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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
Newland and May marry and he temporarily abandons his love for Ellen. Numbly, he goes through the motions as respectable citizen and husband. One and a half years later, Newland and May are at Newport Beach, Rhode Island where their families spend every summer. Newland sees Ellen's Aunt Medora there and speaks to her briefly. Then he and May go to visit old Mrs. Manson Mingott and she tells them Ellen is there. She sends Newland outside to find her. He sees her at the water's edge but doesn't go down to her. Seeing her has worked his interest up again. He decides to drive out the next day to the home of the people with whom Ellen and her aunt Medora are staying. He knows she won't be there and just wants to see where she's been living. He speaks to one of the daughters of the house who tells him Ellen has already left Newport for Boston. He finds out the name of her hotel and heads for Boston under the guise of having business there.
Once there, Newland finds Ellen fairly easily and convinces her to come with him on a steamboat ride. She tells him her husband's secretary has come to convince her on her husband's behalf to return to him. Her husband has promised to give her back all of her money if she does so. She has been living rather poorly since she left him. She tells Newland she will not return and she agrees to go with him for a boat ride. On board, they discuss their situation and their love for one another. She tells him again that there is no way they can be together. She has stayed in the United States so she can be somewhat near him, but she will never conduct an affair with him or let him leave May. He tells her he has been miserable in his marriage and she urges him to be good to May since that is the whole reason for their great sacrifice.
Newland returns to New York from Boston and is surprised to run into Monsieur Riviere. He is even more surprised to find out that he is the secretary he has heard so much about. Monsieur Riviere has come as an emissary from the Count to convince Ellen to return to the marriage. He has changed his mind upon seeing her, realizing she is an American and cannot possibly live the kind of life the Count wants her to live. He tells Newland that he too should make sure Ellen doesn't return to her husband and that he should try to convince Ellen's family to stop pushing her to do so. Newland realizes that he has been excluded from family discussions about Ellen. He realizes that even May hasn't trusted him.
At Thanksgiving dinner, the topic of discussion is the imminent failure of Beaufort's banking house as a result of illegal Wall Street speculations. Mr. Sillerton Jackson tells Newland that Ellen will be in big financial trouble if Beaufort fails because her aunt, Medora Mingott, had invested the whole of her small fortune with Beaufort. Since Ellen's grandmother has cut her off financially, Ellen will now have to support both herself and her aunt on the small income her husband grants her. At the dinner, Newland notices that May has turned against Ellen rather vehemently. Soon afterwards, news hits the stands that Beaufort has failed after all. Old Mrs. Manson Mingott has a small stroke as a result of a visit from Mrs. Beaufort, who came by to ask her to support her and her husband. In this society, financial chicanery is never forgiven and people who engage in it are never bailed out.
Newland has recently told May that he plans a trip to Washington D.C., where Ellen Olenska has taken up residence. When May hears that her grandmother is calling Ellen to come to her in her illness, she tells Newland it is too bad he will miss seeing Ellen. Once again, it seems she suspects Newland's attraction to Ellen. However, when the Wellands are trying to figure out who will go to pick Ellen up at the train station, Newland volunteers. He tells the skeptical May his trip to Washington has been postponed at the law office.
Newland is excited to be seeing Ellen again. He has decided they must do something to be together. On the long ride home from the train station, he tells her they must be together. Ellen tells him she has lived in a world where people live outside the rules of society and she has found it sordid and mean. She will not do it. Newland is so upset that he gets out of the carriage and sends it on with Ellen. That evening with May, Newland is shocked at himself when he finds himself wishing May were dead. The next day, he visits old Mrs. Mingott and hears that Ellen will be living with her now and that she has reinstated Ellen's financial allowance. Newland and Ellen meet at the New York museum and discuss their situation again. They decide finally that they will be together once and then Ellen will go away forever. When he gets home, May is not there. She arrives late, saying she talked to Ellen that day and has resolved to be kind to her again. She asks Newland to kiss her and he notices she has tears in her eyes.
The van der Luydens' have a dinner party, after which they take their guests to the opera. It is Faust, the same opera played on the night of Newland and May's engagement. Newland notices May is wearing her made over wedding dress, a custom of the women of her class. He decides to confess all to May that evening, unable to bring himself to begin a life of lies. At home, he begins to tell her, but she puts him off. She tells him Ellen is leaving for Europe, where she will live. Weeks later, May gives a formal farewell dinner for Ellen. Newland has been going through the motions of his life in a daze. He has planned to follow along to see what happens and then make his move. He intends to leave May and go to Europe to live with Ellen. At the dinner party, he has little chance to talk to Ellen. She leaves without his having a chance to speak to her privately. After the party, Newland again tries to speak to May. This time, she tells him she's pregnant. When he questions her, she says she only found out for sure on that very day, but that she had told Ellen weeks ago when they had their talk (the same day Newland and Ellen met in the Museum). Newland realizes that Ellen is lost to him forever, that she would never consummate their affair or allow him to leave May now.
The last chapter takes place thirty years later. Newland Archer is in his library thinking of his life. He thinks of his three children, his life with May, and his private life of the mind that has been ruled by idealized thoughts of Ellen. He has become an active citizen, working on city reform projects and even serving in Congress one term. May died two years ago and he mourned her death sincerely. He is happy with the choice he made and now thinks of Ellen as an impossible dream.
His son, Dallas calls him on the telephone. Dallas is an architect. His firm wants him to visit some formal gardens in Paris and he wants Newland to come with him. He will be marrying Fanny Beaufort, the daughter of Julius Beaufort and a woman who had been his mistress while his wife was alive. Newland agrees to the trip. When they arrive in France, Newland is overcome with thoughts of Ellen. He is surprised when his son announces that he has spoken to Ellen and has gotten them an invitation to her house that evening. Dallas tells Newland that he knows about Ellen. He says that when his mother was on her deathbed, she had told him that she was sure her children would be in good hands with their father because once she had asked him to give up what he wanted most of all for her and he had. Newland is taken aback by May's perception and her openness with her son. He tells Dallas that May never asked him.
That evening he and his son walk to Ellen's house. When they arrive, Newland can't bring himself to go inside. He tells him son to go on without him and to tell Ellen he is old-fashioned. He sits outside looking at the house and then goes back to his hotel alone, content with the life he has made for himself.