History: Published in 1920, won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize.
Plot: Newland Archer, gentleman lawyer and heir to one of New York City's best families, is happily anticipating a highly-desirable marriage to the sheltered and beautiful May Welland. Yet he finds reason to doubt his choice of bride after the appearance of Countess Ellen Olenska, May's exotic, beautiful thirty-year-old cousin, who had been living in Europe. Ellen has returned to New York after scandalously separating herself (per rumour) from a bad marriage to a Polish Count. At first, Ellen's arrival, and its potential taint to his bride's family, disturbs him, yet he becomes intrigued by the worldly Ellen who flouts New York society's fastidious rules. As Newland's admiration for the countess grows, so does his doubt about marrying May, a perfect product of Old New York society; his match with May no longer seems the ideal fate he had imagined.
Ellen's decision to divorce Count Olenski is a social crisis for her family, who are terrified of scandal and disgrace. Living apart can be tolerated, but divorce is unacceptable. To save the Welland family's reputation, a law partner of Newland asks him to dissuade Countess Olenska from divorcing the Count. He succeeds, but in the process comes to care for her; afraid of falling in love with Ellen, Newland begs May to accelerate their wedding date; May refuses.
Newland tells Ellen he loves her; Ellen corresponds, but is horrified of their love's aggrieving May. She agrees to remain in America, separated but still married, only if they do not sexually consummate their love; Newland receives May's telegram agreeing to wed sooner.
Newland and May marry; he tries forgetting Ellen, but fails. His society marriage is loveless, and the social life he once found absorbing has become empty and joyless. Though Ellen lives in Washington, and has remained distant, he is unable to cease loving her. Their paths cross while he and May are in Newport, Rhode Island. Newland discovers that Count Olenski wishes Ellen to return to him, and she has refused, despite her family pushing her to reconcile with her husband and return to Europe. Frustrated by her independence, the family cut off her money, as the Count had already done.
Newland desperately seeks a way to leave May and be with Ellen, obsessed with how to finally possess her. Despairing of ever making Ellen his wife, he attempts to have her agree to be his mistress. Then, Ellen is recalled to New York City to care for her sick grandmother, who accepts her decision to remain separated and agrees to reinstate her allowance.
Back in New York, and under renewed pressure from Newland, Ellen relents and agrees to consummate their relationship. However, Newland then discovers that Ellen has decided to return to Europe. Newland makes up his mind to abandon May and follow Ellen to Europe, when May announces that she and Newland are throwing a farewell party for Ellen. That night, after the party, Newland resolves to tell May he is leaving her for Ellen. She interrupts him to tell of her pregnancy, and that Ellen was told of it two weeks before; Newland guesses Ellen's reason for returning to Europe. Hopelessly trapped, Newland surrenders his love, Ellen, for the sake of his children, and remains in a loveless marriage to May; he does not follow Ellen.
Twenty-five years later, after May's death, Newland and his son are in Paris. The son, learning that his mother's cousin lives there, has arranged to visit Ellen in her Paris apartment. Newland is stunned at the prospect of seeing Ellen again. On arriving outside the apartment building, Newland, still reeling emotionally, sends up his son alone to meet Ellen, while he waits outside, watching her apartment's balcony. Newland considers going up, but decides that his dream and memory of Ellen are more real than anything else in his life has been; he walks back to his hotel without meeting her.
Review: Nearly every character is memorable—from the massive Mrs. Manson Mingott, May and Ellen's grandmother who is old enough and skilled enough to intuit all and manipulate all; to the womanizing Lawrence Lefferts, whose behavior is acceptable because he knows how to play the game, how things are "done"; to the frigid bastions of society, the van der Luydens; to May's mother, who cannot be exposed in any way to "unpleasantness"; to Archer's virginal sister Janey, who lives life vicariously through gossip and guesswork.
Many scenes and locations are equally vivid: Beaufort's lavish house and party; the contrast of the van der Luydens' dinner party; Archer and May's conventional and stifling honeymoon, more sporty than romantic or passionate; Archer's pursuit of May in Florida and his following Ellen to the Blenkers' and then to Boston; a revealing ride with Ellen in May's brougham; Mrs. Mingott's house in the middle of "nowhere," where she rules like a queen and where the politics are only slightly less complicated than those of Elizabeth I's court—all unforgettable places and scenes.
In less intelligent or skilled hands, the plot could have become mere melodrama, but Wharton knows how her society worked, who inhabited it, what it forgave, and what it could not pardon. Affairs are pardonable; treachery, real or perceived, to the framework of what holds these people together is not. In the end, May saves Archer from himself—and dooms him to her kind of life by doing so. When he gives up all his dreams, he looks into May's "blue eyes, wet with tears." She knows what he does not and remains cold as the moon that the goddess Diana rules.
It could be said that May and Ellen represent two sides of Newland Archer—both are people he is afraid to become. If he is like May, he experiences death of the mind, death of the soul, death of the emotions, becoming what he is expected to be to keep the foundations that society is built upon steady, strong, and standing. (It is no coincidence that a theme in Wharton's The House of Mirth is the vulnerability of that house to the influx of modern ways.) If he becomes like Ellen, he will lose everything that he has built his own foundations on. In the end, he is neither, nor is he himself. His tragedy is not that much less than that of The House of Mirth's Lily Bart, both victims of a society they need but cannot survive.
Opening Line: “On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in the Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.”
Closing Line: “At that, as if it had been the signal he had waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.”
Quotes: " 'I'm sick of the hypocrisy that would bury alive a woman of her age if her husband prefers to live with harlots... Women ought to be free - as free as we are,' he declared, making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences."
"It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country."