Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1290
Rufus Barnes is a farmer and tradesman living near Segookit, Maine. He and his wife, Hannah, are good Quakers. When Hannah’s sister, Phoebe Kimber, living in Trenton, New Jersey, loses her husband, she asks Rufus to come to New Jersey to help settle her husband’s affairs. Rufus, finding himself the executor of a rather large estate, does a thorough and competent job. In gratitude for his help and in hopes that he will move his family close to her, Phoebe offers Rufus one of her properties, an old, run-down, but elegant house in Dukla, Pennsylvania, just across the Delaware River from Trenton. Rufus is willing to restore the house and try to sell it, but Phoebe is eager to give the house to him. At last, Rufus agrees to take the house and move his family to Dukla. He and his wife restore the house with great taste and beauty.
Rufus and Hannah become somewhat more worldly in Dukla. Rufus goes into business, dealing in real estate, but he applies his Quaker principles to his business and helps the poor farmers make their land yield more profit so that he will not have to foreclose. Respected and prosperous, he and his wife still follow their faith and teach it carefully to their two children, Cynthia and Solon.
Solon Barnes cuts his leg with an ax. An incompetent doctor bungles the treatment, and for a time, they all fear that the boy might die. His mother prays devoutly, however, and Solon recovers, an event that keeps the family strictly loyal to their faith.
Sent to school with their cousins, Laura and Rhoda (Phoebe’s children), Cynthia and Solon begin to acquire more polish and knowledge of the world. At school, Solon meets Benecia Wallin, the daughter of a wealthy Quaker. Cynthia, Laura, Rhoda, and Benecia are all sent to a Quaker finishing school at Oakwold, but Solon chooses to remain at home and help his father in the real estate business.
Justus Wallin, Benecia’s father, is impressed by the Barnes family. He admires the way Rufus and Solon conduct their business; he is impressed with Hannah’s faith and her behavior at Quaker meetings. The families become friendly, and Justus asks Rufus and Solon to become the agents for his extensive holdings. Solon and Benecia fall in love. Justus finds a job for Solon in his Philadelphia bank and, although Solon starts at the bottom, it is clear that he has both the talent and the influence to rise quickly to the top. Solon and Benecia are married, to the delight of both families, in a Quaker ceremony.
The years pass. Solon and Benecia are happy and successful. Solon does well at the bank in Philadelphia; Benecia is a quiet, principled, and religious woman. After the death of Solon’s parents, Solon and Benecia move into the house in Dukla. Although Solon occasionally experiences metaphysical doubts, he lives in complete adherence to the moral principles of the Quakers. He becomes a bulwark of the community, an honest and forthright man who does not approve of smoking, drinking, art, music, literature, or dancing. He and Benecia bring up their five children in accordance with these strict Quaker principles.
Each of the children reacts differently to this upbringing. The oldest daughter, Isobel, unattractive and unpopular in school, finds it difficult to make friends. She begins to read books and decides, against the ideas implanted by her parents, that she wants to avoid the Quaker finishing school and go to college. Solon manages to compromise and sends her to Llewellyn College for Women, a Quaker institution, where she remains to do postgraduate work. Orville, the older son, inherits Solon’s severity, although not his kindness. Orville becomes interested in business at an early age, although his materialism is not tempered by any principle deeper than respectability. He marries a wealthy socialite and goes into her father’s pottery business in Trenton. The third child, Dorothea, is the beauty of the family. She is taken up by her father’s cousin Rhoda, who marries a wealthy doctor, one of Benecia’s cousins, in the Wallin family. More worldly than the Barnes family, Rhoda gives elegant parties, approves of dancing, and soon Dorothea marries a wealthy and socially acceptable young man. None of these three children, however, overtly abandons the Quaker faith or causes their parents serious concern.
The fourth child, Etta, is more interesting. Sensitive, pretty, highly intelligent, she soon begins to read forbidden books. She becomes friendly with a young girl named Volida La Porte, who introduces her to French novels and gives her the idea of studying literature at the University of Wisconsin. When Solon insists that his daughter attend the Llewellyn College for Women, Etta runs away to a Wisconsin summer session after pawning her mother’s jewels to provide the fare. Solon goes after her, and the two are reconciled. Etta acknowledges the theft and returns the jewels. In the meantime, old Hester Wallin, Justus’s sister, dies and leaves Etta, as well as each of her sisters, a small income.
Solon allows Etta to remain in Wisconsin for the summer session. After she leaves the university, Etta moves to Greenwich Village to continue her studies. There she meets Willard Kane, an artist, and eventually has an affair with him, even though she realizes that he has no intention of jeopardizing his artistic career by marriage. The Barnes family knows of the affair—Orville discovers it—and they highly disapprove.
The youngest child, Stewart, is the wildest of all. He lacks the essential honesty of his brother and sisters. Spoiled by his cousin Rhoda, who takes him up, as she took up Dorothea, and sends him to a snobbish private school, Stewart is interested only in his conquests of lower-class girls on riotous trips to Atlantic City. With his friends Victor Bruge and Lester Jennings, Stewart picks up girls and takes them off for the weekend. He often steals money from his parents or from his brother to finance his escapades. His reckless life is paralleled by wild financial speculations in the business world that increasingly worry Solon. Solon’s bank is involved in some questionable activities, but Solon, true to his religious principles, feels he cannot pull out of the situation without hurting others who depend on him. Similarly, he cannot abandon Stewart.
One weekend, Stewart’s friend Bruge gives a young girl, Psyche, some of his mother’s “drops” because Psyche will not yield to Bruge, and he believes the “drops” might make her comply. They do, but they also kill Psyche. The boys, frightened, leave her body on the road. The police soon apprehend them and charge them with rape and murder. Unable to face his family and feeling some vestiges of religious guilt, Stewart kills himself in jail.
The shock of Stewart’s suicide causes Benecia to suffer a stroke. Etta leaves her lover and returns home shortly before her mother’s death. She finds Solon greatly changed. In his despair, he loses his severity and no longer believes he has the right to judge others. Realizing that his concern with business and with strict standards cut him off from the kindness and light at the center of his faith, he learns to love all things, all creatures of nature. Etta, who often reads to him, finds herself more and more attracted to the central “Inner Light” of the Quaker belief. Always the most understanding child, she and her father develop a genuine closeness and affection for each other before Solon dies of cancer six months later. Etta, left alone and removed from the commercial contemporary world, becomes the embodiment of essential Quaker principles.
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