Judith Hearne has just moved into what will be the last of the numerous shabby bed-sitting-rooms in the seedy section of Belfast that she has occupied since the death of her aunt. (This aunt, a mean and domineering woman, had taken her into her own home when, as a child, Miss Hearne lost her parents; years later the young woman gave up her work and her few friends in order to nurse her aunt, who finally died.)
At breakfast the next day, Miss Hearne meets the other inhabitants of the boardinghouse. Besides Mrs. Rice, the landlady, and her son, Bernard, the only one of the four boarders who takes any notice of Miss Hearne is James Madden, who is grateful for her apparent interest in the United States. The others are all bored with his endless bragging about his life there. Madden has returned to his native Ireland following a traffic accident and an out-of-court settlement of ten thousand dollars, which he dreams of investing in a small business as soon as he can find a partner. Meanwhile, he spends long, tedious days drinking in a pub. Because Miss Hearne, in her awkward attempts at friendliness, seems to approve of his scheme, Madden mistakenly imagines that she has money which she might invest in his project. She, on the other hand, imagines, also mistakenly, that he is romantically attracted to her. They attend Sunday Mass together, after which Miss Hearne makes her weekly visit to the O’Neills, who are all bored by the lonely, tiresome woman. The children ridicule her behind her back, Professor O’Neill escapes to his study, and Moira dozes off while Miss Hearne is talking to her.
After an evening at the cinema (Victor Mature playing Samson), Madden and Miss Hearne are confronted by Mrs. Rice, who proceeds to disparage her brother and to disillusion and insult Miss Hearne. Back in her room, Miss Hearne battles with her ambivalent feelings about Madden, her awareness that her deceased aunt would have considered him common, her own fantasies about him, and her loneliness and self-pity. Finally, she succumbs to the temptation that she has resisted for six months; taking two bottles of whiskey from her trunk, she begins to drink and continues to do so until she becomes unconscious. That same night, Madden also yields to the secretly lustful side of his nature and rapes Mary, the young housemaid, who has been having an affair with Bernard.
The next morning, Miss Hearne, deeply ashamed and penitent, goes to church but fails to find comfort and salvation; she feels her faith weakening. Not long afterward, she confronts Madden and learns that he never intended to marry her, as she had imagined, while he discovers that she has no money beyond the hundred pounds a year on which she barely manages to live. Miss Hearne next seeks comfort...
(The entire section is 1132 words.)