The Age of Innocence

Comprehensive Storyform

The following analysis reveals a comprehensive look at the Storyform for The Age of Innocence. Unlike most of the analysis found here—which simply lists the unique individual story appreciations—this in-depth study details the actual encoding for each structural item. This also means it has been incorporated into the Dramatica Story Expert application itself as an easily referenced contextual example.

Story Dynamics

8 of the 12 essential questions

Main Character Resolve

Newland is a man who considers himself intellectually above his peers, a person open to new possibilities.

NARRATOR: On the whole Archer was amused by the smooth hypocrisy of his peers [...] Archer enjoyed such challenges to convention. He questioned conformity in private, but in public he upheld family and tradition.

Slowly Newland becomes more dissatisfied with the narrow-minded pursuits of his world. Then Ellen comes along, a kindred spirit, who speaks her mind. She becomes a beacon of enlightenment and change. Newland follows her light and moves toward changing the way he acts, not just the way he thinks. Finally, when he realizes he’s about to lose Ellen for good, he tries to speak out, ready to give up everything he has represented in society to follow her to Europe.

Main Character Growth

Newland must start to externalize his liberal ideas of living, if he is to achieve true happiness in his life.

Main Character Approach

Newland prefers to internalize his problems instead of resolving them externally. Rather than act to change May into a more enlightened wife, Newland internally acknowledges that she’ll never be an intellectual partner, and resigns himself to living within a boring marriage.

NARRATOR: Archer had gradually reverted to his old inherited ideas about marriage. It was less trouble to conform with tradition. There was no use trying to emancipate a wife who hadn’t the dimmest notion that she was not free.

Main Character Mental Sex

Newland moves to solve problems by using linear thinking. When he realizes at the opera that May and her family support Ellen, he immediately goes to the box and suggests announcing his and May’s engagement that very evening to add his family’s support as well; when Mrs. Mingott’s dinner invitations are turned down, he goes to the van der Luydens and convinces them to support Ellen; after Newland learns that Ellen is visiting nearby in Portsmouth, he immediately voices a plan to buy a new horse so that he can travel to see Ellen; he then tracks her down and finds her in Boston.

Story Driver

The story is moved along by decisions: Ellen decides to leave her unfaithful husband and return to New York, which leads to her being snubbed; Mrs. Mingott decides to publicly support Ellen, so May and Newland immediately announce their engagement to unite both families behind Ellen; When leading society families decide to refuse invitations to a dinner party Mrs. Mingott holds for Ellen, Mrs. Archer and Newland go to the van der Luydens for help; Ellen decides to divorce her husband, so the family asks Newland to advise her against it, because it would mean total social disgrace for Ellen and the family as divorce is taboo in their Victorian society.

Story Limit

There are only so many avenues open to the characters to achieve the story goal: Mrs. Mingott and the families’ concern about discretion limits the ways they manage Ellen’s problematic existence; The van der Luydens serve a classy lesson to society by inviting Ellen to their dinner party; May and Newland’s wedding date is moved up; Mrs. Mingott reminds Newland that Ellen is a married woman; Running out of ways to prevent a scandal, Mrs. Mingott sends Ellen away to Europe. Social conventions limit Newland’s options regarding an open relationship with Ellen. Ellen’s options for living independently in New York are so limited that she moves to Washington, D.C., then, Europe.

Story Outcome

The characters are successful in maintaining the status quo of the past: Through the successful marriage of Newland and May they have joined two leading families in a effort to perpetuate their class and social hierarchy; through the joint efforts of the families they were able to keep Ellen’s past relatively quiet.

Story Judgment

Newland never realizes his full potential as an enlightened man hoping to share his true self with a lifelong partner, his wife. He is trapped in a stifling existence for the best years of his life. He only becomes free when he’s an old man who believes that it’s too late for personal happiness.

Overall Story Throughline

"Maintaining Appearances"

Overall Story Throughline

All of the objective characters exist in an environment governed by strict rules of behavior and dress. They find themselves in a situation where social etiquette must be obeyed at all costs. Ellen Olenska adjusts to her new environment under the close scrutiny of family and acquaintances. Mrs. Mingott tries to protect Ellen by taking her granddaughter into her home and inviting society friends to a dinner party to introduce her, but is snubbed. May Welland adheres to every convention a proper young woman should to be accepted by her peers. Newland Archer is everything expected of a cultured gentleman: he practices law, travels Europe, collects books, belongs to a men’s club, is engaged to a prominent woman of his own class. Larry Lefferts represents everything the proper gentleman should look like. Sillerton Jackson guards the established code of conduct by being an expert on the lineage of all the best families in society. Mrs. Archer and Janey act according to their station as a society widow and an unmarried woman, respectively.

Overall Story Concern

Most of the characters are concerned with the past: Mrs. Mingott, May’s mother, Mrs. Archer, and Sillerton Jackson all want to keep their world just like it always has been in the past. Ellen’s past, especially leaving her husband aided by a male secretary, threatens to tarnish her and all of those associated with her. As Newland Archer comes to know Ellen better, he tries to protect her from rumors about her past by advising her not to divorce her husband, and by trying to keep his feelings for her hidden from his family. When Newland asks May Welland to move up the announcement of their engagement, she resists changing past decisions:

MAY: ... But why should we change what is already settled?

When Newland wants to advance the date of their wedding, May insists on doing what everyone else has done before them:

MAY: But the Chivers were engaged for a year and a half. And Larry Lefferts and Gertrude were engaged for two. I’m sure Mama expects something customary.

Overall Story Issue

May Welland anticipates marrying Newland and leading a happy life with him. Newland comes to believe that May will never grows as a person, and their marriage will be all too conventional and boring. Mrs. Mingott urges May and her mother to move the engagement up, as she envisions:

MRS. MINGOTT: I might catch pneumonia any winter now, and I want to give the wedding breakfast.

Traditional minded Larry Lefferts dislikes upstarts like Julius Beaufort accepted into society and predicts:

LEFFERTS: If things go on like this, we’ll be seeing our children fighting for invitations to swindlers’ houses and marrying Beaufort’s bastards.

