make her a despised person. Still, he stays faithful to May, never thinking about breaking an engagement. Newland even tries to persuade him that he ordinary and calm family life with her is what he really wants, but ends up constantly comparing May and Ellen with May losing this estimation.
Meanwhile, Ellen’s family, despite their own opinion about her, also defends the Countess as the member of the clan. The older family members try to watch her, not letting Ellen enjoy life too much and in too frivolous ways for a divorced woman. Also, the beautiful and free woman disrupts all the existing social hierarchy of the female part of the clan and the women start to see her as a dangerous rival due to her exclusive personal traits. Another problem is Julius Beaufort, a married man, who now openly shows Ellen his affection, triggering another scandal. Newland grows a hatred to Beaufort, still persuading himself that the roots of this hatred in Beaufort’s ugly behaviour, but of course it is just plain jealousy and desire to protect his beloved Ellen.
The situation becomes more tangled when the Mingotts order Newland’s chief, a senior lawyer named Mr. Letterblair, to take the case of Countess’ divorce. Mr. Letterblair decides to delegate the case to his best lawyer - Newland of course. Now the young man, who does his best to cope with his unexpected love, has to communicate with Ellen too often. After a few conversations, he understands that he almost passed the point of no return and is ready to break the engagement and propose to Ellen, so alluring and sensual in comparison with his shy and quiet fiancee. In panic, Newland flees to St. Augustine, Florida, where May is now vacationing with her family to ask her parents to shift the wedding date closer. May greets him properly and conventionally as always, contrasting greatly with Ellen’s warmth and passion. Still, her beauty warms Newland up to her. Moreover, May is willing to sacrifice herself for his happiness: in the evening she offers him to consider himself free without any consequences if there is “someone else” between them.
Touched by her offer, Newland again asks May’s parents to hasten the preparation, but they want the wedding to be proper for their social status and can’t prepare everything faster than they planned. Newland returns to New York, confused. Finally, he confesses his love to Ellen and again is ready to break the engagement with May, but in that very moment a telegram comes from St. Augustine. May writes him that with the help of the family matriarch, Mrs. Manson Mingott, the wedding date was shifted and now they can marry in a month. Newland yields to his duty and leaves Ellen.
The second book starts with the scene of the luxurious marriage of May and Newland. All the upper crust of New York is invited and watches the ceremony with approval. A year later, in August, we see the newlyweds living in the wealthy and proper part of town (unlike Ellen), in a big mansion, settling down and living proper, boring and fashionable life, like everyone else around. May and Newland even spend their vacations on the convenient resort, with the other riches, not where they really want to. After their wedding and Newland’s confession Ellen moved to Washington D.C., paying rare visits to see her grandmother. It is clear that she avoids Newland, afraid to disrupt her cousin’s family life with her mere existence nearby. When Ellen goes to Boston from her grandmother’s home, Newton succumbs to his passion again. He lies to his wife that he has to go on a business trip and follows Ellen. They have a serious talk, Ellen even wants to move from America. Newton pleads her to stay and the woman agrees but only if her presence will not, in any way, hurt May.
Ellen returns to her home in Washington and discovers that lots of events happened during her absence. Julius Beaufort finally was caught on shady deals and now can be stripped of both his possessions and status. His wife Regina comes to Mrs. Mingott, asking for help and the old lady decides to help her. But soon afterwards, Mrs. Mingott has a stroke and is too weak to actually decide anything. She sends for Ellen, asking her granddaughter to be with her and nurse her until she is able to walk and function well again. Newland is the one who has to bring Ellen to her, he meets the woman on the train station and they have two hours in a carriage. All this time Newland tries to persuade her to have an affair with him. Ellen refuses again, saying that she will never hurt May. Enraged and devastated, Newland leaves the carriage and goes home. When he sees his wife, sitting in the library, as calm and proper as always, he realizes that he also will never hurt and disgrace her with divorce.
The next day Newland searches for Ellen and meets her at the Metropolitan Museum. Finally, the woman surrenders, agreeing to one-time affair just to close this forever. Newland is torn apart by guilt and excitement. The mixed feelings torture him and in the evening he decides to confess everything to May and let her decide what to do. But May is the first to say the news: Ellen is leaving to Europe forever and they have to prepare a farewell dinner for her. Newland is shocked: Ellen never stated that she is going to leave. He prepares the proper dinner though and there he realizes that all the big clan was thinking that he and Ellen were having an affair for long. Moreover, earlier, May, thinking that she was pregnant, had a talk with Ellen and her cousin assured her that she would never interrupt in her family life. The night after dinner, when Newton goes to bed, his wife tells him this story, adding that now she is completely sure she is expecting a baby. Now nothing can be reverted and Newton loses his illusion of choice between May and Ellen.
Many years pass. Now Newland is fifty-seven, a proud father of two grown children: Dallas and Mary. He is a widower, some time ago May has died of pneumonia, while nursing their third child back to health. Dallas is going to the business trip and asks his father to accompany him to Paris. When they arrive, Dallas tells Newland that he has an invitation from the Countess Ellen Olenska for both of them, after twenty-six years from the last time Newland saw her. Dallas also tells his father the story that he heard from May, when she was on her deathbed. May said that once Newland sacrificed his only love because of his honor and duty. This love was Countess Ellen, who also sacrificed everything, withstanding his advances and moving away just to let Newland forget her and have a happy family life.
Newland agrees to go to the dinner with his son, but when they both come to Countess’ apartment, he asks Dallas to go up alone. He doesn’t want to see his love and grieve everything that could be. Instead, Newland chooses to leave himself the memories about his beloved Ellen, forever young, perfect and never tarnished by time.