Chapter 1 Summary

In his senior year at Harvard, Barrett decides to do his studying at the Radcliffe library; it is quieter and has plenty of women. One of the young women working there today is a “bespectacled mouse type,” and he asks her to help him find a book. She is not helpful; in fact, she insults him by calling him “Preppie” and saying that he “looks stupid and rich.” Barrett assures her he is smart and poor; she assures him it is she who is smart and poor.

When she takes her glasses off to argue with Barrett more effectively, he sees her eyes are brown, but he will not let a “’Cliffie” call him dumb, even if she has pretty eyes. She claims to be smart because she would never have coffee with him; when Barrett says he would never ask her, she claims that is what makes him stupid. Barrett takes her for coffee only because he gets to study the book he needs while he waits for her. When she steps from behind the counter, he approves of her legs but not her too-Bohemian outfit.

They go to a nearby sandwich shop, where she finally introduces herself as Jennifer Cavilleri, a music major of American-Italian descent. He introduces himself as Oliver Barrett but omits the “fourth.” He is thankful she does not associate him with Barrett Hall, the largest and ugliest building in Harvard Yard. His family is rich and vain and suffers from “flagrant Harvardism.” Soon they sit in silence, and Barrett is afraid they have already run out of conversation. He looks at her notebooks and comments on her advanced music classes; she insults him by again calling him “Preppie” and claims his family built Barrett Hall (so she does know who he is) only to ensure that his pitiful self would be admitted into Harvard. Barrett wonders why, if she thinks so little of him, Jenny practically bulldozed him into buying her coffee. Jenny looks directly at him and smiles as she tells him she likes his body.

As he walks Jenny back to her dormitory, Barrett is determined to win over this “snotty Radcliffe bitch.” He is not kind when he nearly demands that she attend the Harvard hockey game against Dartmouth Friday night. She irreverently demands to know why. When he tells her he is playing, there is a brief silence before she asks him for which team he is playing.

Chapter 2 Summary

Barrett makes sure Jenny gets a program at the hockey game so she can read his biography and, he hopes, be impressed. Though he never even looks up at her, Barrett plays to impress her—and ends up in the penalty box for fighting. Suddenly behind him he hears Jenny taunting him for sitting here while his friends are all playing. Barrett explains he was penalized for trying too hard. When she asks him if he is a dirty player, he does not answer because he is too busy boasting that he is going to “total” one of his opponents. When Jenny asks whether he would ever “total” her, Barrett is abrupt and says he will do so right now if she does not stay quiet. Jenny leaves immediately.

Barrett returns to the ice and plays hard but manages to find a second to look for Jenny on the stands; he catches a glimpse of her but in his distraction, he is dumped on his rear by an opponent. Immediately he recovers and plays with a vengeance; he hears Jenny screaming at him to “knock their heads off!” It was “exquisitely violent.” Barrett scores and Harvard wins the game.

After the game, Barrett has to sit in the whirlpool for a bit because of a bad knee, and he hopes Jenny will still be waiting for him. When he finally emerges from the building, it is dark and a few fans are still gathered. He does not see her until she pops out from behind a bush; Barrett is so thankful to see her that he kisses her—for a very long time. Jenny does not like the fact that she likes kissing him.

Barrett walks Jenny to her dormitory and tells her he might not call her for a few months, or he might call her as soon as he gets back to his room. She hates his taunting, but Barrett simply points out that she can “dish it out, but she can’t take it.”

Back at his dorm, Barrett’s roommate is playing poker with some buddies, who tease Barrett about Jennifer Cavilleri, whom they call the “wonky, music type.” Barrett closes his door and calls Jenny. They talk in whispers, and he eventually tells her he is in love with her. She tells him he is “full of shit” and hangs up on him. Barrett is neither unhappy nor surprised. 