Overall Story Counterpoint

After polite society snubs a dinner in Ellen Olenska’s honor, setting a course for her ruin, Mrs. Archer and Newland convince Lousia and Henry van der Luyden to help stop Ellen’s inevitable social banishment.

HENRY VAN DER LUYDEN: long as a member of a well-known family is backed by that family, it should be considered final. [...] we are giving a little dinner for our cousin the Duke of St. Austrey… I’m sure Louisa will be as glad as I am if Countess Olenska will let us include her among our guests.

Overall Story Thematic Conflict
Prediction vs.Interdiction

The conflict between prediction and interdiction can be seen in May’s efforts to conduct their engagement in a way predetermined by social tradition, and Newland’s efforts to speed up the engagement announcement and their wedding date. According to custom, once Ellen married she was supposed to remain married no matter how terrible the Count turned out to be. However, fearing her destruction if she remained with her husband, Ellen risks her reputation by leaving him and asking for a divorce.

ARCHER: ... What could you possibly gain that would make up for the scandal?

ELLEN: My freedom. Is that nothing?

Overall Story Problem

Change causes problems for most of the objective characters. Ellen, as a sophisticated, independent thinking woman with nerve enough to leave an abusive husband and sue for divorce, represents change. Although her family publicly rally to her support, privately they are terrified that she’ll cause a negative change in their social standing. Sillerton Jackson and Larry Lefferts, both guardians of tradition, are shocked to see Ellen in the family box at the opera, thus signaling her family’s bold acceptance of her, and a possible change of attitude toward women who leave their husbands.

May senses a change in Newland’s affections toward her and confronts him when he visits her in Florida.

MAY: I’m not sure I do understand. Is it because you’re not certain of still feeling the same way about me?

ARCHER: God, I…maybe…I don’t know.

Larry Lefferts, Sillerton Jackson, and Mrs. Archer disapprove of Beaufort because he’s different: His house is arranged differently than anyone else’s; he hangs a nude painting in one of his public drawing rooms; he’s outspoken; carries on affairs and seems not to care who knows; he may become the norm in society, and his children might marry children from established families, therefore breaking the old family bloodlines.

Overall Story Solution

Mrs. Mingott, Mrs. Archer, and Mrs. Welland work to maintain the status quo by ensuring that Newland and May marry as planned and join two old-line families. They also protect the way things are by seeing that Ellen is situated as not to interfere with the marriage. Mrs. Mingott makes Ellen financially independent of her husband, and with the family’s blessing, Ellen leaves for Europe where she will not be a temptation to Newland.

Overall Story Symptom

Mrs. Mingott has a keen idea of what’s going on between Newland and Ellen. She tests Newland and tells him the true state of affairs between Ellen and her husband:

MRS. MINGOTT: Why in the world didn’t you marry her [Ellen]?

ARCHER: For one thing, she wasn’t there to be married.

MRS. MINGOTT: No, to be sure. And she’s still not. The Count, you know. He’s sent a letter.

ARCHER: No, I didn’t know.

MRS. MINGOTT: Mr. Letterblair says the Count wants Ellen back. On her own terms.

Overall Story Response

When Larry Lefferts accidentally sees Newland and Ellen talking in front of Mrs. Mingott’s house, he discreetly crosses the street thinking that they are lovers stealing a moment alone. Newland realizes how it looks and knows why Larry crosses the street: “It was the kind of masculine solidarity that he himself had practiced; now he sickened at their connivance.” (Wharton, p. 308)

The entire family including May perceive that Ellen and Newland are lovers. And while they converse during Ellen’s farewell dinner, each one of them share the point of view that with her leaving it’s finally over and their rigid social code is once again intact.

Overall Story Catalyst

Ellen Olenska is destined to become a social outcast, and is on course to ruin everyone’s plans for the marriage between Newland and May. The characters use interdiction to halt seemingly predestined occurrences moving the story forward: Mrs. Mingott takes Ellen into her home to quiet gossip and show her support; Mrs. Archer and Newland go to the van der Luydens to stop Ellen’s social banishment; May quietly and determinedly undermines Newland’s efforts to make Ellen his mistress by telling Ellen that she’s pregnant.

Overall Story Inhibitor

The objective characters’ need for evidence slows the story. If Newland and Ellen are lovers, their relationship will threaten Newland’s marriage to May and cause a scandal that will destroy the family’s current status in society. They need concrete evidence that Newland is involved with Ellen before they can act. Little by little they gather evidence: May catches Newland in a lie about having to go to Washington (where Ellen lives) to argue a patent case; Larry Lefferts sees Newland and Ellen talking at the carriage in front of her house; Newland loses his temper with Sillerton Jackson while discussing Ellen’s financial situation.

Overall Story Benchmark

The objective characters’ current situation is how they judge progress in the story: The threat of a scandal and a drop in the social register moves Mrs. Mingott to support Ellen Olenska and quiet gossip; Mrs. Mingott, Mrs. Archer, and Mrs. Welland, as well as most everyone else, are pleased with the engagement between Newland and May; Sillerton Jackson and the family’s concern over Ellen’s current request for a divorce motivates them to urge Newland to talk her out of it.

