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As the protagonist of the novel, Newland Archer's point of view governs its narration. He is said to be a dilettante at the beginning of the novel, someone who amateurishly enjoys the pleasurable and delicate sensations that are the luxury of the members of the ruling class. He is respectable and seems to have bought into all the baggage that is a part of maintaining respectability. But his character is set against those of his peers and his family members in that it is through his point of view that the others are mostly seen. At the opening of the novel, Newland is already both an insider and an outsider in his social world.
He knows its social codes intimately and follows them unquestioningly, but he also smiles at them and regards them with a certain amount of tolerant irony. He recognizes the shallowness of its social behaviors and he also participates in them. For instance, he recognizes his social group attends the old Opera Theater because it is inconvenient and therefore discourages the attendance of the new rich. He recognizes that people attend the opera to be seen and to see each other and he does so too. However, he also knows the opera well enough to respect it and love it.
Newland Archer's contentment with his life is thoroughly developed in the first chapters. When he engages himself to May, he is perfectly happy with his choice for a wife. May follows all the conventions of her society: she is beautiful, but not sexy; she adores him and lets him lead her intellectually; and she is trained to be perfectly innocent of all that he feels he is so worldly wise about. Marrying May will make Newland more masterly. He'll be able to teach her his thinking and mold her to his desires. Newland feels as if he is acquiring an exquisite object of art, one that will show off his good taste.
But then he changes drastically. He meets Ellen Olenska and is introduced to the freshness of her unconventional behavior. He begins to recognize the emptiness of the society that has been the center of his life. He recognizes the dullness of his social equals and dreads the seeming inevitability of his becoming just like them. Most importantly, he recognizes the cruelty of their social condemnations and restrictions. Ellen and Newland's families think nothing of sacrificing her life for the purpose of maintaining their scandal-free existence. They even encourage her to return to her husband and cut her off financially when she refuses. In seeing the way his society treats one of its members who has noble but quite divergent values, Newland begins to see it for its flaws.
Newland's journey is the medium for much of Wharton's theme, which is that the truly good life is the one that is dedicated to the greater good. Newland Archer has to sacrifice the love of his life to do the right thing, and manages to be content. It is a truly heroic action, despite the modern response to such ideas. Newland's internal journey is best reflected by the following pattern: happiness; the sudden introduction of something new; discontentment and a longing for the new; reconciliation with the old; and then contentment again.
Ellen Olenska brings an important perspective to the New York world. It is a very insular society, one that tolerates no divergence from its strict rules of etiquette and social distance. Ellen Olenska comes in from the outside, unaware of the rigid confines of behavior. She finds the world both charmingly safe and provincially rigid. And then she realizes how cruel it can be. The New Yorkers' judgements are rigid and harmful. Ellen Olenska usually emerges from the criticism at a higher moral level than that of her critics merely by default.
Then she undergoes her own change. Prior to meeting Newland, she lived her life in Europe according to European norms. She married a fabulously rich Polish count and lived the life of exquisite pleasures. There, life was bohemian and free. Each person lived for his or her own pleasure, regardless of the consequences. Her husband, also a product of that society, abused her cruelly to suit his own selfish purposes. In New York, Ellen finds a code of behavior with a higher ordeal. There, people live for the good of all rather than for their own selfish pursuits. In convincing her that divorce would harm her family, Newland is teaching Ellen to sacrifice her own needs for someone else. Something in that selfless consideration appeals to Ellen's wounded nature. She adopts that code as her own.
In her relationship with Newland, Ellen reveals a strength of character far greater than any other character in the novel. Because of this new code of honor, Ellen is primed to sacrifice her individual happiness out of a sense of the greater good, for both May and May's family. Ellen sticks to this ideal and lives her life alone to fulfill it, even when Newland capitulates and pleads with her. In having an outsider come into the old New York society, see its limitations, but then decide to abide by its morality, Wharton shows her endorsement of the old way of doing things.
May is one of the most interesting characters in the novel for anyone who wants to think somewhat against the grain of the novel's narrative line. That is, the narrative is written from the point of view of May's husband, a man who wishes he had never married her. May thereby receives some fairly negative narrative treatment. From Newland's point of view, May is determinedly and unnaturally innocent. She doesn't want to know the reality around her, and prefers to be protected from it.
However, there is another view of May, also from Newland's point of view. Newland occasionally suspects that May might have more insight into the world around her after all. Before they are married, when he visits her in St. Augustine and urges her to speed up the wedding, he is taken aback when May asks him if he is unsure of his affection for her. Such a subtle insight suggests that May might not be as innocent of the world as he had imagined her to be. The fact that May is mistaken about the object of Newland's affections, thinking it's a former lover instead of realizing it is Ellen Olenska, does not take away from the insight. May recognizes that Newland is acting out of insecurity. When he answers her glibly, she goes back to the happy ideal of a love-filled engagement.
Later, after their marriage, it becomes open to speculation what May knows and what knowledge she might be acting on. After he makes contact with Ellen Olenska again, a year and a half after their marriage, Newland notices a change in May. Before their marriage, May was Ellen's champion, not noticing anything wrong with Ellen's socially unacceptable choices. Afterward, May becomes a vehement critic of her cousin. A couple of times, Newland notices that May seems to be crying. Finally, May seems to have contrived the final separation of Newland and Ellen by the story of her pregnancy. Just before they are about to consummate their long love affair, May tells Ellen she is pregnant. However, it is not until weeks later that May goes to the doctor to confirm her pregnancy. The suggestion is that May is exercising her power without flexing it. She knows that this is the only acceptable to way to confront the situation without confronting it. A modern reader might call it passive-aggression. In the context of New York society, it is merely coping.