Chapter 3 Summary

In the hockey game against Cornell, Barrett gets hurt in a serious fight. His father, Oliver Barrett III, drove from Boston to see the game and is now impassively watching his only son sit in the penalty box as if he were doing Barrett and Harvard a favor by attending this hockey game. Harvard loses the Ivy League title in a rough game, 6-3. After the game, X-rays reveal that Barrett has no broken bones, but he gets twelve stitches in his cheek and a warning not to play for a week. By the time Barrett leaves, no one is left in the locker room. Outside, his father makes no comment on his son’s injury other than to say that Barrett must be hungry.

At dinner, the two men have one of their usual “non-conversations” full of veiled recriminations by both of them until the elder Barrett asks about his son’s future plans. Though Barrett has applied to law school, he is not certain that is what he wants to do; his father offers to make a phone call to ensure Barrett’s acceptance, but his son adamantly rejects the offer. Barrett III assures his son that he would not object if his son entered the Peace Corps, but Barrett is noncommittal. Barrett III finally drives away in his Aston Martin at eleven thirty. He likes to drive too fast, and the trip home to Boston will not take him long.

At the motel, Barrett calls Jenny and recounts the game (at least most of it), and he can tell she particularly enjoys hearing about the fight. She wonders whether he at least totaled the player who hit him, and Barrett assures her he “creamed him.” Jenny wishes she could have seen the fight and hopes he might beat someone up in the Yale game. Barrett smiles at her love of “the simple things in life.”

Chapter 4 Summary

When Barrett goes to Jenny’s dormitory to pick her up for a date, she is on the phone. He hears her telling someone named Phil that she loves him. Barrett has been gone a mere forty-eight hours, and Jenny has already found someone else to love. After she hangs up, Jenny smiles, lightly kisses Barrett’s wounded face, and tells him he looks awful. He tells her ominously that the other guy looks worse and that he always does serious damage to any rival. (He hopes that will scare her away from the other man.) As Jenny gets into his car, an MG, Barrett casually asks her who Phil is. It is her father.

Barrett is incredulous that she calls her father by his first name. Jenny had told him once that her father, a baker from Cranston, Rhode Island, raised her. Her mother died in a car accident when Jenny was quite young, and her father would not allow her to get a driver’s license because of it. Jenny asks Barrett about his father, assuming that Barrett III is proud of his All-Ivy son. While Jenny is obviously proud of his accomplishments, Barrett has to tell her that his father rowed single sculls in the 1928 Olympics and is therefore not particularly impressed with his son’s athletic prowess. Despite that, Jenny does not understand why Barrett refers to his father only as the “sunovabitch.”

Barrett tries to explain that he despises having been “programmed for the Barrett Tradition.” He cringes when he has to mention the numeral at the end of his name, and he loathes having to deliver a proscribed amount of achievement every semester. Though he does always achieve to his father’s expectations, he hates that Oliver Barrett III expects nothing less. He has never spoken this sentiment aloud before, but he has to make Jenny understand that the two Barretts are at war. From this conversation, Barrett sees the cultural chasm between him and Jenny, despite their shared Ivy League experiences. Because of her Italian upbringing, Jenny refuses to believe that a father would not unreservedly love his son. Barrett tries to explain it to her by citing the conversation he and his father had after the hockey game, but all Jenny can do is be impressed that Barrett III traveled so far to see his son play.

Finally Barrett just asks Jenny to forget it. She is actually quite pleased with this flaw in Barrett’s character, as it means he is not perfect. When he suggests she thinks she might be perfect, Jenny assures him she thinks no such thing. If she were perfect, she would certainly not be dating him. 

Chapter 5 Summary

In the first three weeks they are dating, Barrett and Jenny are not very physical. In fact, they do little more than kiss. This is not how Barrett usually conducts his relationships, as dozens of girls from several campuses could attest. If any of those girls had learned about this lack of progress in the bedroom, they would laugh and question Jenny’s femininity. But the truth is that Barrett does not know what to do with Jenny.

Jenny is smart and he is afraid she might laugh at what he had always considered to be his smooth romantic moves. He is afraid of being rejected, but he also does not want to be “accepted for the wrong reasons.” Barrett feels differently about Jenny and does not know what to say or how to ask her about it. (Later she tells him he should have just asked her.) All he knows is that he has deep feelings for all of her, not just her body.

