Set in the 1870s, Edith Wharton examines the American elite culture on the East Coast. Newland Archer is a lawyer and heir to one of New York City's most prominent families. He is arraigned to be married to May Welland. Newland is pleased with the prospect, until he meets Countess Ellen Olenska, May's older cousin. Suddenly, Newland begins to doubt his arranged marriage and society's shallow rules as his attraction to Ellen increases.