Additional Overall Story Information →
Overall Story Throughline Synopsis

“Newland Archer, a respectable but vaguely discontented young lawyer, is engaged to marry the vapid and eminently proper May Welland. Their well-ordered lives are disrupted by the return of May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, a countess by virtue of her marriage to a Polish aristocrat. Intelligent, sophisticated, and just a bit too continental after her years abroad, Ellen is at first shunned by New York society, then barely accepted after the Archers and the Wellands band together to draw her back into the fold. Ellen’s decision to divorce her dissolute husband precipitates a social crisis, and Newland is recruited to dissuade her. Perhaps inevitably, they fall in love. Aware that to act on their repressed passion would banish them forever from a rigid, puritanical society that ruthlessly rejects those touched by the faintest hint of scandal, both Ellen and Newland accede to the impossibility of their position. Newland marries May, and Ellen returns to Europe. In an epilogue set some twenty years later, Newland’s grown son persuades him to visit the now aged Ellen, who is living in Paris. Though he gets as far as the pavement below her apartment, he is unable to face her.” (The Motion Picture Guide. p. 6)

Overall Story Backstory

In New York in the 1870’s a few families ruled over “Knickerbocker society from fashionable brownstones around Washington Square—the period before the city was corrupted by the nouveaux riches…” (Worth. p 101) This society lives by strict codes of conduct, any possible hint of “unpleasantness” or scandal is viewed as the worst disgrace resulting in complete social banishment. Appearances are everything, fortunately family loyalty runs a close second. Newland Archer, a young lawyer from a prominent family, is engaged to May Welland, a proper girl from another leading family. Countess Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, arrives from Europe having left her dissolute husband with the help of his male secretary. Her past is shrouded in rumors that she had lived with the secretary in Paris before returning to New York, and she is on the verge of being shunned by New York society. Her grandmother, society matriarch Mrs. Mingott, has bravely supported Ellen by arranging for her to be seen with her aunt and cousin at the opera in the family’s private box.

Main Character Throughline

Newland Archer — Young society lawyer

Main Character Throughline

Newland Archer considers himself a forward thinking man ready to accept new ideas, art, literature, and ways of living. He hopes to marry an intellectually stimulating woman. His liberal way of thinking clashes with the rigid society in which he lives. This causes him distress as he allows himself to be pulled into a simple, safe life.

“In matters of intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York gentility; he had probably read more, thought more, and even seen a good deal more of the world, than any other man of the number. Singly they betrayed their inferiority; but grouped together they represented “New York,” and the habit of masculine solidarity made him accept their doctrine on all the issues called moral. He instinctively felt that in this respect it would be troublesome—and also rather bad form—-to strike out for himself.” (Wharton, p. 8)

Main Character Concern

Newland envisions ways he might surround himself with intellectually stimulating people, particularly his bride, May.

“We’ll read Faust together… by the Italian lakes…” he thought, somewhat hazily confusing the scene of his projected honey-moon with the masterpieces of literature which it would be his manly privilege to read to his bride. [...] He did not in the least wish the future Mrs. Newland Archer to be a simpleton. He meant her (thanks to his enlightening companionship) to develop a social tact and readiness of wit…” (Wharton, p. 9)

When it becomes clear that May is impervious to any attempts of enlightenment, Newland craves the company of the sophisticated Ellen Olenska. He envisions the development of their relationship after finding her in Portsmouth where she’s visiting friends, then in Boston, and later in Washington.

State of Being
Main Character Issue

Newland understands the true nature of his being when he confesses to Ellen:

ARCHER: ... You gave me my first glimpse of a real life. Then you asked me to go on with the false one. No one can endure that.

Sense of Self
Main Character Counterpoint

As a thematic counterpoint to his true self, Newland considers himself to be intellectually above his peers in pursuing an understanding of the arts. He tells Ellen of his interest in the arts:

ELLEN: You know painters, then? You live in their milieu?

ARCHER: Oh, not exactly.

ELLEN: But you care for such things?

ARCHER: Immensely. When I’m in Paris or London I never miss an exhibition. I try to keep up.

Main Character Thematic Conflict
State of Being vs.Sense of Self

In the conflict between Newland’s state of being and his sense of self, his final choice is based upon his sense of self as he decides to continue in the role of May’s husband:

NARRATOR: He was a dutiful, loving father, and a faithful husband. When May died of infectious pneumonia after nursing Bill safely though, he had honestly mourned her.

Main Character Problem

Newland changes from a man content to abide by society’s code of behavior, to a man who is ready to leave his wife and alienate his family for a life with his true love.

Main Character Solution

Newland’s tendency to continue on with the pattern established for him is the solution to the problem of his attraction to Ellen: He follows the direction chosen for him and marries May (even to the point of moving up the wedding date); he conducts his honeymoon with May just as tradition dictates; he stays away from Ellen for a year and a half; he turns away from a chance to talk with her at the dock. This solution solves the problem society has with him, but still creates great personal problems for himself.

Main Character Symptom

Newland believes that using his knowledge of how to conduct oneself in society will solve his problems: He does the right thing to consult society’s reigning couple, the van der Luydens, on New York’s boycott of Ellen; he sends lilies-of-the-valley to his fiancee every day to show his devotion to her; he knows which neighborhoods are “fashionable” for Ellen to live in, and which are not. Ellen looks to him to guide her:

ELLEN: I’ll count on you to always let me know about such important things.

Main Character Response

Newland’s efforts are directed toward thought: He wants to skip the long engagement and offers an entreaty to May after she labels him an original. “Original! We’re all as like each other as those dolls cut out of the same folded paper. We’re like patterns stenciled on a wall. Can’t you and I strike out for ourselves, May?” (Wharton, p. 82)

Newland ponders the propriety of pursuing Ellen during her stay in New York to nurse her grandmother. He contemplates the double standards governing attitudes on adultery. “Archer had always shared this view: in his heart he thought Lefferts despicable. But to love Ellen Olenska was not to become a man like Lefferts: [...] Ellen Olenska was like no other woman, he was like no other man: their situation, therefore, resembled no one else’s, and they were answerable to no tribunal but that of their own judgment.” (Wharton, p. 306)

Main Character Unique Ability

Although he finds himself unsatisfied with his marriage, Newland has a capacity to gauge his emotional being in regard to his environment. Unlike most of his peers, he is in touch with his feelings, feelings that are set against the lavish backdrop of society life. It’s his keen insight into circumstances that compels him to stay with May. Acutely aware of the devastation it would cause, Newland knows he can’t go against convention and run after Ellen, leaving behind a pregnant wife.

Main Character Critical Flaw

Newland’s senses totally fail to alert him to May’s capacity for manipulation, and his family’s impending coupe de grace which ends his relationship with Ellen. What he perceives as naivete and girlishness in May is pure cunning. He fails to realize that she’s been feeding Ellen’s guilt over their relationship in the guise of “little talks.” Newland is stunned when May tells him Ellen is returning to Europe and shows him Ellen’s farewell note:

ARCHER: Why did she write this?