Eventually things change, and it takes no planning or preparation. Barrett explodes in his frustration one day and says he wants to make love to her; Jenny calmly asks him to do just that. Their first physical encounter is the opposite of their first verbal encounter; they are both gentle and loving. Barrett discovers Jenny wears a small golden cross around her neck and assumes it is a sign of her Catholic faith. Jenny tells him she wears it because it was her mother’s and she likes this reminder of her mother. This is the day Jenny tells Barrett she loves him very much. 

Chapter 6 Summary

Oliver Barrett’s roommate, Ray Stratton, is not a great football player or a genius, but he is a loyal friend. Poor Stratton has to endure a lot during this year. Every time he sees a tie on the doorknob of their room (“the traditional signal for ‘action within’”), Stratton has to find someplace else to study and even sleep. Barrett would do the same for him, of course. In the past, however, Barrett has always shared the “minutest details” of all his “amorous triumphs.” Now Barrett not only does not share any details, but he does not even admit that he and Jenny are lovers.

That does not keep Stratton from speculating, but Barrett tells him nothing and asks Stratton not to ask. Stratton thinks his roommate’s behavior seems obsessive and unhealthy, but Barrett tells him that this is how a “mature love affair” is conducted. This comment really worries Stratton, and he fears for his friend’s bachelorhood, freedom, and life.

Barrett attends a concert in which Jenny is playing. She is the harpsichord soloist and it is the first time he has heard her play in public or in a group. Barrett is proud of her performance, and he tells her how well she played. Jenny merely tells him to “wise up,” as she did not play well; she was just “okay.” He relents and tells her she should keep playing, in any case. Of course she is going to keep playing; after all, she is planning to study with Nadia Boulanger. This is news to Barrett and something Jenny obviously had not intended to mention because Boulanger is a famous music teacher—in Paris.

Barrett is stunned at this announcement and slowly repeats the word: Paris. Jenny is fortunate to have gotten a good scholarship, but all Barrett can concentrate on is Paris. Jenny keeps talking, but he finally grabs her shoulders and asks how long she has known about these plans. For the first time, Jenny cannot look Barrett straight in his eyes. With sadness on her face, she tells him it is inevitable that the two of them will separate after they graduate, for he is a “preppie millionaire” and she is a “social zero.” Barrett does not understand what any of that has to do with their being together or their happiness. He begs her not to leave him, but she reminds him of her scholarship and seeing Paris, a place she has never been. Then Barrett silences her by asking, “What about our marriage?”

For just a moment, Barrett is not even sure he spoke those words aloud, but he does want to marry her and tells her so. When she asks why in a purely inquisitive way, he looks directly at Jenny and gives her a one-word answer: “Because.” Jenny calmly agrees that is a very good reason, and they walk together along the river. There is nothing more to be said. 

Chapter 7 Summary

Barrett is taking Jenny to meet his parents for Sunday dinner in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and he is driving like a crazy man. He tells Jenny that his parents are “lovely people” and everybody likes them—which is one of the reasons he dislikes his father so much. Barrett is taking Jenny to meet them only because she thinks it is the accepted thing to do, but Barrett knows he will have to deal with his father, the banker, about his plans to marry Jenny because his father is paying his tuition.

The houses in the Barretts’ neighborhood cannot be seen from the street. It is at least half a mile from the street to the house, and it is an impressive sight for someone who has not grown up there. Jenny is awestruck, for she had not known the Barretts were this rich; suddenly she wishes she were a more traditional girl.

A maid greets them, and Jenny is awed when she sees the family portraits hanging on the walls of the hallway leading to the library. The array of Barrett forebears is impressive and includes many illustrious names, such as Sewall, Winthrop, and Lyman. Jenny is awed, but Barrett assures her “it’s all crap.” At the end of the hallway is a glass case filled with athletic trophies. Jenny is impressed with all the gold and silver, but Barrett tells her they belong to Barrett III, not him. His trophies are upstairs under his bed.

