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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1272

Jennie Gerhardt, a beautiful and virtuous eighteen-year-old, is one of six children of a poor, hard-working German family in Columbus, Ohio, in 1880. Her father, a glassblower, is ill, and Jennie and her mother are forced to work at a local hotel in order to provide for the younger children in the family. Jennie does the laundry for the kind and handsome Senator Brander (he is fifty-two at the time) and attracts his eye. Senator Brander is kind to Jennie and her family. When he is able to keep Jennie’s brother Sebastian out of jail for stealing some needed coal from the railroad, Jennie, full of gratitude, allows him to sleep with her. Senator Brander, struck by Jennie’s beauty, charm, and goodness, promises to marry her. He dies suddenly, however, while on a trip to Washington.

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Left alone, Jennie discovers that she is pregnant. Her father, a stern Lutheran, insists that she leave the house, but her more understanding mother allows her to return when her father, once in better health, leaves to find work in Youngstown. Jennie’s child is a girl, whom she names Vesta. At Sebastian’s suggestion, the family moves to Cleveland to find work. While her mother looks after Vesta, Jennie finds a job as a maid in the home of Mrs. Bracebridge. One of Mrs. Bracebridge’s guests, Lester Kane, the son of a rich carriage manufacturer, finds Jennie temptingly attractive. When he tries to seduce Jennie, the girl, though greatly attracted to him, manages to put off his advances.

Mr. Gerhardt is injured in a glassblowing accident and loses the use of both of his hands. Again, the family needs money badly, and Jennie decides to accept Lester’s offer of aid for her family. The price is that she become his mistress, go on a trip to New York with him, and then allow him to establish her in an apartment in Chicago. Although Jennie loves Lester, she knows that he does not intend to marry her because his family will be horrified at such an alliance, but, once again, she sacrifices her virtue because she feels that her family needs the offered aid. After Jennie becomes Lester’s mistress, he gives her family money for a house. Jennie is afraid, however, to tell Lester about the existence of her daughter Vesta.

Jennie and Lester move to Chicago and live there. Her family begins to suspect that, contrary to what Jennie told them, she and Lester are not married. When Mrs. Gerhardt dies several years later, Jennie moves Vesta to Chicago and boards the child in another woman’s house. One night, Jennie is called because Vesta is seriously ill, and Lester discovers Vesta’s existence. Although upset at first, when Jennie tells him the story, Lester understands and agrees to allow Vesta to live with them. Some time later, while Lester is staying at the apartment to recover from an illness, his sister Louise visits and discovers the relationship, which she reports to the Kane family upon her return to Cincinnati. Lester and Jennie soon move to a house in Hyde Park, a middle-class residential district in Chicago. Mr. Gerhardt, now old and ill and willing to accept the situation between Jennie and Lester, also comes to live with them and to tend the furnace and the lawn.

Although they are constantly aware of the increasing disapproval of Lester’s family, Jennie and Lester live happily for a time. Lester’s father, violently opposed to the relationship with Jennie, whom he never met, threatens to disinherit Lester if he does not leave her. Lester’s brother Robert urges his father on and attempts to persuade Lester to abandon Jennie. Nevertheless, Lester feels that he owes his allegiance as well as his love to her, and he remains with her in spite of the fact that they are snubbed by most of Lester’s society connections.

When Lester’s father dies, still believing that his son’s...

(The entire section contains 1272 words.)

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