Maggie Verver is the daughter of a wealthy American widower who has devoted all of his life to his daughter. The Ververs live a lazy life. Their time is spent collecting items with which to decorate their own existence and to fill a museum that Mr. Verver is giving to his native city in the United States. They have few friends, and Maggie’s only confidant is Mrs. Assingham, the American-born wife of a retired British army officer. It is Mrs. Assingham who introduces the Ververs to Prince Amerigo, a handsome, quiet young Italian nobleman who strikes Maggie’s fancy. When she informs her father that she would like to marry the prince, Mr. Verver provides a handsome dowry so that the wedding might take place.
A few days before the wedding, a painful scene occurs in Mrs. Assingham’s home, where the prince and Charlotte Stamp, deeply in love with each other, meet to say good-bye. They are both penniless, and marriage between them is out of the question. As a farewell lark, they spend their last afternoon together in searching for Charlotte’s wedding present for Maggie. In a tiny shop, they discover a golden bowl that Charlotte wishes to purchase as a remembrance for the prince from her. He refuses it because of a superstitious fear that a crack in a golden bowl might bring bad luck.
After the prince and Maggie are married, their life coincides with the life the Ververs have been living for years. Maggie and her father spend much of their time together. After a year and a half, a baby is born to the prince and Maggie, but the child makes no apparent difference in the relationships between Maggie and her father and between Maggie and her husband. Maggie decides that her father also needs a wife, and that Charlotte is the right sort of person; she will be thankful to marry a wealthy man and she will cause little trouble.
Mr. Verver, anxious to please his daughter in this as in everything else, marries Charlotte a short time later. Maggie and her father both take houses in London where they can be together a great deal of the time. The association of father and daughter leave the prince and Charlotte together much of the time. Maggie encourages them to go out and to represent her and her father at balls and dinners. Several years go by in this manner, but slowly the fact that there is something strange in the relationships dawns on Maggie. She eventually goes to Mrs. Assingham and pours out her suspicions. Mrs. Assingham, who knows the full circumstances, decides to keep silent.
Maggie resolves to say nothing of her suspicions to anyone else. However, her attitude of indifference and her insistence in throwing the prince and Charlotte together, arouses their suspicions that she knows they had been sweethearts and that she suspects them of being lovers now. Each of the four speculates at length as to what the other three know or suspect. Their mutual confidence and love prevent them from asking anything of the others.
One day, Maggie goes shopping for some unusual art object to present to her father on his birthday. She accidentally happens into the same shop where the prince and Charlotte had gone several years before, and she purchases the golden bowl that they had passed over because of its flaw. The following day, the shopkeeper visits her. The name and address tell him that she is the wife of the prince who had passed up the bowl years before. He knows that the existence of...
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the crack will quickly come to the attention of the prince, and so he hastens to inform Maggie of the flaw and to return part of the purchase price. He also tells her of the prince’s first visit to the shop and of the young woman who had been with him. Maggie thereby discovers that the prince and Charlotte had known each other before her marriage and that they had spent an afternoon together the day before she married. Again, she confides in Mrs. Assingham.
Having learned that there is no present serious relationship between the prince and Charlotte, Mrs. Assingham informs Maggie that she is making a great ado over nothing at all. To back up her remark, she raises the bowl above her head and smashes it to the floor, where it breaks into several pieces. As she does so, the prince enters the room and sees the fragments of the bowl. After Mrs. Assingham’s departure, he tries to learn how much Maggie knows. He and Maggie agree to say nothing to Maggie’s father or to Charlotte.
Charlotte, too, begins to sense that something is disturbing Maggie, and she guesses what it is. Maggie tries to realign the relationships between the four of them by proposing that she and Charlotte stay together for a while and that the prince and her father go to the Continent to buy art objects. She makes the proposal gently, and it is as gently rebuffed by the other three.
Maggie and her father begin to realize that their selfishness in continuing their father-daughter relationship has been wrong. Soon after, Charlotte tells Maggie that she wishes to return to America and to take her husband with her. She bluntly informs Maggie that she is afraid that if Mr. Verver continues to live so close to his daughter, he will lose interest in his wife. Mr. Verver agrees to return to the United States with Charlotte, although he realizes that once he is away, Charlotte will never agree to his coming back to Europe to live.
On an autumn afternoon, Mr. Verver and Charlotte go to have tea with Maggie and the prince before leaving England. It is almost heartbreaking for Maggie to see her father’s carriage take him out of sight and to know that her old way of life had really ended. The only thing that keeps her from breaking down completely is the look on the prince’s face as he turns her face away from the direction her father’s carriage has taken. At that moment, seeing his eyes, Maggie knows she has won her husband for herself and not for her money.