The Old Maid Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Among the leading families in New York in the 1850’s, none is more correct or more highly regarded than the Ralstons. Their ancestors came to America not for religious freedom but for wealth. By the time Delia Lovell marries James Ralston, the Ralstons consider themselves the ruling class, and all their thoughts and actions are dictated by convention. They shun new ideas as they do strange people, and the sons and daughters of the numerous branches of the family marry only the sons and daughters of similar good families.

Delia is conventional and correct by birth as well as by marriage. Before her marriage, she was in love with Clement Spender, a penniless young painter; but since he would not give up his proposed trip to Rome and settle down to a disciplined life in New York, it was impossible for a Lovell to marry him. Against her will, Delia often imagines herself married to Clement, but the image is only momentary, for Delia has no place in her life for strong emotions or great passions. Her life with James and their two children is perfect. She is glad, too, that her cousin, Charlotte Lovell, is going to marry James’s cousin, Joe Ralston, for at one time she feared that Charlotte might never have a suitable proposal.

Charlotte is a strange girl who has become quite prudish in the years since she made her debut. At that time, she was lively and beautiful. Then a sudden illness caused her to go to Georgia for her health. Since her return, she has been colorless and drab, spending all of her time with the children of the poor. She sets up a little nursery where she cares for the children, and to this nursery comes a baby who was abandoned by a veiled woman whom no one could identify. Charlotte seems especially fond of the orphan child and favors her with better toys and clothes than those given the other children.

One day, Charlotte tells Delia that she will not marry Joe. She tells Delia that the orphaned baby in the nursery is her own, and that she went to Georgia to give birth to the child. Charlotte is ill with a racking cough that often causes a hemorrhage, but it is not her cough that causes her to worry. Joe insists that she give up her work with the children after they are married. Since her baby has no known parents, it will have to be placed in an orphanage, and Charlotte could not bear to think of her child in a charity home.

Joe, being a Ralston, would never marry Charlotte and accept her child if he knew the truth. Delia does not know what action to suggest until she learns that the baby’s father is Clement. Charlotte always loved Clement, who, when he returned from Rome and found Delia married, turned to Charlotte. When he goes back to Rome, Charlotte does not tell him of the baby,...

(The entire section is 1123 words.)