Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 939
On a beautiful September morning, Fred Ferguson gets up early and strolls around his yard. Although he is proud of his comfortable home and his position in the small town of Belmond, Iowa, where he lives, Fred feels burdened by his responsibilities. So many people seem to depend on Fred: his family, his coworkers at the bank, his fellow Presbyterians, in fact, the whole community. When Fred’s wife, Annie, gets up, she thinks briefly about her dead parents and the inevitability of change. Then she begins her day’s work. At breakfast, their daughter Margaret is generally nasty, causing Annie to wonder why this middle child is so different. As usual, Fred is obtuse; as usual, Annie tries to please him. After everyone leaves, she broods about how tired she is of pretending and how much she resents having to placate Fred’s hypercritical mother and sister.
Life goes on. Margaret disobeys her mother and has to be punished. The Fergusons go out to dinner. The Monday Club meets with Annie, and for the first time the frugal Fred lets his wife hire someone to help her. That night, Annie amazes Fred by telling him of her feelings about the family. Although he assures her of his love, he still does not understand.
The children are growing up. Still playing his part as the good son, Carl is a star football player and a student leader of his high school. He is admired by everyone, especially his little brother, Bunny, and his girlfriend, Lillian White. At the Presbyterian college he attends, Carl is fascinated by livelier girls, but after graduation he marries Lillian. They have two sons. Carl becomes a school principal, then a superintendent. Bored by his work and frustrated by Lillian’s sexual passiveness, Carl seeks the company of more vivacious women. The crisis comes when he tells Lillian that they are moving to Philadelphia, where one of his women friends finds him a new position. Upset about her pregnancy and certain that her husband does not love her, Lillian tries to kill herself, but Carl stops her in the nick of time. Turning down the Philadelphia offer, Carl becomes superintendent of schools in a town near Belmond. Although Lillian loses her baby, she is now secure in their marriage. Carl, however, loses his faith in himself. He now knows that he is nothing special after all.
On Dorothy’s wedding day, everything seems perfect. Her handsome fiancé, Jesse Woodward, likes her family and her little town. He has even been nice about going with her to be introduced to old family friends. Dorothy and Jesse have a shiny new roadster, their wedding gift from Jesse’s wealthy grandfather. Almost before she knows it, Dorothy is putting on her bridal dress and hearing the familiar words. Suddenly the ceremony is over, and the two young people drive off to start their life together.
Margaret helps a friend elope and so is expelled from college and sent home, where she proceeds to inflict her own unhappiness on everyone around her. She can foresee spending her life working at the Belmond public library, but it is her library job that enables her to escape. Fred permits Margaret to go to New York in order to take a library course. Once there, Margaret quits school and leaves the family with whom her father deposited her. Encouraged by her artistic new friends, Margaret renames herself Margot, cuts her hair, and moves into a Greenwich Village apartment, supporting herself by working as a waitress.
When she meets Bruce Williams, an older, married man, Margot abandons the bohemian life. She always dreamed of a grand passion, and she is sure that this is it. When she sets off on a long trip to the West with Bruce, Margot could not have been happier. Bruce keeps thinking about his wife and his children, however, and eventually he returns home. Devastated, Margot goes back to Belmond, only to find that she is now regarded as a temptress. Determined to make a career for herself, Margot goes back to New York. Then Bruce telephones, and Margot takes him back on his own terms.
Just when Annie is thinking that at least she still has Bunny, he comes home with a wife. The former Charlotte Bukowksa does not like her new family any more than they like her. Annie thinks her rude and sullen. Charlotte, who is a Marxist, classifies the Fergusons as hopelessly bourgeois. When the couple leave Belmond for Chicago, it does not seem likely that they will be back soon.
When Fred retires, he agrees to take Annie on the trip she always dreamed about, and the two set off for California. When they get to San Diego, they find that Dorothy and Jesse are so hard-pressed financially that they rent out their big home and are camping out in a tiny house with no room for guests. Living in a small apartment they rent, Fred and Annie cannot help wishing they were back home. On their way home, they stop at the luxurious home of Annie’s sister Louise, but Annie finds that she and her sister lost their old closeness.
Back in Belmond, at first Fred and Annie feel displaced. Fred’s church closes, and his bank is in difficulty. Fred soon finds that there are people who need his help, and once again he has a reason for living. As for Annie, now that she finally had her trip, she begins to feel her old tenderness toward Fred. Whatever the future holds, they both realize, they can face it together.