The main character in Dark Places of the Heart is Nellie Cook, who grew up in the working-class Cotter family in England’s industrial north. A bohemian rebel since youth, in middle age Nellie is a shallow, loquacious, restless tyrant with a need to dominate the people in her life. Her particular obsession is her brother, Tom, who returns home after a hopeless affair with a married woman who has died of cancer. Nellie analyzes Tom’s affair relentlessly, continually trying to prevent him from taking up with any other woman. Tom seduces Nellie’s friends one after another.
Nellie is married to George Cook, a labor negotiator who is on the Continent attending labor congresses. Although she works for a socialist newspaper, she has no real grasp of politics or social conditions; her main interest is controlling the unfortunate women she collects in her rambling house in a scruffy London suburb. In this novel the reader sees a culmination of Stead’s technique of exposing each character in his or her own words: Nellie constantly describes herself in myths of origin about her family and her supreme importance in Tom’s life, while Tom charms everyone he meets with stories of his colorful adventures. Sister and brother both exert a mesmerizing power of speech.
Some of the scenes of the novel take place in Bridgehead, where Nellie and Tom visit their ailing mother, their embittered sister, Peggy, and their ancient Uncle Simon, who is an...
(The entire section is 450 words.)