Newland Archer represents the new land of America, with its focus on individual merit rather than inherited worth. His last name designates him a skilled marksman, albeit one who is aiming at a goal that may still be unclear, even to him. The novel traces his development from a young man who never questions the culture he is a part of, nor his place in it; to a man who longs to reject that culture and its standards but lacks the fortitude to do so; to a man who recognizes the value of some, but not all, of his society's values long after they have ceased to be useful. These changes are symbolized through his attitudes toward his fiancée and then wife, May Welland, and her cousin, Ellen Olenska.
Ellen Olenska had an unconventional upbringing abroad, after which she married a rich Polish count who treated her cruelly. She manages to leave the marriage and return to her family in New York, where she wants to start over, erasing all traces of her painful past. She innocently expects to find sanctuary and welcome there, and to be integrated into society, but she soon realizes she is not permitted to speak her true feelings and she is judged and snubbed by people who are kind only to her face. Her moral code rests on causing the least amount of pain to the people she loves, a lesson she tries to teach Newland Archer.
May Welland is a young woman who, in her bearing and habits, displays a perfect representation of her culture's feminine ideal. She is "nice," meaning she speaks what is pleasant and acceptable (but not necessarily true), has little experience in the world, and has a reputation of unquestioned purity. She is also loyal, good-natured, and devoted to Newland. May represents springtime and youth, and her surname Welland marks her out for life in a content, if cloistered, world of comfort and beauty. Because she projects innocence so strongly, Archer wrongly assumes she represents it faithfully; thus she becomes the embodiment of the ironic title. She knows her husband's intentions toward Ellen Olenska, her cousin, and she plays a sophisticated game to separate the two.
Mrs. Manson Mingott
Mrs. Manson Mingott married into high society and was widowed young. She inherited her husband's money and spent her youth living abroad, returning to New York in her later years to become one of the leading social authorities there, despite her unconventionality. She demonstrates the terrible double standard by which society judges who is worthy of its attention and who is not. She is influential, manipulative, and clever. Mrs. Manson Mingott is jovially critical of the rigid conformity displayed by her family and others; she knows New York is dull and considers everyone there to be in a rut. She builds an unconventional house in an unfashionable part of town, befriends people like Julius Beaufort, and speaks her mind in ways that other people do not. Yet she is accepted by polite society not only because she has money but because she married well.