Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567
The Gerhardt family hasn’t had much luck and is living in poverty. Eighteen-year-old Jennie and her mother go to an affluent hotel in Columbus, Ohio, to ask for work and are told that they can help with the cleaning. Jennie herself is embarrassed by their obvious poverty but grateful for the work. She lives with both parents and a number of siblings.
One day, the Honorable George Sylvester Brander, a senator, enters the hotel. He takes notice of the lovely Jennie and bows to her. She later says to her mother that he was a fine-looking man. She notices other people in the hotel and thinks that it must be nice to be rich. In an effort to make more money, Jennie and her mother approach Brander to ask if they can do his washing.
Brander takes an interest in Jennie and, through her, her family. It’s clear to him that they are in great need. He starts to provide for them financially. He and Jennie become friends and companions, but people judge their relationship. He feels deeply for her, but the difference in their stations makes him hesitate. Eventually, though, he asks her to marry him. Before they are able to marry, he dies. Jennie gives birth to his child, Vesta.
Jennie falls in love again once she moves away from Columbus. This time, she falls for a man named Lester Kane. He insists right from the beginning that she belongs to him. He says that he wants to take her to live somewhere nicer and take care of her. But she is horrified that he offers her money.
This is the first time she has ever been interested in a man just for himself—with Senator Brander, part of the appeal was his kindness to her family. Lester loves her as well, but the social difference between them is even more insurmountable than the one between her and Senator Brander. His father is a wholesale carriage builder who is well known and respected.
Lester and Jenny want to marry, but society (and his family) forbids it. He will lose his inheritance if he marries her, a woman of low social class with an illegitimate child that she didn’t even tell him about at first. He ends up marrying someone that his family approves of.
One day, Lester catches a cold in his intestines, according to the doctors. Jennie goes to see him and take care of him because he has fallen ill in Chicago, rather than in New York, where he lives with Letty. He tells her that he wishes he hadn’t left her and that he wasn’t as happy without her. Jennie tells him that it doesn’t matter and that she would not have been happy if he had lost his fortune. She says that it has been hard but that everything is hard at times. He says she is the only woman he ever truly loved, and Jennie is happy. Lester dies four days later from a lesion of a major blood vessel in his brain.
After Lester’s funeral, Jennie wonders what she will do for the rest of her life. Her daughter is dead, having contracted typhoid fever when she was fourteen years old. The orphans she is raising will one day grow up, marry, and leave. She doesn’t know what will come next.