Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1124
The first person Esther Waters meets when she arrives at Woodview is William Latch, the son of the cook under whose direction Esther is to work. William is the worry of his mother’s life, for, like his dead father, he is a gambler. Mrs. Latch has hoped that William would become a delivery boy and leave Woodview, but William is determined to go into service for Mr. and Mrs. Barfield, the owners of Woodview, so that he can observe their racing stable.
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The position as kitchen maid at Woodview is a godsend to Esther, for her stepfather, claiming that he has too many mouths to feed, has forced her to leave home. The workhouse might have been her only refuge if she had not secured a position with the Barfields. In spite of her efforts to do her work well, however, it is hard for her to get along with the other servants. Mrs. Latch seems to go out of her way to make life unpleasant for her, and the maids tease her because she is religious. William is at first her only champion among the servants, for which she is grateful to him. Then Esther finds an unexpected friend in her mistress, Mrs. Barfield, who is also deeply religious.
Learning that Esther cannot read, Mrs. Barfield tries to teach her. William continues to pay her special attention, to the anguish of Sarah Tucker, another of the maids. After a servants’ ball in celebration of the victory of one of the Woodview horses, William takes Esther out to some wheat stacks and seduces her, telling her they will be married as soon as he has enough money. By the following morning, Esther has convinced herself that she had been betrayed, and she refuses to speak to William. Tiring at last of her sulking, he turns to Peggy Barfield, a cousin of his master, and after a few weeks elopes with her.
Three months later, Esther realizes that she is pregnant. Strangely, the servant girls who had been her former tormentors become kind and sympathetic, which only makes her feel more ashamed of her wickedness. Mrs. Barfield is sympathetic, too, but she has to send Esther away, for she has become a bad example for the other girls.
There is no place for Esther to go but to her home, where she finds that her mother is also pregnant. Her stepfather is crueler than ever, but he tolerates her as long as she pays rent and gives him money to buy beer. At last, realizing that she has to leave before all of her savings disappear and there is nothing left for her baby, Esther takes lodgings close to the hospital where she is to be confined. After her son is born, she is filled with a happiness she has never known, but her joy is lessened when she learns that her mother has died in childbirth, just a few days after Esther’s Jackie was born. Soon afterward, Esther’s stepfather and the other children go to Australia; Esther now feels entirely alone in the world.
The next few years are terrible ones for Esther. She has to work as much as seventeen or eighteen hours a day, and on one occasion is forced to go to the workhouse. Her greatest grief is the need to leave her child in the care of others while she works, for Jackie is her whole life. When her son is six years old, Esther finds work with Miss Rice, a writer whose home is a haven to Esther. Miss Rice knows Esther’s story and tries to make the girl’s life easier for her.
Esther meets Fred Parsons, a colorless but honest, dependable, and religious man. When Esther tells him her story, he readily forgives her. She takes Fred to see Jackie, and the man and the boy become fast friends from the first meeting. Esther and Fred plan to be married as soon as Miss Rice can get another servant, for Esther refuses to leave her mistress without someone to care for her. One evening, while on an errand for Miss Rice, Esther unexpectedly meets William Latch, who tells her that Peggy has left him. When he learns that Esther had his child, he pleads to come back to her and hints that it is her Christian duty to Jackie to give the boy his rightful father. Esther knows that she would be better off with Fred, as would Jackie, for William has become a tavernkeeper and a bookie. Jackie, however, meets his father and loves him instantly. For his sake, Esther and William are married.
At first, William makes money. Jackie is placed in a good school, and Esther has two servants to wait on her. Nevertheless, there are many days of anxious waiting to hear the results of a race. Often William has thousands of pounds to cover if the favorite wins. After a time, he begins to lose heavily. It is illegal to accept bets at the tavern, and William is in constant danger of being reported to the police. Fred Parsons comes to warn Esther to leave William, to tell her that the tavern is to be raided, but she refuses to desert her husband. Then Sarah Tucker comes to the tavern to ask for help after she had stolen a silver plate from her employer. The police find her there. After the tavern is raided, William is heavily fined. Business begins to dwindle, and Esther and William have lean times.
After William contracts tuberculosis, the dampness and fog of the racetracks only make him cough more, and at last he has to go to the hospital. There the doctors tell him that he must go to Egypt for his health. He and Esther gamble all of their money on a single race and lose. Esther tries to be cheerful for William’s sake, but when he dies a few days later, she wishes that she too had died. She has no money and no place to go. Her only blessing is that Jackie is old enough to take care of himself.
Esther goes back to Woodview. Only Mrs. Barfield is left, and she is poor. Most of the land has gone to pay racing debts. Esther, however, is ready to stay with Mrs. Barfield without wages, for she has never forgotten her old friend’s kindness. Jackie enlists in the army and goes to Woodview say good-bye to his mother. With pride, she introduces him to Mrs. Barfield. She knows that her sin has been redeemed and that she will never have to be ashamed again. She has given her country a fine soldier. Few women could do more.