Eugene Witla, a sensitive seventeen-year-old boy, lives with his parents and two sisters in Alexandria, Illinois. Eugene has little idea of what he wants to do, although his aspirations are vaguely artistic. His father, a sewing machine agent and a respectable member of the middle class, gets him a job setting type for the local newspaper. He falls in love with a local girl named Stella Appleton, but even this does not keep him from leaving the small town and going to Chicago to seek his fortune.
In Chicago, Eugene at first supports himself by moving stoves, driving a laundry wagon, and collecting for a furniture company. While at the laundry, he meets the passionate young Margaret Duff and enters into his first real love affair. About this time, he also meets a schoolteacher named Angela Blue, a fair-haired, beautiful young woman who represents everything fine and elegant to impressionable young Eugene.
Eugene begins attending art classes at night at the Chicago Art Institute. He shows some talent, particularly in life drawing, for he seems to have a special sensitivity in conveying the beauty of the human form. He meets a model there, Ruby Kenny, who soon becomes his mistress. Ruby, like Margaret, is from the lower classes and makes her charms easily available to men. Eugene finally leaves them both, preferring the finer and more fragile beauty of Angela, to whom he becomes engaged before he leaves Chicago to seek his artistic fortune in New York.
There, Eugene paints powerful and realistic pictures of what he sees in the city. From time to time, he sells a few of his paintings, and after several years, he becomes moderately successful. Some of the women he meets, like Miriam Finch and Christina Channing, begin to educate him in the knowledgeable polish of the New York art world. For a short time, he has a sophisticated affair with Christina that somewhat baffles him; despite his new elegance, he still thinks of Angela. Returning to the Midwest to visit her, he seduces her and then, feeling his responsibility, marries her and takes her back to New York. Angela feels that all her dreams of happiness have been fulfilled.
Eugene’s work impresses Anatole Charles, the manager of a distinguished firm of art dealers in New York. Monsieur Charles holds an exhibit which is a great success and gives Eugene a reputation as a rising young artist. Full of enthusiasm, he and Angela go to Paris. The works he shows when he returns are not as successful and are judged less fresh and unusual. While in Paris, Eugene began to suffer from a vague malaise and lack of energy and purpose. He does not realize at the time that his marriage is causing him to feel uneasy and restless.
Eugene and Angela return to Alexandria for an inexpensive rest. While there, Eugene meets eighteen-year-old Frieda Roth,...
(The entire section is 1160 words.)