The Age of Innocence is set in New York in the 1870s. It focuses on the lives of three individuals: Newland Archer, May Welland, and Ellen Olenska.
Archer is a prosperous young man from one of New York City's most privileged families. May is his beautiful and wealthy fiancé. They are part of New York’s elite, and their lives are governed by a strict set of social norms and expectations.
When the novel opens, Archer and May are happily in love and are about to announce their engagement. This is clouded by the arrival in town of May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska. The Countess grew up with May and Archer. However, she subsequently moved to Europe, married and then left a brutish Polish Count, and is suspected of having had an affair with her husband’s secretary. Archer worries that May’s family will be tarnished by Ellen’s reputation. He hopes that by immediately announcing the engagement, he will minimise any potential scandal.
Archer’s tactics seem to work. New York society accepts Ellen, and it seems the Wellands will suffer no societal ostracism as a consequence of her return. However, Archer’s efforts to be courteous to Ellen rather quickly evolve into something more complicated. He finds himself intrigued by her worldly experience and her casual approach to propriety, so different to May’s apparent naivety. Before long he’s fallen in love with Ellen, and finds May rather dull in comparison.
Archer’s initial response is to pressure May to bring forward their wedding date. He seems to think that locking himself into marriage will make his feelings for Ellen disappear. May is puzzled by Archer’s haste, and doubts that her parents will consent.
Archer declares his feelings to Ellen, who is horrified. While she admits that she has fallen for Archer, she would not dream of betraying her cousin. She insists that Archer must go ahead with his marriage, and that he must never again speak to her of love.
Just as Archer determines that he will defy society and break with May, whatever Ellen says, he learns that May’s family have consented to his urgings for an earlier wedding date. He dutifully marries May, resigning himself to a loveless marriage for the sake of form and family honour.
Archer continues to yearn for Ellen, and finds everything about his seemingly perfect life rather hollow. Some months later, their paths cross. He learns that Count Olenski is pressuring Ellen to return to him; Ellen’s family, horrified at the prospect of scandal, is trying to force her to go.
Archer again tries to persuade Ellen to run away with him, and she again refuses. Ellen is called back to New York City, to care for Grandmother Mingott, the matriarch of the family. Ellen’s grandmother retains a soft spot for her, and soon abandons the notion of forcing her granddaughter to return to an unhappy marriage, scandal or not.
Archer continues to pursue Ellen. His desperation makes him indiscreet. May becomes aware of his feelings, but propriety prevents her acknowledging them.
Ellen decides to return to Europe (although not to her husband). May and Archer throw a farewell party for her. Archer realises that most of the guests assume that he and Ellen are having an affair, and are rallying to May’s side. After the party, he resolves to tell May he is leaving her for Ellen. May however speaks first, informing him that she is pregnant. She reveals that she told Ellen of her pregnancy two weeks previously. Archer recognises that May has acted to drive Ellen away from her husband, and has succeeded. Archer resigns himself to staying with May and giving up Ellen.
Twenty-six years pass. May has recently died. Archer’s adult son, Dallas, is about to get married. He cajoles his father into joining him on a trip to Paris. Once there, Dallas casually mentions that he has arranged for them to visit Ellen. Archer is thrown into a state of emotional turmoil. He and Dallas arrive at Ellen’s apartment, but Archer finds he cannot go in. After gazing at Ellen’s balcony for some time, he turns away and walks back to his hotel.
by Kerri McDonald