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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...

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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.

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 relationship with Jennie demonstrates irresponsibility, he leaves Lester’s share of the estate in trust with Robert. Lester is given three alternatives: He can leave Jennie and receive all his money; he can marry Jennie and receive only ten thousand dollars a year for life; or he can continue his present arrangement with the knowledge that if he does not either abandon or marry Jennie within three years, he will lose his share of the money. Characteristically, Lester hesitates. He resigns from his managerial position in the family business and takes Jennie to Europe, where they meet Mrs. Letty Pace Gerald, a beautiful and accomplished widow who was Lester’s childhood sweetheart and who is still fond of him. In the meantime, Robert expands the carriage business into a monopoly and eases Lester into a subordinate position. When Lester returns to Chicago, he decides to attempt to make an independent future for himself and Jennie. He puts a good deal of money into a real estate deal and loses it. Mrs. Gerald also moves to Chicago in pursuit of Lester.

After old Mr. Gerhardt dies, Jennie finds herself in a difficult situation. Lester, out of the family business because of her, is finding it more difficult to earn a living. Mrs. Gerald and Robert’s lawyers keep pressing her to release him, claiming this suggestion is for his own economic and social good. Jennie, always altruistic, begins to influence Lester to leave her. Before long, both are convinced that separation is the only solution so that Lester can return to the family business. Finally, Lester leaves Jennie, setting up a house and an income for her and Vesta in a cottage an hour or so from the center of Chicago.

Once more established in the family business, Lester marries Mrs. Gerald. Six months after Lester leaves Jennie, Vesta, a fourteen-year-old girl already showing a good deal of sensitivity and talent, dies of typhoid fever.

Jennie, calling herself Mrs. Stover, moves to the city and adopts two orphan children. Five years pass. Jennie, although still in love with Lester, accepts her quiet life. At last, she is able to cope with experience in whatever terms it presents itself to her, even though she is never able to impose her will on experience in any meaningful way. One night while in Chicago on business, Lester is stricken by severe cardiovascular illness and sends for Jennie; his wife is in Europe and cannot reach Chicago for three weeks. Jennie tends Lester throughout his last illness. One day he confesses that he always loved her and that he made a mistake by permitting the forces of business and family pressure to make him leave her. Jennie feels that his final confession, his statement that he should never have left her, indicates a kind of spiritual union and leaves her with something that she can value for the rest of her life. Lester dies. Jennie realizes that she will now be forced to live through many years that can promise no salvation, no new excitement—that will simply impose themselves upon her as have the years in the past. She is resolved to accept her loneliness because she knows there is nothing else for her to do.

Jennie goes to see Lester’s coffin loaded on the train. She realizes then, even more clearly, that the individual is simply a figure, moved about by circumstance. Virtue, beauty, moral worth cannot save anyone, nor can evil or degeneracy. One simply yields and manages the best one can under the circumstances of one’s nature, one’s society, and one’s economic situation.

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