Newland Archer A young New York lawyer who marries May Welland. Throughout the novel he struggles between integrity and individual freedom, eventually choosing a life and marriage of narrow conventions. He falls in love with the Countess Ellen Olenska, only to sacrifice that passion for a life of duty.
May Welland Archer A young socialite, who marries Newland and settles down to a totally conventional life, following the lead of her mother in all areas and representing the societal attitudes of the wealthy social class and time period.
Countess Ellen Olenska A granddaughter of Catherine Mingott and a cousin to May, she returns to New York society from a life in Europe, married to a dissolute but wealthy count. Causing a stir in New York society by her unconventionality, she symbolizes a life of freedom from social restraints.
Mrs. Manson (Catherine) Mingott Grandmother to Ellen, Catherine Spicer Mingott is a wealthy widow equally at home in Europe and America. Although unconventional in some of her behavior and attitudes, and outrageously obese, she meticulously lives beyond reproach in her personal life.
Henry and Louisa van der Luyden Gruesomely preserved symbols of old wealthy families that trace their ancestry to pre-Revolutionary America, and arbiters of social taste, the van der Luydens cause New York society to accept the Countess as long as she behaves. They have a country estate, Skuytercliff, and a house in the city where only a select few are invited. They are not opposed when they make their opinions known.
Medora Manson Ellen's aunt, and guardian after Ellen's parents die. She unconventionally raised Ellen in Europe and America. Her eccentric behavior, multiple marriages, financial woes, and travel are tolerated by New York society because she was born into the wealthy class, and, despite her unusual behavior, she is one of "theirs."
Mrs. Archer and Janey Archer Newland's mother and old-maid sister, respectively, who live together and are more and more identical as time goes by. They are devoted to Newland and love to gossip. Mrs. Archer is strongly opinionated, especially about social behavior, and Janey is a sheltered romantic; both viewpoints are indulged by their dinners with Sillerton Jackson, as they revel in his gossip about the wealthy.
Lawrence Lefferts and Sillerton Jackson Two men who function as a Greek chorus, commenting on both good taste and the family histories of New Yorkers in the story. Lefferts is an outrageous womanizer, but New York forgives him because he is male and is from old wealth. Jackson is an oldmaidish gossiper who never misses a chance to pass on scandal and connect it to his 50-year backlog of New York families' histories.
Julius and Regina Beaufort A couple whose marriage Old New York society condones because she is from an old wealthy family. His background of financial irregularities and his many adulterous relationships are ignored because he is rich and male. His ostentacious lifestyle and scandalous behavior add a bit of spice to the gossipers, and he pursues Ellen Olenska for much of the story.
Ned Winsett Newland's friend and a failed journalist and critic, Winsett is a symbol of what happens when one leaves the straight-and-narrow, socially conventional life.