A perfect product of the social code, May Welland Archer begins the novel in ignorance and ends it in wisdom. When she first appears, she is the personification of innocence. She marries Newland and her slim intellectual abilities never vary, but her wisdom in manipulating Newland grows immensely. Wharton exercises considerable talent in showing May through the eyes of Newland Archer, whose vision of her is frozen in time like her photograph on his desk. He sees too late that she outmaneuvers him at every turn and that she knows of his unhappiness.
She is her mother's daughter. In Florida, her mother voices narrow and snobbish attitudes that later parallel May's own comments about people she meets on her honeymoon. Always worrying about what her mother will think, May manages Newland's life; she arranges every minute of his schedule at Newport, becoming the image of her mother after two years of marriage. Newland is kept on a short leash and it is a wonder that he is able to get away to meet Ellen.
Her strategic actions throughout the novel show that she has learned well at her mother's side. She sends Newland a letter from Florida reminding him of her kindness just as he is ready to fall for Ellen's charms. Her telegram in Chapter 18 anticipates his temptation and closes the door on it. She is firm about her position as his wife, and she uses the ruse of pregnancy to finally vanquish Ellen forever. In a society where women have little power, they use what they can. Her suggestion that they give a "last dinner" for Ellen shows how she has grown in wisdom and the determination to hold on to what she has. She knows her husband, and even her deathbed confession to Dallas demonstrates her knowledge of Newland's unhappiness but her total understanding of duty and their shared values.
She cannot fulfill Newland's desires for an emotional life or intellectual stimulation, but with true Wharton irony she does symbolize the perfect wife and marriage partner for his social class and time. Like other women, she keeps Newland on the straight and narrow, pronouncing any deviation from the norm to be "vulgar" and unthinkable. May Welland is exactly what she has been trained to be: the perfect helpmate of civilized society in wealthy 1870s New York.