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Newland Archer, a young man who fits perfectly into his small social group and plans to marry a respectable girl and live a respectable life, is the protagonist of the novel. He meets Ellen Olenska and undergoes a change of heart in which he realizes New York society is stifling him. Throughout most of the novel, he struggles with his conflicting desires. In the end, he is restored to society and gives up his passions, but he is content with this choice.
The strict norms and conventions of wealthy New York society are restrictive forces that act as antagonists, creating conflict for Newland Archer as well as the other free spirits -- namely, Ellen Olenska, Julius Beaufort, Medora Manson, and Mrs. Struthers. At times, various characters embody the spirit of New York society, including May, Lawrence Lefferts, Sillerton Jackson, Sophy, Janey, Mrs. Archer, and even Mrs. Manson Mingott. They impose the rigid rules of society on the other characters, making them miserable.
There are several climactic moments in the novel, including the moment Newland Archer realizes he loves the Countess Olenska and wants to marry her instead of marrying May Welland, his fiancée, and the moment he decides to leave his wife and consummate his affair with Ellen.
The final climactic moment, however, occurs when Newland realizes he cannot do as he longs to. May has told Ellen about her pregnancy and Ellen will no longer carry on the relationship with Newland, nor will she even give him one night. He has been fooling himself into thinking her hesitation can be conquered. In this moment at the end of the novel, Newland must accept the fact that obligations of society and family are too strong; he has been conquered.
Order is restored and after some time passes, Newland Archer gains contentment with his place in society. He still thinks of Ellen with passion and fondness, but she is a dream that will never happen. He raises a family with May and even comes to love her. He accepts the fact that certain passions will never be his, and in the end, prefers to keep it this way.