Barrett III greets them with an “insidious smile on his usually rocklike countenance.” Alison Forbes “Tipsy” Barrett never completed college, leaving in her sophomore year to marry Oliver Barrett III, with her parents’ full blessing. After Barrett introduces her to Jenny and they all share several minutes of banalities, the group is silent. Mrs. Barrett is examining and weighing Jenny while Barrett III concentrates his full attention on his son.

Finally Barrett announces they have come only for tea; at the same moment, Jenny assures Mrs. Barrett that they have come for dinner. Finally Barrett III pronounces that the couple will be staying for dinner. This kind of command is unbearable to Barrett, and he tells his father firmly that they cannot stay. Jenny says they have to stay because she is hungry.

After Barrett III says the blessing, the four of them eat to the accompaniment of Mrs. Barrett’s small talk riddled with a subtle battle of wills between the two men. They move to the library for dessert; after the tea is served, silence reigns once again. Finally Barrett asks Jenny what she thinks about the Peace Corps. Surprised, Mrs. Barrett wonders whether her husband has told them the news that he has just been named the director of the Peace Corps. Barrett is not pleased at the news, though Jenny seems to be. Barrett III smiles with false humility.

Chapter 8 Summary

On the drive back to Cambridge, Barrett insists his father’s new position is not particularly significant. Jenny is dismayed that Barrett had not enthusiastically congratulated his father, and she is sick that there is such a strain in the men’s relationship. Jenny feels the way Barrett treats his father is disgusting and disrespectful. Barrett claims it is mutual, but Jenny says Barrett would do anything to annoy his father—even marry Jennifer Cavilleri, the girl with the “negative social status.” Barrett pulls over and demands to know if she doubts that he loves her; she does not doubt it, but she is sure Barrett also loves annoying his father with his relationship with her. She does not judge him for this, as she loves not only him but also his name and his numeral because it is part of who he is. They sit is silence for a time. Barrett has always loved Jenny’s ability to understand the things he does not know how to articulate, and she is still doing it. She has faced his imperfections along with her own.

When the two Barrett men meet for lunch at the Harvard Club, the elder Barrett sermonizes on what he calls “excessive velocity” in several areas of his life. First he warns his son not to eat so quickly, and the younger Barrett suggests that grown men do not need to have their behavior commented on or corrected. Barrett looks around and sees that they are surrounded by his father’s people: classmates, clients, and admirers. This feels like a complete setup to Barrett. Finally he asks his father what Barrett III thinks about Jenny. The older man says he does not want to comment, as the marriage is already a fait accompli, but Barrett insists. His father finds it admirable that a “girl from her background” made it to Radcliffe. When Barrett continues to push his father, Barrett III tells Barrett that he is marrying Jenny out of rebellion. Barrett asks his father what irks him most about Jenny: that she is Catholic or that she is poor. Barrett III quietly asks his son what attracts him most about Jenny.

Barrett wants to leave, but his father insists he stay and talk like a man. All Barrett III asks is that the couple wait to get married until Barrett finishes law school; if their love is real, it will remain strong over time. However, Barrett asks why he must put their love to some arbitrary test. Barrett III finally gets to his point. Because Barrett is not legally an adult, if he marries Jenny now, his father will disown him. Barrett walks out of his father’s life and begins his own. 

Chapter 9 Summary

Now Barrett must meet Jenny’s father, something he does not look forward to with any confidence. Not only is Jenny’s relationship with her father exceptionally close, but Barrett is now broke, and he knows her father will want to know how Barrett intends to support his daughter. Jenny assures Barrett again that when she told her father about Barrett and their plans to marry, her father said okay. She recounts the conversation in which her father assured her he was happy for her and incredulous that she will be marrying someone named Oliver Barrett IV, even if he is poor—though of course her father would prefer it if he had at least a little money.

Jenny’s neighborhood feels like another country to Barrett....

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

The associate dean (and director of financial aid) of the Harvard Law School, William F. Thompson, is incredulous when Oliver Barrett IV announces he will need a scholarship in order to attend law school next year. Barrett does not find this easy to say, and he then has to explain that he and his father have had a kind of disagreement.

