Young Peter Alden has been educated in the United States, but he leaves Harvard before completing his studies and goes abroad with a tutor. After he comes of age and receives his inheritance, he wanders aimlessly about the world, studying occasionally. He is in his early middle years before he completes any one course. Licensed to practice medicine, his practice is limited to himself, for he has burdened himself with many ills, some real but most imaginary. At one point he consults Dr. Bumstead, a psychiatrist whose main concern is Peter’s money. Dr. Bumstead convinces Peter that a home and a wife would be the best treatment possible, and, as a consequence, Peter marries the doctor’s daughter, Harriet. They have one child, Oliver.
Little Oliver is a Puritan from the beginning. He accepts things as they are, never complaining, never wondering why. He has no child playmates because his mother fears that other children might be dirty or vulgar. Furthermore, Oliver hears no stories, songs, or prayers, as Mrs. Alden is determined that he not be filled with nonsensical ideas. Oliver’s father, who spends most of his time traveling, is no more than a polite stranger to his son.
Fraulein Irma Schlote, a German, becomes Oliver’s governess, and from her he has what little brightness there is in his childhood. On their long walks together, Irma instills in Oliver his first feelings of a love of nature and a love for the German language. Even with Irma, however, Oliver remains a stoic little Puritan. If he is tired or his foot hurts as they walk, he feels there is no use to complain—they have come for a walk, and they must finish that walk. One must do one’s duty, even if it is unpleasant. As he grows older, Oliver comes to hate human weakness with the hatred of a true Puritan.
When Oliver is fifteen, he goes to high school, where he excels in scholarship and in athletics because it is his duty to do everything that the school demands. During one holiday season, Oliver joins his father on his yacht. There he meets Jim Darnley, the yacht’s captain, who had been a British sailor before he became involved in a scandal. Jim is an entirely new type of person in Oliver’s world. Oliver knows that the sailor is worldly and has no sense of duty, but strangely enough, Oliver comes to consider Jim his dearest friend.
After his graduation from high school, Oliver joins his father and Jim in England. There, while visiting Jim’s family, he learns to respect Jim’s minister father and to enjoy the company of Rose, Jim’s young sister. He learns also that Jim has an illegitimate child, Bobby, who lives with Mrs. Bowler, his tavern-keeping mother.
While in England, Oliver also meets his distant cousin Mario Van de Weyer, a worldly young man who is dependent on his rich relatives for his education and livelihood. Oliver is puzzled by Mario, who has nothing, not even much real intelligence, yet is happy. Oliver, who has everything, is not consciously happy; he merely lives as he feels it is his duty to...
(The entire section is 1246 words.)