MAY: I suppose because we talked things over yesterday.

ARCHER: What things?

MAY: I told her I was afraid I hadn’t been fair to her. I hadn’t always understood how hard it must have been here. I knew you’d be the one friend she could always count on. And I wanted her to know that you and I were the same. In all our feelings. She understood why I wanted to tell her this. I think she understands everything.

Main Character Benchmark

As the story progresses Newland comes up with ideas to get what he wants: when May resists moving up their wedding date, Newland comes up with the idea to enlist the help of Mrs. Mingott; he’s so afraid of his attraction to Ellen, he comes up with the idea to surprise May during her vacation and to ask her to marry him right away; he becomes so unhappy in his marriage to May that when he learns that Ellen is visiting friends near Newport, he invents a reason to visit a stud farm nearby so he can see her.

Additional Main Character Information →
Main Character Description

“What we see of him first is the perfect GARDENIA attached to the lapel of his jacket. He is in his late 20s. Handsome, assured and guarded. (Shooting Script. p. 1)

Main Character Throughline Synopsis

Newland Archer is engaged to the extremely proper May Welland. He is attracted to May’s continental cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who appeals to his intellectual mind and sense of adventure. Newland falls in love with Ellen, but feels obligated to May and his family. He gives up Ellen and marries May only to be miserable with the marriage. He actively pursues Ellen, and decides to have an affair, however, he has failed to realize that May and the family have guessed the relationship between him and Ellen, and have taken steps to keep them apart. For a moment he tries to follow his heart and tells May that he wishes to travel to Japan. But when he learns that she is pregnant, he falls into the role of a proper society husband, giving up Ellen and his drive for personal self-fulfillment.

Main Character Backstory

Newland Archer was raised to be the perfect gentleman in Victorian era New York. Born into one of New York city’s leading families, Newland’s life course was laid out for him. He has taken to the role in top form: dressing and behaving as a gentleman should, practicing law at a leading firm, belonging to a men’s club, traveling abroad, appreciating art, literature, music, and the theater. Newland considers himself intellectually above his peers because of his extended travels abroad, and his exposure to sophisticated modes of behavior. After his father died, Newland became the head of the household, caring for his mother and his sister, just as expected of him. He has ended a passionate two-year affair with a married woman. Even in conducting his love affair it appears that Newland has adhered to proper etiquette of the time and handled it with the appropriate discretion, as not to become a social outcast. Now in his late twenties, a traditional time for a young man to settle down and take a wife, Newland has become engaged to the young, innocent, and prosperous May Welland.

Influence Character Throughline

Ellen Olenska — Unorthodox cousin

Influence Character Throughline

Ellen is in a whirl of activities: Fighting for acceptance within New York society and trying to retain her independence at the same time; finding a house for herself that’s comfortable and meets the approval of her family; sorting through her feelings for Newland; weighing her happiness against the happiness of others.

Influence Character Concern

Ellen is concerned with understanding her new world, New York society—its rules, attitudes, and the people in it. At the van der Luydens’ dinner she quizzes Newland about his relationship with May:

ELLEN: Are you very much in love with her?

ARCHER: As much as a man can be.

ELLEN: Do you think there’s a limit?

ARCHER: If there is, I haven’t found it.

ELLEN: Ah, it’s really and truly a romance, then. Not in the least arranged.

Influence Character Issue

Ellen’s use of instinct sets her at odds with New York society. Her instinct for self-preservation leads her to leave her husband. She shocks Newland when she speaks her mind saying that the Duke is the dullest man she’s ever met; she voices her dismay that Americans would obey somebody else’s traditions; members of society are trained to disguise their feelings, but Ellen cries in front of Newland.

Influence Character Counterpoint

The moments when Ellen defers to her social conditioning impacts Newland: Based on her experience in Europe she offers her hand to Newland to be kissed, stunned he awkwardly shakes it instead; when Newland first declares his love for Ellen, her social training stops her from running off with him and hurting her family.

Influence Character Thematic Conflict
Instinct vs.Conditioning

Both instinct and conditioning is explored through Ellen Olenska. In the end conditioning wins out as she chooses to do exactly what she was trained to do, disguise her feelings and do what is best for the family. Ellen allows Mrs. Mingott and the family to ship her off to Europe, away from Newland.

Influence Character Problem

Ellen’s focus on arranging things to please herself, causes Newland problems.

ELLEN: Do you like this odd little house? To me it’s like heaven. [...] At least it’s less gloomy than the van der Luydens’, and not so difficult to be alone.

ARCHER: ... But do you really like to be alone?

ELLEN: As long as my friends keep me from being lonely.

Ellen’s desire to steal a happy moment for herself encourages Newland’s feelings for her, which leads him toward the greatest dilemma of his life.

ARCHER: I can’t be here long.

ELLEN: I know, but I’m a little impulsive. I live in the moment when I’m happy.

Influence Character Solution

If Ellen became aware of how impossible it was to fit happily into New York society, she would save herself much grief, and Newland a painful inner struggle. Ellen’s painfully subtle good-bye note indicates that, at last, she’s aware she must leave America (and therefore Newland) altogether.

ELLEN (V.O.): “May dear, I have at last made Granny understand that my visit to her could be no more than a visit… She sees now that if I return to Europe I must live by myself… If any of my friends wish to urge me to change my mind, please tell them it would be utterly useless.”

Influence Character Symptom

Ellen’s focus on actuality causes problems for Newland, because he wants her and she often points out the true state of their situation:

ELLEN: Newland. You couldn’t be happy if it meant being cruel. If we act any other way I’ll be making you act against what I love in you most. And I can’t go back to that way of thinking. Don’t you see? I can’t love you unless I give you up.

When Newland wants to them to run off together, Ellen focuses on what that would mean:

ELLEN: I can’t be your wife, Newland. Is it your idea I should live with you as your mistress?