Thompson cleans his glasses before looking at Barrett and telling him how unfortunate this situation is. It is clear that Thompson finds this situation quite disconcerting. Barrett explains that he is getting married next month and that both he and his wife, Jenny, will be working all summer; she will be teaching in a private school. Though they will make a living, they will not be able...

(The entire section is 247 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

On Wednesday, Jenny graduates magna cum laude from Radcliffe amid her many rejoicing relatives. As she and Barrett had decided ahead of time, Jenny introduces Barrett merely as her boyfriend, knowing that most of her family are going to be offended at not being invited to the wedding. This maneuver will at least postpone their hurt feelings. Despite the relatives’ prying, neither Cavilleri nor the couple tells them anything more about their relationship.

On Thursday, Barrett also graduates magna cum laude but from Harvard and is Class Marshall, leading the graduates to their seats. More than seventeen thousand people attend the ceremony, but Barrett has no idea if his father was there. Barrett gave his two allotted...

(The entire section is 403 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

Barrett describes the couples’ first three years of marriage with the word scrounge. All their time and energy are spent amassing enough money to pay what needs to be paid next, and there is nothing left for anything fun or frivolous. Most of the time, they just break even, and there is certainly nothing romantic about living this way. They honeymoon on a yacht—not as passengers but as crew. Barrett sails the ship all day, and sometimes into the evenings, while Jenny serves as a children’s activity supervisor. It is a tribute to both of them that after spending all day having to be kind to their customers, they are still kind to one another, even in their exhaustion.

Barrett and Jenny come home at the end...

(The entire section is 403 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

The Barretts receive a formal invitation to Oliver Barrett III’s sixtieth birthday celebration. Jenny says it is time to repair this relationship, but Barrett is adamant. His mother is the one who sent them the invitation, not his father, and he has no interest in reconciliation. Jenny appeals to him gently and says one day, Oliver V will probably resent him for being a Harvard jock and perhaps a Supreme Court justice; Barrett insists that even if they name their son Bozo the Clown, his son will never resent him, though he has no compelling evidence to prove it. Jenny reminds Barrett that his father loves him, just as he will one day love his son. The Barrett men are simply too proud and competitive, and they will live...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

The letter from Harvard Law School arrives in July, and Barrett immediately goes to find Jenny, who is supervising a game of kickball. He drives her away and walks her to the docks. Once there, he insists she get into one of the boats moored there, but he will not tell her why until he has rowed them several hundred yards from shore. He wants to be alone with her when he shows her the letter. Jenny immediately recognizes the letterhead.

First she teasingly asks whether he has been kicked out of school; he has not. Then she asks whether he has been named first in his class. Barrett is almost ashamed to admit that he is ranked only third in his class, but this letter does say that he has been named an editor of the...

(The entire section is 368 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

Barrett graduates third in his class from Harvard Law School. The triumph comes as Barrett receives multiple job offers, each one begging him to work for that firm. When selecting from these offers, Barrett rejects prestigious but lower-paying jobs, like clerking for a judge or working for the Department of Justice; instead he is motivated by money, so he and Jenny will no longer have to “scrounge.” Though he was only third in his class, Barrett has one “inestimable advantage” over the others that no one wants to talk about but that matters a lot: Barrett is the only one of the top ten Harvard graduates this year who is not Jewish.

Hundreds of firms are fighting to put Barrett’s name on their letterhead;...

(The entire section is 311 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

The Barretts are experiencing an “overall feeling of euphoric triumph” as they settle into their new life in New York. Barrett is most pleased that his car payment now is nearly as much as what he and Jenny paid for their entire rent in North Cambridge. His office is only a ten-minute walk away, as are all the expensive shops, where he insists Jenny must now shop.

Barrett joins the Harvard Club in New York, proposed for membership by his former roommate, Raymond Stratton, class of 1964. Stratton has recently returned to civilian life after serving in the active military. The two men play squash three times a week or so, and Barrett has set the private goal of becoming club squash champion within three years.


