New York City, perhaps the novel’s main protagonist, is cruel and indifferent to individuals and their hopes. The city is improbably generous to a few, but above all exciting and glamorous.
Ed and Susie Thatcher have their first child, a girl they name Ellen. After the birth of the child, Susie becomes deeply depressed and wants to die. Congo and Emile, two French boys, had come to New York to make their fortunes. Emile marries a widowed Frenchwoman who owns a delicatessen. Congo does not like New York and returns to sea.
Gus McNiel, a milkman, is run over by a train. George Baldwin, a young lawyer, takes Gus’s case against the railroad and obtains a settlement for the injured man. While Gus is in the hospital recovering from the accident, George has an affair with Gus’s wife, Nellie.
Jimmy Herf arrives from Europe with his widowed mother, who is in delicate health. One evening, she has a heart attack; not long afterward, she dies. Jimmy’s rich uncle, Jeff, and aunt, Emily Merivale, become his legal guardians. One evening at their house, Jimmy meets Joe Harland, the drunken black sheep of the family, who had won and lost several fortunes on Wall Street.
Susie Thatcher dies, and Ed works hard for little Ellen. He stays at the office until late each evening, working and dreaming of all the fine things he will do for his daughter some day. Ellen grows up, works on the stage, and marries John Oglethorpe, a competent but lazy actor. Ellen’s married life becomes unhappy when she discovers that her husband is gay.
Jimmy Herf’s Uncle Jeff tries to get him interested in business, but Jimmy will have none of it. He gets a job as a reporter and becomes acquainted with Ruth Prynne, a young actor who lives in the boardinghouse where Ellen and John Oglethorpe stay.
George Baldwin forgets Nellie McNiel and is now interested in Ellen. One afternoon, as he and Ellen sit together at tea, a drunken college student stops at their table. George introduces him to Ellen as Stan Emery. Ellen and Stan fall in love. She is miserable with John. Ellen decides that she and John can no longer live together. She packs her belongings and moves to a hotel. Stan goes on a long drunken spree after being expelled from college. He goes to Jimmy Herf’s room. Later in the day, they meet John and Ellen drinking tea together. Stan leaves, but Jimmy stays to talk with Ellen. Ellen moves from her hotel to an apartment. She is supporting herself well now, for she has become a success on Broadway.
George Baldwin sits at breakfast with his wife, Cecily, whom he had married for social position. They are not happy, and Cecily knows of his affairs with other women. George does all he can to keep her from leaving him because a scandal would ruin him in the business world.
Joe Harland is now forty-five years old and almost broke. He spends his last bits of money on a few shots of whiskey to bring back memories of the old prosperous days on Wall Street. He finally gets a job as a night watchman. One evening, he is visited by a young labor organizer, Joe O’Keefe. The older man warns him against getting mixed up in labor troubles, but O’Keefe says that Gus McNiel, now an assemblyman, is on the side of labor.
Harry Goldweiser, a rich Broadway producer, falls in love with Ellen and asks her to marry him. She refuses, but in a friendly way, for her career depends upon him.
Gus retains George Baldwin as his lawyer throughout his rise to political power. George warns him against getting mixed up with labor because, as a member of a conservative law firm, George will not be able to help Gus with labor troubles.
Ellen wants Stan to stop drinking so much, but he refuses. Drink is the only means by which he can adjust himself to the world. One evening, Ellen goes to dinner with George Baldwin. Everyone is excited about the beginning of the war. George, however, can think only of Ellen, and in a fit of rage, he threatens her with a gun. Gus, who is nearby, takes away the gun and...
(The entire section is 1,130 words.)