Influence Character Response

Ellen directs her efforts toward keeping up the appearance of a respectable young woman, and by doing so Newland loses the love of his life: Even though Ellen loves Newland, she supports his marriage to May, welcomes him into the family as a cousin, and sends the newlyweds a wedding present of antique lace; she immediately removes herself from Newland’s reach by avoiding the wedding; she allows herself to be sent away to Europe, and after the dinner relates to Newland only as May’s husband.

ARCHER: Good-bye. But I’ll see you soon in Paris.

ELLEN: Oh… if you and May could come…

Influence Character Unique Ability

Ellen’s use of interpretation puts pressure upon Newland to be blunt about his feelings for her. He can’t continue to be a closet liberal, and must act upon his true feelings or lose her.

ARCHER: I think she believes you might go back to your husband. I think she believes you might at least consider it.

ELLEN: A lot of things have been believed of me. But if she thinks I would consider it, that also means she would consider it for me…

ARCHER: May and I had a frank talk in Florida… She wants a long engagement to give me time…

ELLEN: Time to give her up for another woman?

ARCHER: If I want to.

Influence Character Critical Flaw

Try as she might to fit into her new environment, Ellen’s efforts are unsuccessful: She finds a house where she can be alone and be herself, but it’s in the wrong neighborhood; she tries to free herself from an unhappy marriage by divorcing her cruel husband, but in New York society divorce is taboo; she moves to Washington to avoid Newland, but he tracks her down anyway.

Influence Character Benchmark

As the story progresses Ellen learns more about how Newland has helped her and how others view her:

ELLEN: All that you’ve done for me, Newland, that I never knew. Going to the van der Luydens because people refused to meet me. Announcing your engagement at the ball so there would be two families standing behind me instead of one. I never understood how dreadful people thought I was.

More Influence Character Information →
Influence Character Description

“[...] a slim young woman… with brown hair growing in close curls about her temples and held in place by a narrow band of diamonds. (Wharton, p. 9)

Madame Olenska’s pale and serious face appealed to his fancy as suited to the occasion and her unhappy situation; but the way her dress (which had no tucker) sloped away from her thin shoulders shocked and troubled him.” (Wharton, p. 14-15)

Influence Character Throughline Synopsis

Ellen leaves her unfaithful Polish husband, Count Olenska, and returns to New York to discover that her unconventional bid for freedom has deemed her a social outcast. She struggles with her precarious status among her family and friends. Her sophisticated views and independence awakens Newland’s desire to free himself from the constraints of society, and he pursues Ellen. In spite of her desire to live her own life, she can’t hurt her family and May. She urges Newland to follow through on his engagement, ultimately destroying the chance for them to ever be together.

Influence Character Backstory

Ellen Olenska was born an American, but lived in Europe with her parents. When they died, her aunt raised her in what New York society considered an eccentric manner. “She was a fearless and familiar little thing, who asked disconcerting questions… possessed outlandish arts, such as dancing a Spanish shawl dance and singing Neapolitan love-songs to a guitar… received an expensive but incoherent education, which included “drawing from the model,” a thing never dreamed of before, and playing the piano in quintets with professional musicians.” (Wharton, p. 59) Ellen became very European and married a rich Polish nobleman in what was probably an arranged marriage that ended badly. Ellen has returned home a dazzling, determined young woman who shows up her cousin, May, without even trying. Ellen’s brilliance throws Newland off course from being a typical society gentleman and husband. She’s different, a challenge to everyone’s conventional ideas. Her presence sends everyone into very discreet fits, Newland in particular.

Relationship Story Throughline

"Where is that Country?"

Relationship Story Throughline

The area of conflict between Newland and Ellen are their respective positions on how she should conduct her life. She believes she should live alongside artists and tradesmen in her odd little house, but Newland thinks it’s not “fashionable”; Ellen wants to divorce her husband and be free, Newland believes social ruin is too high a price for freedom; when Newland wants to run away with Ellen, she believes there is no place to go.

ARCHER: I want…somehow I want to get away with you. Find a world where words like that won’t exist.

ELLEN: Oh my dear…where is that country? [...] Is there anywhere we can be happy behind the backs of people who trust us?

Relationship Story Concern

Newland and Ellen come into conflict over Newland’s memory of her past relationship with Julius Beaufort, and of why he married May:

ELLEN: I only want to be honest with you.

ARCHER: Honest? Isn’t that why you always admired Julius Beaufort? He was more honest than the rest of us, wasn’t he? We’ve got no character, no color, no variety. I wonder why you just don’t go back to Europe.

ELLEN: I believe it’s because of you.

ARCHER: Me? I’m the man who married one woman because another one told him to.

ELLEN: You promised not to say those things today.

Relationship Story Issue

A source of the conflict between Newland and Ellen revolves around evidence. Even though Newland is betrothed, he sees Julius Beaufort as a rival for Ellen’s affections: He sees Julius and Ellen at Mrs. Mingott’s coming in from a walk together; Ellen is late for their appointment when Beaufort takes her house hunting; Newland sees Julius Beaufort walking toward the remote cottage to see Ellen:

ARCHER: Ah! Is he what you were running from? Or what you expected?

ELLEN: I didn’t know he was here.

Ellen and Newland are under observation by their families who amass evidence of their “affair” piece by piece: May takes note of Ellen’s not telling her that Newland sent her roses; Newland’s passionate opposition to Ellen returning to her husband in Mrs. Mingott’s and Mr. Jackson’s presence; May’s catching Newland in a lie; Larry Lefferts sees them together. Every slip the couple makes puts pressure on their relationship.

Relationship Story Counterpoint

Newland and Ellen are closely watched by their suspicious friends and relatives: Louisa van der Luyden gracefully pulls Newland away from Ellen after their cozy chat on the settee after the dinner party:

LOUISA: It was good of you to devote yourself to Madame Olenska so unselfishly, dear Newland. I told Henry he really must rescue you.

Relationship Story Thematic Conflict
Evidence vs.Suspicion

The characters’ suspicions about Ellen and Newland move them to gather evidence that’s weighty enough to cause them to send Ellen away to Europe: May catches Newland in the lie about having to plead a legal case in Washington; Sillerton Jackson witnesses Newland’s fury when it’s inferred that Ellen might become Julius Beaufort’s mistress; Larry Lefferts see Ellen and Newland stealing a moment alone together in front of Regina’s Beaufort’s house.

