Is Newland Archer a Tragic Hero whose romantic yearnings was cruelly stiffled by a corrupt society, or a selfish cold hypocrite who wasted Ellen's time by promising her half-hearted romance and insisting that she make the first moves, and whose divided nature prevents him from being a good husband. The waters are further muddied regarding her character by her willingness to end the engagement, but holds on with a death grip once married, though this is largely justified given the nature of how their society views a broken engagement versus a divorce, especially regarding the women involved.
Is May Welland a Manipulative Bitch who sugarcoats and lies to herself about the kind of person she is or a dutiful wife who is also a Stealth Mentor, saving Newland from dishonoring himself, his family and enables him to be the good father and social patrician that was his only real talent.
Ellen Olenska is commonly considered the best character in the story.
Thanks to Scorsese's film adaptation, Newland Archer himself. Before his 1993 film adaptation, Newland was regarded by critics like Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom to be a weak character and a Satellite Character to Ellen Olenska and May. Thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis' great performance, Newland came to be seen as a more tragic, sympathetic and complex character.
Magnificent Bastard: Whether you agree with her or not, May Welland's incredible manipulation of Newland is quite impressive. Scorsese admits that even he ended up rooting for her when he came to that scene, noting that he admired her intelligence.
What Do You Mean, It's Not Symbolic?: Both the book and film are rife with examples. The "perfect" May is blonde and blue-eyed, the "bad girl" Ellen is dark-haired, and is often described as wearing pink or red—but is later seen in dull colors as she and Archer separate. Archer sends May white lilies, but Ellen gets yellow (more colorful) roses (more romantic) Most notably, on the night before Archer intends to consummate his affair with Ellen, he and May attend the opera—and May wears her wedding dress. The symbolism is cranked Up to Eleven when the train of the dress is caught in the carriage wheel and left torn and muddy. Meanwhile, the film opens with multiple shots of blooming flowers concealed behind a black piece of lace.
The Woobie: Newland Archer, spent his entire life lamenting the fact that he never truly followed his heart's desire and be with the woman he truly loved.