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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1097

When the story opens, Samuel (Sam) and Henrietta (Henny) Pollit have long since stopped speaking to each other except to argue. Any information they must exchange is conveyed through notes or by using the children as go-betweens. Despite their numerous offspring, they have hated each other from the day they...

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When the story opens, Samuel (Sam) and Henrietta (Henny) Pollit have long since stopped speaking to each other except to argue. Any information they must exchange is conveyed through notes or by using the children as go-betweens. Despite their numerous offspring, they have hated each other from the day they married. The conflict between them is the essential conflict of the novel.

The action covers several years in the Pollits’ lives. Louisa (Louie) is eleven and a half when the action begins and fourteen when the story ends. The impact of her parents’ differences on her life—on both her external world and the rich and tormented imaginative world that she creates as a buffer against the harsh realities of life in the Pollit home—is the major focus of the plot. Neither Sam nor Henny changes significantly during the course of the action, but there is significant growth and change in Louie.

When the story begins, the Pollits live in Tohoga House, a large, rambling estate which they rent from Henny’s well-to-do father, with the understanding that they will someday inherit the property. Sam works for the Department of Commerce, and the true complications of the plot begin when he is appointed a Special Field Commissioner and travels to Malaya with a team of Americans to spend nine months advising and studying the cultures of the Pacific.

Just before his departure, his sister, Bonnie, who lives with the Pollits and functions as a house servant, leaves the family. Henny demands that Sam provide a servant to help her with the children during his absence, a fight that leads to a rare sexual encounter (the Pollits have separate bedrooms) and, presumably, to the conception of the family’s last child, Charles Franklin, born the day after Sam returns from his visit to the Orient. The child’s paternity is later called into question by an anonymous note delivered to the Pollit home, and the true identity of the father is never clearly established.

The time in the Orient is very difficult for Sam. He finds that he cannot adjust to the climate, and he misses his children, who serve as a worshipful audience for the antics and preachings of the man they sometimes call, at his own suggestion, Sam-the-Bold. The months are equally difficult for the pregnant Henny, who must manage her cumbersome household with very little in the way of financial resources.

When Sam returns, the action picks up, and the main events of the novel all occur with relative speed. On the day of his welcome-home party, the news of old David Collyer’s death arrives just as Henny goes into labor. What is at first believed to be a good thing for the Pollits, the inheritance of their home, proves to be the first step in a disastrous chain of events.

David Collyer, Henny’s father, has died deeply in debt. Most of his fortune has been squandered, and those assets that remain, such as Tohoga House, must be sold in order to keep his business going. The dividend Henny will receive from her share of the estate is minuscule in comparison to the Pollits’ expectations, and she will not receive it regularly until the estate’s debts are paid off.

At the same time, Sam finds himself under fire at work. He has offended some of his superiors and colleagues by his self-righteous attitudes during the Orient expedition. Rumor fuels further rumor (later, Henny’s infidelity is revealed as a contributing factor in her husband’s downfall), and suddenly Sam finds himself jobless and his family homeless.

Although he has done nothing wrong and could defend himself and save his job, Sam, ever self-righteous, chooses to remain silent and patiently wait for truth and justice to be served. He moves the family to Eastport, a poor, run-down suburb of Annapolis, where they take up residence in the waterfront Spa House, a decrepit structure and a disappointing comedown from their beloved Tohoga House.

For months and months, Sam neither works nor actively pursues work, and the family’s poverty becomes visibly appalling to the children’s teachers and neighbors. Henny’s dividend is their only income; she is eventually driven to selling, surreptitiously, almost every item of value they possess. She spares only those things so large and openly displayed that Sam would notice their disappearance. She even steals from Ernie, the child she loves most.

Louie, driven to desperation by the ever-escalating and unrelieved poverty and by the frustrated longing for the perfect world that for her is embodied in her teacher, Miss Aiden, seeks to escape by leaving to live with her natural mother’s relatives. Sam is deeply dependent on Louie for emotional support, and Henny, who loudly and frequently proclaims her hatred for the child, is equally dependent upon her to help keep the frenetic household running with some semblance of order. Thus, they deny her the independence and private identity she so fiercely desires.

The note accusing Henny of deception regarding Charles Franklin’s paternity serves as the catalyst for the novel’s climax. She considers her own escape—going to Baltimore to beg money from her sister Hassie and affection or at least attention from her former lover, Bert Anderson. Rejected on both counts, she despondently returns to Spa House, where the family is almost immediately absorbed in Sam’s experiment to make marlin oil an all-purpose lubricant that will make the Pollits rich.

The conflict over the experiment leads to a terrifying but familiar argument between Sam and Henny, which, at first, makes Louie fear that they will kill each other. She has an epiphany of sorts, in which she recognizes that the only escape for her and her siblings is for her to kill their parents. She plans to use the cyanide that Sam keeps in the darkroom that he has built off the boys’ bedroom, a substance whose instantaneous poisonous effect he has emphasized to his children.

She steals a pillbox from Henny’s room and succeeds in filling it with the poison, then putting the cyanide into one cup of the morning tea. At that point she becomes so frightened that she cannot take further action or speak. Henny apparently understands precisely what Louie has done and chooses to drink from the poisoned cup. She dies, the family recovers, Sam’s sister Bonnie, now the mother of an illegitimate child, agrees to come manage the house, and Louie runs away, exhilarated by her freedom, wondering why she did not take this action earlier.

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