In New York City during the 1870s, the well-mannered attorney Newland Archer is making preparations to wedding the upstanding young lady May Welland. After a disastrous marriage to a dissolute Polish Count, May’s cousin, the American heiress Countess Ellen Olenska, has returned to New York. May is May’s best friend. She is initially shunned by society, and nasty rumors are spread about her, but as May’s family bravely stands by the countess, she is eventually embraced by the very finest of New York’s ancient families. Initially, she is shunned by society, and vicious accusations are propagated about her.
However, with Archer’s assistance, the countess is able to make a comeback at an event that is being thrown by the rich Van der Luydens. Initially, the countess is ignored by guests at a social gathering that was organized by her family. There, she makes the acquaintance of one of the established bankers in New York, Julius Beaufort, who is known for engaging in dangerous affairs and engaging in practices that are associated with being dissipated. He starts making obvious advances toward the countess, both in public and private settings. Archer makes a premature announcement of his engagement to May, but as he gets to know the countess, he begins to appreciate her unconventional views on New York society. At the same time, he becomes increasingly disillusioned with his new fiancée May and her lack of innocence, as well as her lack of personal opinion and sense of self.