I had started reading this long before Martin Scorsese was honored with a Golden Globe; I'd seen his film version of Edith Wharton's book long ago, when it was in theaters. So my reading was colored by the images of Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder as the main characters.
Reading this through modern eyes, one might sympathize completely with Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska, the book's lovers. The restrictive society of upper-class old New York of the 1870s keeps them from realizing their love for one another. But reading it as a conservative, one might take the view that their self-control and self-denial preserves virtues not always held in such high esteem today: loyalty, fidelity, personal integrity, commitment.
Actually, May Welland Archer, Newland's wife, is probably the most underestimated character in the book. The reader even underestimates her, like her husband, until the final pages. More than 20 years after the main action of the book, Newland finds himself in Paris with his son; Paris ---, where his lost love Ellen has been living all these years. Newland's son reveals what May knew for so many years:
"Yes: the day before she died. It was when she sent for me alone --- you remember? She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you'd given up the thing you most wanted."
The disclosure touches something deep in Newland. "It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that, after all, some one had guessed and pitied ... And that it should have been his wife moved him indescribably."
A very moving story of romantic love sacrificed for a different kind of love and devotion to family, things that don't seem to be valued much in the society of early 21st century America.