Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1160
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, whom he finds all the more attractive because he is twenty-nine and Frieda represents a connection to youth and beauty. Angela is able to stop this relationship before it advances further than a few kisses. Eugene and Angela leave Alexandria and stay at several resorts until their money runs out. Angela then returns to her parents, while Eugene returns to New York to reestablish his reputation as an artist.
Eugene is still restless, however, and finds himself unable to paint. He takes a job doing manual labor for the railroad in a town near New York. There he meets and has a passionate affair with his landlady’s married daughter, Carlotta Wilson. Angela hears of the affair and again reclaims Eugene. They decide to try to start again in New York.
Eugene works for a newspaper and then as art director for an advertising agency. When his superior there, Daniel Summerfield, breaks his promises and fails to pay him adequately, Eugene leaves for another job with the advertising department of the North American Weekly, under the directorship of Obadiah Kalvin. Successful there, he moves to Philadelphia to accept a higher paying job as head of advertising for all books and publications directed by Marshall P. Colfax. When Eugene is made a vice president, the other vice president, Florence J. White, becomes jealous.
Eugene becomes very successful, both financially and socially. His marriage is hollow, but both he and Angela accept the situation and cope fairly well. Although Eugene has money enough to retire and go back to painting, he desires greater financial success and loses the will to paint. His artistic lassitude is matched by the emotional emptiness of his marriage.
About this time, Eugene meets Mrs. Emily Dale, a rich socialite. They exchange visits and become friendly. One day, Mrs. Dale brings Suzanne, her eighteen-year-old daughter, to tea, and Eugene falls in love with her at first sight. All his yearning for beauty returns, and soon Eugene and Suzanne are meeting secretly. Although she is a cultured and sophisticated young woman, Suzanne is willing to enter into an affair with Eugene. Filled with romantic ideas about being an artist’s mistress, she insists on telling her mother of her plans, for she is sure that her mother will approve. However, Mrs. Dale does not approve, and Angela, when she learns of the affair, decides that the only way to hold Eugene is to have a baby, despite the fact that doctors have warned her against having children. Angela, who has become a Christian Scientist, believes that her firm faith and will power will allow her to have a healthy child. Mrs. Dale takes her daughter to Canada to get her away from Eugene. When he tries to follow Suzanne to Canada, Mrs. Dale puts pressure on Florence and threatens the firm with scandal, whereupon Eugene is fired from his job. Having lost both his job and Suzanne, Eugene returns to comfort Angela during her ordeal.
Angela dies giving birth to a daughter, who is also named Angela. Eugene asks his sister Myrtle to come east to help him make a home for the child. In his desolation, Eugene begins to read about Christian Science, but he fails to find comfort or salvation in its message.
When Eugene and Suzanne meet by accident on the street two years later, they are both too self-conscious to acknowledge the other’s presence. Living sanely with his daughter and Myrtle and her husband, Eugene begins to paint again. He has several shows, is sponsored again by Monsieur Charles, and again becomes a popular and fairly successful artist. He begins to weave romantic dreams around his daughter, Angela, thinking of the time when she will grow up and they can search for beauty together. In spite of his new awareness of human beings’ inability to control their fate, and of the delusions that belief in beauty or belief in Christian Science represent, Eugene’s emotional impulse toward beauty remains strong, and he continues to dream impossible dreams for himself and his daughter.