Sophy and Sam Hobson are certainly sympathetic characters, but Randolph is an interesting puzzle, making the story harder to understand. The story starts with a frame that includes the third person narrator at an outdoor concert where Sophy is first seen from behind: "To the eyes of a man viewing it from behind, ...." Expectation is raised of a pampered upper class woman who is revealed to be a commoner elevated by marriage and having inferior accomplishments:
[S]he was not so handsome ... [as] supposed, ... She was generally believed to be a woman with a story ... 'Has, dear mother--not have!' exclaimed the public-school boy, with an impatient fastidiousness that was almost harsh.
The narrator discourages sympathy with Randolph by saying: "[she] did not resent his making [the correction], or retaliate, as she might well have done, by bidding him to wipe that crumby mouth of his, ...." This grammar correcting incident leads to a neat technique for introducing the flashback to Sophy's backstory:
[S]he fell into reverie, of a somewhat sad kind to all appearance. It might have been assumed that she was wondering if she had done wisely in shaping her life as she had shaped it ....
Her story involves her life in "a remote nook in North Wessex, forty miles from London," where she was a housemaid to the village vicar and knew Sam Hobson, who loved her. The vicar's wife died, leaving him sad, and he came to rely upon Sophy's kindly presence. About the time Sam proposes marriage, which is then called off, Sophy falls down stairs at the vicar's home resulting in a permanent lameness in her foot. Realizing his feelings for her, the vicar too proposes marriage to Sophy.
Sophy ultimately chooses to accept the vicar. To her sorrow, the vicar gives up his home and takes a parish in a nook in London to ease the social burden of marrying a village girl who is beneath him and who speaks an inferior dialect of English.
We resume the present day story when we find that she is a widow. The narrator mildly chastises the vicar for taking Sophy out of her beloved village solely for the sake of social acceptance by saying: "if all the dead [the cemetery] contained had stood erect and alive, not one would have known [the vicar] or recognized his name." We learn how Randolph's natural sympathies dwindle into elitism and further exclude Sophy.
While Sophy wastes away with nothing to do but "weaving and coiling the nut-brown hair" because of strictly limited physical activity, she chances to see Sam Hobson in the road on his way to market. Soon Sophy takes the morning air with Sam. Sam asks her to marry him. Now begin the long cruel years of the son's vetoes, first in a tear-strewn temper tantrum bewailing his disgrace before the aristocrats he is in school with if she marries someone as lowly as Sam. Later come more "manly" vetoes like when he makes Sophy swear to never marry Sam:
taking her before a little cross and altar ... bade her kneel, and swear that she would not wed Samuel .... 'I owe this to my father!' he said.
His vetoes continue till she is reduced to murmuring to herself, "Why mayn't I say to Sam that I'll marry him? Why mayn't I?" Then, four years later, she dies, ending her misery and plunging Sam into mourning. Yet she is still guarded by Randolph as though by a prison sentinel as he gives a look as "black as a cloud at [Sam] the shop keeper standing there."