George Santayana divides this 602-page novel into five sections (“Ancestry,” “Boyhood,” “First Pilgrimage,” “In the Home Orbit,” and “Last Pilgrimage”) framed by a prologue and an epilogue in which the narrator, a retired Harvard professor, reflects on the life of his onetime student, Oliver Alden. Oliver’s father is Peter Alden, and when Peter offends his older brother, Nathaniel Alden, of Beacon Street, Boston, by his familiarity with working-class boys, Nathaniel banishes Peter to the Camp for Backward Boys at Slump, Wyoming. The brothers never see each other again. Years of travel are eventually followed for Peter by a medical degree from Harvard and marriage to his psychiatrist’s daughter, Harriet Bumstead, of Great Falls, Connecticut. The union produces a son, Oliver, but otherwise develops little intimacy, with Peter spending much of his time at sea on his yacht.
Oliver is born with a philosophic soul, and from his earliest days, he lives in his mind where his “goods and evils” are safe from outsiders. He finds in his governess, Fräulein Irma Schlote, the warmth lacking in his emotionally fastidious mother, but he feels that sitting in his high chair staring at a book teaches him only that “Life was essentially something to be endured, something grim.” When Oliver is eighteen, Peter takes him for the summer on his yacht, the Black Swan, where he meets Jim Darnley, his father’s captain. Peter has given Darnley the nickname “Lord Jim” for some obscure incident in his past that suggests Joseph Conrad’s famous character. Darnley is a hedonist whose influence on Oliver remains ambiguous throughout, but he is Peter’s Man Friday who watches over his master whenever Peter is comatose with drugs. When the Black Swan drops anchor near Salem harbor, Oliver gets to meet Peter’s cousin Caleb Wetherbee, a learned invalid who has built a Benedictine monastery in his Salem apple orchard. His fervor is sincere but it is dismissed by Lord Jim as driven by his bitterness at his misshapen body.
After their Salem sojourn, Peter sails to England, soon summoning Oliver and Jim to join him and dispatching Irma to Germany. From London, Jim and Oliver go to Iffley for a weekend...
(The entire section is 918 words.)