The Well Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The first two chapters of The Well establish the two plot lines of the novel. The novel’s central relationship is suggested in the first brief chapter, when Hester Harper answers her father’s question as to what she has brought him, “I’ve brought Katherine. . . I’ve brought Katherine, but she’s for me.” Casually, Hester has acquired a teenage orphan who is no longer needed at the store where she has been working. As the novel progresses, Katherine becomes the center of Hester’s life and the target of her unacknowledged sexual desires.

The second plot line, which affects the relationship between Hester and Katherine, is related in the second chapter and again midway through the novel. Driving back to the farm late at night, Katherine hits something or someone. To protect Katherine or, perhaps even more important, to protect the relationship between Katherine and herself from invasion by the outside world, Hester loads the mysterious creature into the car and drops him, or it, down the well.

Beginning with Hester’s first meeting with Katherine, the novel then traces their life together up to the point of the accident. Threatened with return to the orphanage, Katherine is delighted to be taken in by the crippled, kindly spinster, who lives alone with her father on a farm at some distance from the little village where Hester found Katherine. From the beginning, Katherine is helpful in the household. Yet instead of devoting her time to the business, which obviously will be left to her at her father’s death, Hester is so besotted with Katherine that she becomes part playmate, part governess. The woman and the girl become inseparable. After three years, Hester’s father dies, leaving her the property. Despite the advice of her father’s friend, Mr. Bird, Hester embarks on a spending spree and neglects the farm. At last, persuaded by Mr. Bird, she sells the farm, with its large house, and settles with Katherine in a small stone cottage at one corner of her property. There they are happy, indulging their...

(The entire section is 840 words.)

The Well Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A young Katherine is driving home with Hester Harper after a party. They hit something on the road, but Hester says it is not a kangaroo. They dispose of the dead thing in their well at home.

Six years earlier, Hester, who is respected in town for her farming knowledge and her business acumen, brings fifteen-year-old Katherine home to the wealthy Harper farm. The orphan girl, living with Mrs. Grossman, a local shop owner, had faced return to the convent orphanage, but Hester had stepped in before she was brought there.

After her own father’s death, Hester increasingly neglects the business of farming and concentrates on pleasurable domestic, creative, and expensive activities with Katherine. Hester ignores the sound advice of her father’s friend, Mr. Bird, and continues to spend money. Four years after bringing Katherine home, she has to send her farm workers away and rent the farm to the Bordens, a fecund young couple with a healthy family of boys. Hester retreats to a few isolated acres at the corner of the property and lives with Katherine in an old shepherd’s hut that has a disused well in the yard. She is still a relatively wealthy woman.

Hester is infatuated with Katherine. Their days are filled with music and dancing, inventing stories, dressing up in their new clothes, intricate sewing, and cooking increasingly elaborate meals. The two often picnic on the edge of the well and hear its murmurs and sighs, brought on by the wind. When the two women do not feel like washing up, they throw their dirty dishes into the well. They also fantasize about a princess or a prince and a troll living in the well.

Katherine regularly writes to her friend Joanna, whom she knows from the orphanage. Joanna writes that she has served her time in remand and is now free, leading Katherine to yearn more and more for her friend. Hester sees Joanna as an intruder in the idyllic world she and Katherine have created. She feels that Joanna may threaten her life with Katherine and entice her to leave. However, despite her misgivings, she allows Katherine to have Joanna visit for a week.

Mr. Bird makes an occasional visit to the farm. On one visit, he tells Hester that the Bordens want to buy the farm. He advises Hester that she would be wise to do so, and she eventually agrees, keeping a large amount of cash on the isolated property. Hester plans to take Katherine on a trip to Europe, just like the trip the young Hester took with her German governess, Hilde Herzfeld. First, however, Joanna is coming for a visit. Katherine begins to learn to drive so that she and Joanna will be able to go into...

(The entire section is 1078 words.)

The Well Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Hester Harper has a distinct limp. She leads an isolated existence on the farm of her father, who when the story opens is an old man. He soon dies. Perhaps to relieve her isolation and loneliness, possibly for more arcane reasons, such as a suppressed lesbianism, she brings an orphan, Katherine, into her father’s house. Jolley often wrote about people who have lost their mothers, as she had lost hers.

When Hester’s father dies, she and Katherine continue to live together in his house. They have a compatible relationship, but it is somewhat compromised by a fantastic event. The two women have gone to a dance and are on their way home following it. Hester is driving, and in the darkness she runs down something in the road, presumably a man. The two women, unnerved by what has happened, dump the limp object Hester has run down into a well that is no longer used as a source of water. It becomes a symbol of suppressed sexuality.

Jolley depicts with incredible detail and psychological accuracy the panic, verging on hysteria, the two women experience after this traumatic occurrence. After dropping the object into the well, Hester then concludes that they have hit a man who has stolen money from her. She thereupon orders Katherine to descend into the well to retrieve her missing money.

Katherine refuses to go down into the well. She tells Hester that the man they have disposed of is still alive. In fact, Katherine has spoken with him, and, in a bizarre twist, he has proposed marriage to her. As in much of Jolley’s writing, reality gives way to fantastic events well outside the normal bounds of reality, but Jolley handles this departure from normality deftly, so that in crossing the line, she does not lose her readers.