Relationship Story Problem

The process of consideration causes problems between Newland and Ellen. Ellen thinks that society’s rules are laid out clearly just like New York’s numbered streets and avenues. Her faulty thinking causes her to underestimate her family’s capacity for conspiracy that eventually forces her and Newland apart. Newland thinks that if Ellen pursues a divorce from her husband, a vicious letter written by the Count will become public and ruin Ellen. Newland demands that she contemplate the scandal she’d cause by divorcing her husband. After considering how she could hurt her family, she doesn’t get a divorce. This causes problems when Newland declares his love for her, and she isn’t free to marry him.

Relationship Story Solution

Newland believes that Ellen truly loves him in spite of her efforts to deny her feelings, as not to betray her family’s loyalty. Once his belief is confirmed, this knowledge enables them to finally act upon their love for each other.

ARCHER: You came to New York because you were afraid.

ELLEN: Afraid?

ARCHER: Of my coming to Washington.

ELLEN: I promised Granny to stay in her house because I thought I would be safer.

ARCHER: Safer from me? Safer from loving me?

ELLEN: Shall I come to you once, and then go home?

ARCHER: Come to me once, then.

Relationship Story Symptom

When Ellen focuses on actuality she points out real obstacles that block their relationship from moving forward.

ARCHER: [...] But you are the woman I would have married if it had been possible for either of us.

ELLEN: Possible? You can say that when you’re the one who’s made it impossible. [...] Isn’t it you who made me give up divorcing? Didn’t you talking to me… about sacrifice and sparing scandal because my family was going to be your family? And I did what you asked me. For May’s sake. And for yours.

ARCHER: But there were things in your husband’s letter…

ELLEN: I had nothing to fear from that letter. Absolutely nothing. You were just afraid of scandal for yourself, and for May.

Relationship Story Response

Although Ellen has pointed out the obvious, hard fact that she is still married, Newland’s view on their situation is:

ARCHER: Ellen. No. Nothing’s done that can’t be undone. I’m still free. You can be, too. No! Everything is different. Do you see me marrying May now?

Relationship Story Catalyst

The characters’ use of suspicion regarding the nature of Ellen and Newland’s relationship moves the story along: May’s suspicion is aroused when Newland asks if it was all right that he had sent Ellen roses, a fact Ellen had failed to mention to May. This leads to May’s game playing with Newland in Florida that forces him to make a decision about who he wants. Newland’s explosive reaction to the news that Ellen may return to her husband, fuels Mrs. Mingott’s apprehension about his fidelity to May, and it’s possible that she urges May to marry Newland quickly or take the chance of losing him.

Relationship Story Inhibitor

Prediction slows the subjective story. When Newland is determined to run off with Ellen, saying that he’s beyond caring about hurting May and his family, Ellen forecasts an unhappy future for them.

ELLEN: No you’re not. You’ve never been beyond that. I have. I know what it looks like. A lie in every silence. It’s no place for us.

Relationship Story Benchmark

As the story progresses Ellen and Newland consider their options for a relationship.

Additional Relationship Story Information →
Relationship Story Throughline Synopsis

In Victorian era New York, Newland Archer, a well-bred young lawyer is engaged to marry proper May Welland, but he is attracted to Countess Ellen Olenska, May’s free-spirited cousin. Because of Ellen’s unsavory reputation and the fact that she’s married, breaking his engagement with May to marry Ellen would cause a huge scandal. Unwilling to hurt their families, Ellen steps aside and Newland marries May. A year and a half later, Newland is unhappy with his marriage and he seeks out Ellen. They realize that their love is just as strong as ever. After resisting their attraction, they finally decide to have an affair, but the families intervene and send Ellen back to Europe. By now May is pregnant and Newland is bound to her forever.

Relationship Story Backstory

Although born an American, Ellen has traveled Europe with her mother, married a Polish count, and has acquired European sensibilities and manners. Now in New York she is terribly out of place among her quaint American relatives. Newland has embraced his own quaint American upbringing and is engaged to a provincial woman. However, he secretly desires a wife who shares his intellectual interests. Unfortunately, the qualities that make Ellen unsuitable for New York society, draws Newland to her. Theirs is a love that could shatter their families and make them both social outcasts.

Additional Story Points

Key Structural Appreciations

Overall Story Goal

The objective characters are concerned with keeping the traditions and society mores of the past. “... in the first place, New York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was “not the thing” to arrive early at the opera; and what was or was not “the thing” played a part as important in Newland Archer’s New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago.” (Wharton, p. 4)

Overall Story Consequence

If values and behavior established by the past aren’t achieved, one will not be remembered well:

MRS. ARCHER: Poor Ellen. We must always remember what an eccentric bringing-up Medora Manson gave her. What can you expect of a girl who was allowed to wear black satin at her coming-out ball.

Overall Story Cost

Regina Beaufort comes to a painful understanding that she must share in the shame of her husband’s financial ruin when she goes to Mrs. Mingott for help. Mrs. Mingott recalls the conversation:

MRS. MINGOTT: [...] And then… if you can believe it… she said to me… “But my name, Auntie. My name’s Regina Townsend.” And I said, “Your name was Beaufort when he covered you with jewels, and it’s got to stay Beaufort now that he’s covered you with shame.”

Newland understands the meaning of the family’s fond farewell dinner for Ellen:

NARRATOR: He guessed himself to have been, for months, the center of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears. [...] And he knew that now the whole tribe had rallied around his wife. He was a prisoner in the center of an armed camp.

Overall Story Dividend

May visualizes that Newland would never leave her if she were pregnant. Working toward her goal to marry and keep Newland, May implements a plan using subtle manipulation to make Ellen Olenska return to Europe and ensure that Newland does not follow her.

Overall Story Requirements

If the status quo is to be maintained then the current situation must be corrected: Mrs. Archer, Newland, and the van der Luydens publicly support Ellen with a dinner party; the family through Newland’s boss, Mr. Letterblair, asks Newland to persuade Ellen not to divorce her husband; Mrs. Mingott promotes a quick wedding for Newland and May.

