Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1175
Frederick Elliot is a student at Cambridge and almost alone in the world. He has finally attained some degree of contentment in his life after a rather unhappy childhood. Born with a lame left foot that kept him from most of the normal activities of children, he has grown up virtually without friends. Early in his life, his father began to call him “Rickie” because of the name’s close similarity to “rickety,” and the moniker has stayed with him. In addition to his deformity, Rickie has another, more serious, difficulty. He found out quite early in his life that his father and mother did not love each other, that his father did not love him at all, and that his mother loved him only a little. Both his parents died when he was fifteen years old, leaving him comfortably well-off financially but without anyone who wanted to give him a home.
At Cambridge, he has shown himself to be a capable student but one without any scholarly pretensions. He has made several friends among the nonathletic groups and spends much of his time in long discussions on topics of literary or philosophical interest. During such a discussion one day, he is interrupted by the arrival of his old friends Agnes and Herbert Pembroke; he had completely forgotten that he had invited them for the weekend. Because the sister and brother are part of that very small group who have taken an interest in Rickie’s career, they spend a great part of their time at Cambridge encouraging him to decide on a particular course for his life, even if that course is nothing more than the intention to write, the only pursuit in which he admits having any interest. They point out that money is not important as long as he meets a certain standard of ideals.
During the Christmas holiday of the same year, Rickie sees his friends again. He has stayed several days with Stewart Ansell, a friend from Cambridge, but he feels that he should spend a part of his vacation with the Pembrokes as well. He dreads this part of his vacation because Agnes’s fiancé, a man whom Rickie had known when they were students together at public school, is to be there. Rickie not only dislikes Gerald Dawes but also hates to witness the happiness of the lovers; he feels that such happiness is forever denied him because of his lame foot, which he considers a hereditary disorder. During this time, Gerald is killed while playing football (soccer), and it is Rickie who is able to offer the most comfort to Agnes by convincing her that she should suffer, because her love for Gerald had been the greatest thing she could ever experience.
Two years later, when she comes again to visit him at Cambridge, Rickie realizes that he is in love with Agnes, although he still feels that he can never marry because of his deformity. She convinces him, however, that they should be married. Rickie is about to finish his work at Cambridge, but they feel a long engagement is necessary to give him time to settle himself. Ansell immediately opposes the marriage because he senses that Agnes is not a sincere person. She constantly lays claim to honesty and forthrightness, but Ansell cannot be convinced that these are the qualities of the true Agnes. He quickly comes to believe that she will force Rickie into a dull and conventional life, convincing him at the same time that he is taking the proper steps.
Soon after they become engaged, Rickie and Agnes visit his aunt, Mrs. Emily Failing, at her country home. Rickie has never particularly liked his aunt, but since she is his only known relative, he and Agnes felt that they should go to see her. Mrs. Failing is a woman who likes to have people do what she wants, and she is never happier than when they are obviously uncomfortable while carrying out her desires. While Rickie and Agnes are visiting her, they also see Stephen Wonham, a young man whom Rickie has met before but whose relationship to Mrs. Failing has never been clear to him. After Rickie engages in an argument with his aunt, she informs him that Stephen is actually his brother. It is not until later that Rickie finds out that Stephen is the son of his mother, not of his father. Stephen himself does not know the details of his birth, but the matter has never greatly concerned him.
After they are married, Rickie and Agnes go to live with Herbert Pembroke at Sawston School. The arrangement has been worked out between Herbert and Agnes because Herbert needs help in his duties as a housemaster. Although Rickie soon realizes that Herbert is basically stupid and that they disagree on many points, he adapts himself to whatever course Herbert and Agnes choose. His marriage, in which he had hoped to find certain spiritual ideals, never reaches a very intimate level, and before long, his life becomes a shell. Ansell will have no more to do with him, and he is cut off from the one person of any intellect at the school because of Herbert’s feelings and aspirations.
Two years later, after Rickie has apparently succumbed completely to the forces playing on him, Stephen Wonham again enters his life. It becomes apparent immediately that Agnes, who has kept up a connection with Mrs. Failing and who wishes to inherit the money from her estate, has been instrumental in having Stephen thrown out of Mrs. Failing’s house. Rickie is furious but again submits. Stephen, who has finally been told the truth about who he is, arrives at Sawston expecting to find the kind of familial love he has never known before, but when Rickie refuses to see him and Agnes offers him money never to say anything about his parentage, he leaves immediately.
Stephen wanders around London for several days, doing odd jobs and supporting himself as best he can. Before long, he has saved enough money for a drunken spree. In his drunkenness, he decides to wreck Rickie’s house and returns to Sawston, where Rickie ends up saving him from almost killing himself. By this time, Rickie is under the influence of Ansell again and has begun to see how foolish he has been. He decides to give Stephen a home, but Stephen, who rejects this idea, manages to convince Rickie that they should go away together.
With that, the regeneration of Rickie’s soul begins, but it is of short duration. On a subsequent visit to his aunt, at which time Stephen insists on accompanying him, he again saves Stephen’s life but loses his own when Stephen, who has promised not to drink, gets drunk and collapses on the railroad tracks. Rickie manages to get Stephen clear but is himself killed by a train. Just before he dies, he realizes that he has been betrayed a second time by his belief in the individual.