Newland Archer is a study in intellectual conflict, but under the surface little contradiction actually exists, as his wife knows well. He first appears at the opera, where he is so steeped in the social graces that even his hair is carefully parted by "two silver-backed brushes with his monogram in blue enamel," and he never appears in public without a flower in his buttonhole. He contemplates his perfect wife, May, and seems quite at ease as her parents buy his house and even the brougham he drives. So correct is he that when he impulsively sends yellow roses to Ellen, he is conscience stricken and must tell his future wife. Even his meticulous attention to the list of his duties before his own wedding is typical of Newland's conformity. In a key scene when he fails to call to Ellen at the Newport shore, he once again shows that actually doing the unconventional is beyond the bounds of possibility for him. Countess Ellen Olenska represents a dream of the unconventional, more passionate life for which he will never sacrifice everything. He sometimes feels he is being smothered in his social position, but he will only dream about a life outside the tight parameters of his class and duty. May uses her knowledge of his commitment to the social values of his class to keep him faithful. Even 26 years after his wedding, he realizes that his conventional life has the comforting feeling of the place where he belongs. He is a relic in the twentieth century, where increased personal freedom is changing life forever. The sexual double standard for men and women is an intellectual battleground in his mind. In several scenes, he debates whether this standard is valid, especially when he meets and desires Ellen. In the long run, however, he overlooks Lefferts' affairs because it is the way of his world. He talks convincingly about honor and integrity, but selfishly he wants both his wife and Ellen, and briefly he contemplates a hole-in-the-corner affair, not caring on an emotional level about the price Ellen will pay.
Newland also longs for a life of passion, intellectual stimulation, and freedom, represented by both Ellen Olenska and Ned Winsett. He is unfulfilled by his "gentlemanly pursuit" of law and feels that he wants the sophisticated and passionate Ellen. But in the end he remains true to his station in life and that four-letter word, "duty." Wharton uses his character to show the ironies of 1870s society as well as the extremes in social thought represented by his relationships with Countess Ellen Olenska and May Welland Archer.