Overall Story Prerequisites

The objective characters must contemplate the relationship between Newland and Ellen and come to a consensus before they can form a course of action. At the farewell dinner party for Ellen, Newland realizes that the family has been considering the relationship between himself and Ellen for some time:

NARRATOR: Archer saw all the harmless-looking people at the table as a band of quiet conspirators… He guessed himself to have been, for months, the center of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears. [...] Archer knew that New York believed him to be Madame Olenska’s lover…

Overall Story Preconditions

An unessential restriction put on the requirement of the present is the objective characters gathering every little bit information about Newland and Ellen’s relationship before they can consider what best to do about it. After Newland has told May that he has to go to Washington on business, she accepts his explanation, but his true purpose is to see Ellen. When an emergency brings Ellen to New York, May quizzes Newland on his sudden change of plans:

MAY: I didn’t want to worry Granny. But how can you meet Ellen and bring her back here if you have to go to Washington yourself this afternoon?

ARCHER: I’m not going. The case is off. Postponed. I heard from Letterblair this morning.

MAY: Postponed? How odd. Mama had a note from him this morning as well. He was concerned about Granny but he had to be away. He was arguing a big patent case before the Supreme Court. You said it was a patent case, didn’t you?

ARCHER: Well, that’s it. The whole office can’t go. Letterblair decided to go this morning.

MAY: Then it’s not postponed?

ARCHER: No. But my going is.

Overall Story Forewarnings

Mrs. Mingott never leaves her house, but is aware of all society’s doings. She’s often coming up with ideas on how to set the members of her family on course. As the story progresses an idea she has foreshadows what will indeed happen:

ARCHER: I think she believes you might go back to your husband.

ELLEN: [...] A lot of things have been believed of me. But if she thinks I would consider it, that also means she would consider it for me. As Granny is weighing your idea of advancing the marriage.

May voices a similar idea concerning where Ellen might best be happy.

MAY: [...] Sometimes I think we’ve always bored her. I wonder if she wouldn’t be happier with her husband after all.

Plot Progression

Dynamic Act Appreciations

Overall Story

Overall Story Signpost 1

Mrs. Mingott and Mrs. Welland are struggling in their campaign for Ellen’s acceptance in society; Newland gets resistance to his efforts to advance his marriage to May; Ellen is winning tiny victories in her battle for personal freedom, but she’s losing ground on the big issues; May moves steadily in upholding social protocol concerning engagements.

Overall Story Journey 1 from Progress to Future

Mrs. Archer and Newland passionately present Ellen’s disintegrating social situation to the van der Luydens; the couple invite Ellen to their prestigious dinner party that bolsters Ellen and her family’s prospects for the future.

Overall Story Signpost 2

Mrs. Mingott, Mrs. Welland, Mrs. Archer, Mr. Letterblair, and Sillerton Jackson are afraid that Ellen’s quest for a divorce will ruin their standing in society; Newland thinks that his marriage to May will be conventional and dull, and he would rather spend his life with Ellen. Ellen worries about being isolated and lonely:

ELLEN: I must go where I’m invited or I will be too lonely.

Overall Story Journey 2 from Future to Present

May insists on a long engagement postponing her and Newland’s life as man and wife for another year; fueled by May’s doubts about his feelings for her, and May leaving him to decide their future, Newland expresses his desire to share his life with Ellen instead, but May’s sudden change of heart creates an immediate situation where Newland must proceed on his predestined course and marry her, not Ellen.

Overall Story Signpost 3

May takes steps to keep her husband; Newland feels dissatisfied and trapped in his marriage; Julius Beaufort’s financial collapse hurts Ellen and others who invested with him; Sillerton Jackson reports Ellen’s current situation to Newland.

Overall Story Journey 3 from Present to Past

May revels in her status as a new society bride and shines when she wins the Newport archery contest just like hundreds of society women before her; Mrs. Archer, Janey, Mrs. Welland, and Sillerton Jackson happily gossip about Beaufort’s financial disaster, and how in the past society ladies held back their new dresses a season or two before wearing them; married life is suffocating Newland’s spirit so that he has to walk away from his wife and open the library window in the dead of winter risking a chill, and realizing that he’s buried under decades of tradition concerning married life.

Overall Story Signpost 4

Mrs. Mingott and the rest of the family succeed in maintaining the standards of the past by tearing Newland and Ellen apart. Ellen returns to Europe where she once enjoyed the social life before coming to New York; May lives her entire life based upon former social codes, and dies blind to the changes around her; Newland’s son marries Julius Beaufort’s daughter from his second marriage fulfilling Larry Lefferts’ past prediction. Newland is given the opportunity to realize a dream of his past, having an untethered relationship with Ellen, but decides not to attempt to relive an era long gone by.

NARRATOR: Newland Archer, in his fifty-seventh year, mourned his past and honored it.

Main Character

Main Character Signpost 1

Newland is about to become married; he’s on the verge of becoming part of May’s family, and shows his support for May’s cousin, Ellen, by announcing his engagement at the ball; to align himself further with his future in-laws Newland takes on the responsibility of becoming Ellen’s legal advisor.

Main Character Journey 1 from Becoming to Conceptualizing

On the eve of becoming May’s husband and a part of her family, he envisions that if May insisted upon moving the wedding date up, her mother would give her her way.

ARCHER: Ever since you were little your parents let you have your way. You’re almost twenty-two. Just tell your mother what you want.

Main Character Signpost 2

Newland envisions ways to bring Ellen into the fold; he reminds her of the importance of the van der Luyden’s dinner party; he instructs Ellen to allow her family to guide her decisions. He envisions getting May to marry him right away by surprising her with a visit to St. Augustine where she’s vacationing; when that seems to fail he rushes to Mrs. Mingott to ask her to persuade May and her mother to move up the wedding date.

Main Character Journey 2 from Conceptualizing to Being

Newland envisions that he and Ellen can be together although she dropped her divorce suit at his urging:

ARCHER: Nothing’s done that can’t be undone. I’m still free. You can be, too.