(The entire section is 403 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary

When he was in college, Barrett (like most of the boys there) was obsessed with conception but not with contraception. Now he has discovered that it is not as easy as he had hoped to make a baby. He and Jenny are obsessed with rules, calendars, and strategies for getting pregnant; of course, these are the very things that kill the naturalness and spontaneity in a healthy sex life.

In their first consultation with an expert, Dr. Mortimer Sheppard assures Barrett that sterility has nothing to do with virility. Jenny knows that even the possibility that her husband might be sterile is devastating to him. Both Barrett and Jenny undergo complete physicals and a battery of tests. Soon after, the doctor calls Jenny and asks...

(The entire section is 438 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary

Now that he knows Jenny has a fatal disease, Barrett begins to think about God. He does not think about God in terms of blame, as a Supreme Being who is somehow punishing Jenny. Just the opposite is true. Every morning, Barrett wants to thank God for letting him have his wife for one more day. Barrett tries to banter naturally with Jenny, but it is difficult for him. When he wants to do something nice and take Jenny out for dinner on a weeknight, she says only an unfaithful husband would do such a thing. Barrett agrees to eat dinner at home.

Barrett tells God he would gladly let things stay as they are: he will live with the perpetual torment of knowing she is fatally ill as long as Jenny does not know. At the office,...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

Chapter 19 Summary

Now Barrett is no longer afraid to go home or afraid that he is not acting “normal.” He and Jenny once again share everything, even the awful knowledge that their days together will be limited. They have to talk about many things most twenty-four-year-old couples do not even have to think about. Jenny tells her husband he must be strong, as if she somehow knows that the former All-Ivy Harvard hockey star is scared. He must be strong for her father. It will be more difficult for Cavilleri than for Barrett, the “merry widower.” Barrett assures her he will not be merry, but Jenny insists that he will because she wants him to be. In fact, she insists on it.

A month later, Barrett is putting away the dishes...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Chapter 20 Summary

Oliver Barrett IV, like his father, loves to drive fast. He drives recklessly for three hours and twenty minutes, which he thinks is undoubtedly a record, as he drives from Manhattan to Boston. He shaves carefully and changes his shirt in the car before entering his father’s hallowed offices. It is eight o’clock in the morning and important people from all over the world are already waiting to see the important banker Oliver Barrett III. The secretary recognizes Barrett and immediately speaks his name into the intercom before Barrett has to say anything.

Instead of responding to her page, Barrett III opens his door and says his son’s name. Barrett notices his father is rather pale and his hair is grayer since they...

(The entire section is 403 words.)

Chapter 21 Summary

Barrett is the one who has to tell Phil Cavilleri that his daughter is dying. Her father calmly closes up his house in Cranston and comes to live in the Barretts’ apartment. His way of coping is to wash, scrub, and polish, apparently hoping Jenny will one day come home—just as Barrett is doing.

Barrett calls Jonas to tell him he cannot be at the office, and from then on, his days consist of two parts: visiting hours and everything else. The “everything else” includes
“eating without hunger,” watching his father-in-law cleaning (and then recleaning) the apartment, and never sleeping, despite the prescription Ackerman gave him. But Barrett can continue this pattern as long as he must because “Jenny is...

(The entire section is 416 words.)

Chapter 22 Summary

Phil Cavilleri is in the atrium smoking yet another cigarette, and when he sees his son-in-law, he seems to know that his daughter has died. Cavilleri seems to need physical comfort of some kind, so Barrett puts his hand on his father-in-law’s shoulder. Cavilleri puts his hand on Barrett’s hand and says he wishes he had not promised Jenny to be strong for Barrett. Honoring his pledge, the older man does not cry and just gently pats Barrett’s hand.

Barrett, on the other hand, needs to be alone, to breathe fresh air, to take a walk. The hospital lobby downstairs is silent and still. All Barrett hears is the clicking of his own heels as he walks. Someone says his name and he stops. It is Barrett’s father, and...

(The entire section is 335 words.)