Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1060
For twenty-five years Edgar, a captain in the Swedish coast artillery, and his wife, Alice, live an unhappy existence. Their unhappiness is caused by Edgar’s contempt for everyone else in the world; he thinks of himself as a better being than others, even his wife, and he makes their marriage a tyranny. They live on an island off the coast, where Edgar is the commanding officer of the artillery detachment. Living in an old prison, they avoid the other people of the island as well as officers of the post and their wives. Indeed, Alice is virtually a prisoner in her home. The only means of communication she has with the mainland is through a telegraph key, which she teaches herself to operate. She keeps her skill with the telegraph a secret, for her husband does not want her to have any means of communication with the outside world.
Alice’s only hope of release from her husband’s tyranny lies in the fact that he is ill and might die at any time. On their silver wedding anniversary, Curt, Alice’s cousin, arrives on the island to officiate as the quarantine officer. On his first visit to Edgar and Alice he learns about the life that they lead, when Edgar suffers an attack and Alice gloats over her husband’s illness. Curt, who was divorced by his wife, also learns that Edgar caused the divorce and persuaded the court to award the custody of the children to Curt’s wife.
During the two days that Edgar is ill, grave changes take place in the three people. Alice turns gray-haired. Feeling that the time has come when she should admit her age, she stops tinting her hair. She also becomes an object of distrust to Curt, for she tries to make love to her cousin while her husband is ill. Curt, unable to understand her actions, cannot fully realize how much she hates her husband and how much she suffered during the past twenty-five years. Edgar himself resembles a corpse after his illness, but he immediately tries, upon his recovery, to dominate the others.
On the third day after his attack the captain tells his wife he is going to divorce her. In retaliation, she tries to have him convicted of the embezzlement of government funds, of which he is innocent. She also embraces her cousin Curt in her husband’s presence, at which time Edgar tries to kill her with his saber. After that incident, both husband and wife become calm, admitting they tortured each other enough. They both say they hope that they can get along with each other peaceably, if not happily.
A few months later Curt’s son Allan, a cadet stationed with Edgar’s artillery company, falls in love with Judith, the daughter of Alice and Edgar. The parents, failing to realize the youngsters are serious in their affair, think that Judith is making game of Allan at her father’s request, for Edgar hates Allan because he is Curt’s son. At the time Edgar is trying to arrange a marriage for Judith with a major in the regiment, a man older than Edgar. The lovers’ quarrels of the two young people only serve to heighten the illusion under which the three grownups labor.
Edgar, meanwhile, is also busy undermining Curt’s position as quarantine officer. After gleaning information from Curt, he publishes articles about quarantine management in periodicals and thus gains a reputation for himself in a field in which he is ignorant. After his retirement, the result of his illness, he plans to run for the national legislature, in opposition to Curt, who expects to try for an office. Edgar completely discredits Curt with the voters by taking up a subscription for his rival, who, acting on Edgar’s advice, lost a great deal of money in an unwise investment. With deliberate malice, Edgar does everything he can to discredit Curt in the eyes of the world and to reduce him to abject poverty and dependence.
After Curt loses his money, Edgar buys his house and its furnishings and then leaves the house exactly as it was, in order to make the loss more poignant to Curt. Then Edgar is made an inspector of quarantine stations, an appointment that makes him Curt’s superior in employment. Curt, accepting his reverses calmly and stoically, refuses to lose his head, although Alice tries to make him seek revenge. Alice still hopes that her ailing husband might die, before he can completely ruin the lives of Curt, his son Allan, Judith, and Alice herself.
In the meantime the captain continues his plan to marry Judith to a man who can help to fulfill Edgar’s ambitions. Instead of marrying her to the major, he arranges a marriage to the colonel of his old regiment, notwithstanding the fact that the colonel is more than forty years older than Judith. As far as anyone can suppose, the marriage is to take place; Judith seems to be agreeable to the match. Alice makes one last attempt to spoil the plan, but a letter she writes is intercepted by Edgar and returned by him to his wife.
Judith herself ruins Edgar’s scheme by revealing her true love to Allan. To prevent the marriage, she calls the colonel on the telephone, insults him, and breaks off the engagement. Then, with her mother’s aid, she arranges to go to Allan at the military post to which Edgar sent him. The failure of his plan is too much for Edgar. He suffers an apoplectic stroke, much to the delight of his wife, who sees revenge at last for all that she and the other members of the family suffered at the sick man’s hands. Unable to control her delight at Edgar’s approaching death, she taunts him on his deathbed with the fact that he is hated and that his evil plans are finally going awry. His only answer, since he lost the power of speech, is to spit in her face.
After Edgar’s death, which occurs within a few hours, both his wife and her cousin admit that death changes their attitudes toward the dead man. Alice says she loved him as well as hated him, and she hopes that peace will rest with his soul.