Newland Archer: The protagonist, from whose point of view much of the story is told. Newland Archer is a wealthy lawyer from a respected New York society family. He marries the conventional society beauty, May Welland, though he is in love with her unconventional cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who shows him a world beyond the stifling mores of fashionable society. Despite his contempt for many of the conventional values, he remains a faithful husband to May and a dutiful father to their children. By the novel’s end, he also becomes a respected civic figure and philanthropist.
May Welland: The beautiful young society girl from the influential Mingott family who marries Archer. May is innocent in the sense that she is conventional, unimaginative, and does not think for herself, wanting only to conform to society’s and her family’s expectations. Archer comes to see her embodying everything he finds restrictive and stifling in New York society. However, she is not as unaware as he assumes: she picks up on his feelings for Ellen and wins victory over her rival with the help of calculated manipulation. She remains loyal to Archer even though she suspects him of having an affair with Ellen.
Countess Ellen Olenska: May’s cousin and Mrs Manson Mingott’s grand-daughter. Ellen is brought up in Europe, where she marries a philandering Polish aristocrat, Count Olenski. She leaves her unhappy marriage and returns to New York. Though she wants to be accepted by New York society, her behavior is thought too unconventional. She has a passionate nature and artistic and intellectual interests. She and Archer fall in love but do not act on their feelings out of respect for his marriage and society’s values. Realizing that she will never fit into New York society, she returns to Europe to live with her aunt Medora.
Mrs Manson Mingott: The enormously fat matriarch of the Mingott family and grandmother to May and Ellen. Mrs Mingott is unconventional, independent-minded and a natural ally of Archer and Ellen, though her impeccably respectable life and indomitable will have sustained her great influence in New York society. Against her family’s wishes, Mrs Mingott supports Ellen financially when she returns to Europe.
Henry and Louisa van der Luyden: Descendants of Dutch aristocracy, the van der Luydens are the acknowledged heads of New York society; everyone defers to them. They are of a retiring nature and do not go out much, but they do hold dinners at their mansion and to be invited is to be accepted in society as a whole.
Julius Beaufort: An English banker who left his homeland amid rumors of shady business dealings. He is accepted in society because he has married into a respectable ‘old money’ family, he hosts lavish balls in his private ballroom, and he manages to keep his past business improprieties at a low profile. But when his illicit deals become the subject of public gossip, he and his wife Regina are mercilessly cut off from society. He and Ellen form a bond based on their common cultural and intellectual experiences, which arouses Archer’s jealousy.
Medora Manson: Ellen’s aunt, who brought her up after the death of her parents. Eccentric and bohemian in nature, Medora has been widowed several times and has lost whatever money she had. Because of her relationship to the Mingotts, she is tolerated – but only just – by society.
Mrs Archer: Newland Archer’s mother. Socially shy and conventional, Mrs Archer is sometimes shocked by her son’s views. However, she loves to know what is going on in society and relies on people like Sillerton Jackson to keep her informed.
Janey Archer: Newland Archer’s sister. She is a younger version of her mother.
Lawrence Lefferts: Considered the foremost authority on correct ‘form’, proper morals and good taste in New York. Lefferts is a gossip and has numerous extra-marital affairs, which he conceals from his wife with lies. Rumors arise that he attempted an affair with Ellen but was rejected.
Sillerton Jackson: Considered the foremost authority on the families that make up New York society. He is also said to know about all the society scandals and mysteries over the last fifty years. He is an old friend of the Archer family.
Mrs Lemuel Struthers: Mrs Struthers’s family made its fortune in shoe polish, and her close association with trade means that she is not acceptable in New York society. She is thought common and her Sunday evening parties are considered vulgar, though Ellen is one of the first members of society to go to them. However, by the end of the novel, society has changed and her parties are popular for their artistic and other amusements.
Ned Winsett: A journalist and friend of Newland Archer’s. Ned is a man of literary talents who became a journalist because he could not make money from his true calling. He has bohemian and intellectual tastes and Archer values his conversation and company because he stands, to a large extent, outside conventional society. He has, however, paid a price, in that he is poor and somewhat embittered.
Monsieur Riviere: Monsieur Riviere is a French tutor whom Archer meets in London while on his honeymoon with May. Archer enjoys the conversation of the cultured Monsieur Riviere. Later, Riviere shows up in New York, telling Newland that he was sent by Ellen’s husband to try to convince her to return to Poland. It is an odd twist of fate, but Newland is most interested to know if Riviere is the secretary with whom Ellen was reported to have run away. The answer is never made clear.
Dallas Archer: Newland Archer’s son. Artistic and spontaneous, Dallas stands in contrast to his restrained and self-denying father.