Ellen, the Countess Olenska, fulfills Newland's longing for an emotional fantasy life. Her words, her unconventional taste in clothing and interior decorating, and her attitudes symbolize the exotic to traditional Newland. She causes him to question his narrow existence and brings out his protective instincts. Where May is ice, Ellen is fire. Ellen's élan and style would be at home in Europe, but seem unduly passionate and unorthodox in New York City.
Emotionally, she is the opposite of May Welland Archer. She shows compassion to Regina Beaufort, a fellow victim of social censure. Often she causes Newland to question why everyone must be and act exactly alike. Her tolerance for the mavericks of society reveals her benevolence, a trait unappreciated by New Yorkers. This makes it possible for May to use Ellen's softness to her advantage because she knows that Ellen will never run away with Newland when May reveals her possible pregnancy. Ellen's lack of concern for social rules and etiquette make her a target of malicious tongues, but a heroine of the dispossessed. Unlike the inane society wives, she has a mind of her own and uses it well and with concern for others. Unfortunately, this seals her fate because New York society has a difficult time understanding single women living apart from their husbands, and her lifestyle makes her family, as well as their social class, nervous.
Ellen falls in love with Newland, but she is a realist. She asks him, "Does no one want to know the truth here?" as she notices the narrow hypocrisy of his social world. Ellen knows that they cannot live a life outside of convention without hurting others. She reminds Newland that social, religious, and class standards must be upheld. A clandestine affair with him means no honor, no principles, and no happiness. As she explains, "I can't love you unless I give you up." Unselfish in doing exactly that, she realizes they are "chained to their destinies" and she leaves because an unconventional life cannot survive in 1870s New York.
The story of her life after her departure is revealed secondhand. The reader is left to consider that she never married again and she lived a single woman's life in Paris. She was presumably able to savor the life of art museums, parties long into the night, possible lovers, wine, and exquisite food. This broader, more passionate life would not have been hers in New York. She remains a mystery to Newland to the end, but a symbol of his imagined life of the soul.