But May suddenly changes her mind and wants to marry Newland next month, so Newland reluctantly moves into the role of the happy groom and husband.

Main Character Signpost 3

Newland adopts the role of a society husband: He goes on a traditional society honeymoon with May, visiting museums, gardens, looks on proudly while May’s hands are modeled; he attends the Newport archery contest and supports May although he’s bored; he reads poetry to May in the evenings although he’d rather read about foreign countries.

Main Character Journey 3 from Being to Conceiving

Newland moves from acting like the perfect Victorian husband to coming up with an idea to visit the woman he gave up:

ARCHER: I may have to go to Washington for a few days. [...] Tomorrow. I’m sorry, I should have said something before.

MAY: On business?

ARCHER: On business, of course. There’s a patent case coming up before the Supreme Court…

Main Character Signpost 4

Newland’s so unhappy in his married life, he conceives of the idea that he’s been dead for months and plays with the thought that May might suddenly take ill:

Narrator (V.O.): Then it occurred to him that she might die. People did. Young people, healthy people, did. She might die, and set him free.

During the dinner party for Ellen, Newland realizes that he and Ellen have been quietly conspired against by their families; right there during dinner he comes up with the idea that he may do some extensive traveling, traveling that will reunite him with Ellen.

Influence Character

Influence Character Signpost 1

Ellen needs to relearn the rules by which to live in New York. Accustomed to the continental greeting from a man, Ellen holds out her hand when she’s introduced to Newland, and is embarrassed when he’s surprise at her gesture and shakes her hand instead of kissing it; after the van der Luyden’s dinner she breaks the rule of never leaving one man during a social gathering to speak with another.

influence Character Journey 1 from Learning to Understanding

Ellen feels at peace when she’s alone in her odd little house in the Bohemian neighborhood, but she learns that her family considers the house unfashionable and she must find another home. Slowly she comes to understand how her family truly feels about her and is distressed:

ARCHER: All the older women like and admire you. They want to help.

ELLEN: ... But only if they don’t hear anything unpleasant. Does no one here want to know the truth, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask you to pretend.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Ellen begins to comprehend just how she’s viewed by her family:

ELLEN: Perhaps I’ve been too independent. [...] I think they’re all a little angry with me. For setting up for myself.

She appreciates that she might need a social mentor and finally grasps how dire her situation truly is:

ARCHER: Everything is labeled. But everybody is not.

ELLEN: Then I must count on you for warnings, too.

Influence Character Journey 2 from Understanding to Doing

Ellen understands her position, she rejects Newland and passionately urges Newland to marry May. Understanding that Mrs. Mingott and the family won’t approve of her taking Newland away from May, Ellen distances herself by traveling with an aunt instead of attending the wedding, and keeps on the move afterwards.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Ellen moves to Washington D.C. to avoid contact with Newland; leaves her grandmother’s house in Newport the moment she sees Newland’s carriage arrive; visits with friends in Portsmouth; travels to Boston to field an offer from her husband to return to him.

Influence Character Journey 3 from Doing to Obtaining

Ellen does everything expected of her including nursing Mrs. Mingott; finally relents to family pressure and attains a generous endowment to live on independently in Europe; loses the love of her life, Newland.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Ellen obtains financial and social independence when Mrs. Mingott underwrites her return to Europe that makes her totally free of the Count.

Relationship Story

Relationship Story Signpost 1

When Newland is introduced to Ellen at the opera, she remembers they were children together:

ELLEN: I remember we played together. [...] You were horrid. You kissed me once behind a door. But it was your cousin Vandy, the one who never looked at me, I was in love with.

Relationship Story Journey 1 from Memory to PreconsciousWhen Ellen asks about Newland's feelings for May, she forgets that arranged marriages aren't done in America. ELLEN: Ah, it's really and truly a romance, then. Not in the least arranged. ARCHER: Have you forgotten? In our country we don't allow marriages to be arranged. ELLEN: Yes, I forgot, I'm sorry, I sometimes make these mistakes. I don't always remember that everything here is good that was... that was bad where I came from. Ellen acts on impulse when she walks across the van der Luyden's salon to talk to Newland; she simply wants to speak with him and doesn't think about breaking rules of social etiquette; she doesn't hesitate to speak her mind concerning the Duke: ELLEN: I think he's the dullest man I ever met.
Relationship Story Signpost 2

Ellen often acts on impulse, and when she becomes unhappy by the thought of a future of hiding her true feelings from family and friends, she breaks down and cries in front of Newland. Later, when Mrs. Mingott tells Newland that Ellen may return to her husband, he replies without thinking:

ARCHER: I would rather see her dead.

Relationship Story Journey 2 from Preconscious to Subconscious

At the flower shop after Newland’s first visit alone with Ellen, he orders the usual bouquet for May. A bunch of beautiful yellow roses catches his eyes, and he impulsively has them sent to Ellen. When he’s alone with Ellen in the remote cottage, Newland imagines his basic desires being fulfilled. “If the thing was to happen, it was to happen in this way, with the whole width of the room between them, and his eyes still fixed on the outer snow… Archer imagined her, almost heard her, stealing up behind him to throw her light arms about his neck. While he waited, soul and body throbbing with the miracle to come…” (Wharton, p. 134)

Relationship Story Signpost 3

When Newland and Ellen realize their feelings for each other are too strong to ignore, they decide to consummate their love.

Relationship Story Journey 3 from Subconscious to Conscious

While meeting secretly at the museum, Newland and Ellen give in to their desire. ELLEN: Shall I come to you once, and then go home?

ARCHER: Come to me once, then.

But the fact of May forces them to consider how they can be together without hurting the others in their lives.

Relationship Story Signpost 4

Ellen learns that May is pregnant; she considers the damage she could do to Newland’s marriage and leaves for Europe; Newland contemplates his life without Ellen and decides to follow her to Europe; later Newland considers seeing Ellen again after thirty years and decides to leave the past in the past.

Plot Progression Visualizations

Dynamic Act Schematics


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