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When the illicit affair of his grandson Dallas makes headlines in the New York newspapers, lawyer Newland Archer relates to him the story of his own romantic past: At his 1875 engagement party, Newland is re-introduced to Ellen, a childhood friend and the cousin of his fiancée, May Welland. Because she has left her husband in Paris, Ellen, whose married title is Countess Olenska, is considered a social liability but is treated with respect and civility by Newland and his conservative family. When the liberal-minded Ellen, who has moved into a house in Greenwich Village, asks Newland to undertake divorce proceedings on her behalf, however, Newland convinces her that a divorce would ruin her reputation and would cause her family great grief. Although anxious to be free, Ellen listens to Newland's advice and drops her divorce action. However, after Newland sees how attentive Julius Beaufort, a notorious adulterer, is to Ellen, he changes his mind and recommends to her that she renew her divorce plans. Ellen resists Newland's suggestion, convinced that the tranquility of her family, in particular her grandmother, is more important than her own romantic happiness. Filled with doubt about his own upcoming marriage, Newland then visits May, who has been forced by her parents into a year-long engagement, in Florida. Although tempted to break with May, Newland instead reassures her about his feelings and returns to New York. At the urging of his mother, who senses his anxiety about Ellen, Newland soon leaves for a visit with family friends in the country. When Newland and Ellen run into each other there, they confess their mutual love but are surprised by the unexpected arrival of May and her parents, who have suddenly decided on a quick wedding. In spite of themselves, Newland and Ellen continue to see each other after the wedding and make plans to take the train together for a weekend in Washington, D.C. After Ellen leaves him waiting at the train station, Newland discovers that she has booked passage on a Europe-bound ship. Overwhelmed by Ellen's unexplained departure, Newland is about to ask May for a divorce when she reveals that she is pregnant and had told Ellen about her condition the previous day. Sobered by his approaching fatherhood, Newland embraces May and accepts the loss of Ellen. Back in the present, Newland, now a widower, concludes his story and is shocked when Dallas tells him that Ellen is waiting for him in a New York hotel. Newland, however, refuses to see her, wishing instead to remember their love "as it was."