During one semester, Thomas Wilkins, a middle-aged professor of English literature, for the first time finds his neatly ordered existence threatened by his overwhelming passion for a student, Fay Lester. From the time that he was offered his first teaching job—which he accepted immediately, although it meant giving up his long-planned first trip to Europe—his life has been on a steady course, which he has no desire to derail. Thomas and his wife, Mildred, live a contented, temperate life, with their two sons, Neil and Peter. The only disturbance in their lives comes from the stormy adolescent moods of Neil, their older son. Now, however, Thomas is enthralled by the sensual Fay, who arrived at his college preceded by stories of having ruined the academic career of a young professor at the last college she attended. Although disinterested in her studies, Fay is intelligent, or at least clever. During a meeting in Thomas’s office to discuss her spotty academic performance, she manages to hold her own in the discussion, arguing that contrary to Thomas’s assertion that all the seventeenth century poets he teaches wrote from a religious perspective, John Donne’s poetry celebrated earthly love, not spiritual love.
Thomas is bewildered and distressed by his growing obsession with Fay. He has been attracted to students before occasionally, but not to the point of obsessing over the girl and rearranging his schedule so as to see her as often as possible. The only remotely similar experience in his life was worshiping an extravagantly beautiful and unobtainable cheerleader at his high school.
When Thomas’s brother and his family visit for Thanksgiving, the holiday traditions and family activities soothe Thomas’s passions, and he believes he has exorcised Fay from his fantasies. He is thrown off balance, however, by his intense reaction when she does not show up...
(The entire section is 771 words.)