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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1164

After a long illness, from which she was not expected to recover, Anthony’s wife, a woman in her fifties, feels that she has been given another chance to make herself worthy of heaven. To show her gratitude for this second chance, she dresses herself in her wedding gown, which is also to be her shroud, and goes to church the first Sunday morning she is able. Before she goes, she and her daughter Clara have a heart-to-heart talk, during which the mother discloses her fears about her son, Karl, who spends too much time drinking and playing and not enough time working steadily. The mother feels that his attitudes and his conduct are her fault, but still she refuses to believe he is really a bad young man.

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The mother also raises the subject of Leonard, a poor young clerk who has visited Clara regularly but has not been seen for a while. Shortly after Clara’s mother leaves for church, Leonard comes to see Clara and explains that he has not seen her for two weeks for a particular reason. During that time he has been attentive to the mayor’s daughter in an effort to get himself a job as clerk for the city. Leonard also accuses her of being in love with another man even though, a very short time before, Clara had given herself to Leonard to prove her love. After they have straightened out the situation, Leonard tells Clara he has come to ask her father for her hand in marriage. Clara assures him that they must soon be married, lest her sin is to show. Even so, she has some misgivings about him when she learns of the chicanery he has executed in securing his position as town clerk.

Clara’s father, when he learns of the proposed marriage and Leonard’s prospects, seems agreeable to the marriage. Then the young man, knowing that old Anthony has loaned out a large sum of money, brings up the question of a dowry. He is surprised to learn, however, that Anthony has called in his money and has used it to help an old man who had befriended him in his youth. When the man had died, Anthony had refused to collect from the widow and had put the dead man’s note in his casket. Leonard begins to think that, pregnancy or no, Clara is not a desirable wife for him.

At that time, the mother comes home from church and tells of having seen a newly prepared grave at the churchyard, a grave the sexton dug as an extra, in case it is needed while he is on a holiday. Anthony views it as an evil omen. Then the talk turns to a jewel robbery at the home of a rich merchant in town. Anthony recalls that his worthless son, Karl, has done some work at the house on the day of the robbery. Bailiffs knock at the door and demand permission to search the house for the stolen goods. The shock is so great that the mother swoons and dies. Leonard, who is already none too eager to marry Clara, seizes upon the charge as an excuse to break his betrothal to the girl.

As the days pass, Anthony’s house is a place of wretchedness. All evidence seems to point to Karl’s guilt in the matter of the theft, even though the jewels are not discovered in the house. Anthony also begins to suspect that Clara has strayed from the paths of virtue. He tells her that if she also brings shame on the family, he will cut his own throat with a razor. Clara, not wanting to be the cause of her father’s death, decides that she must commit suicide before her father could do away with himself. One day, while Anthony is away visiting a deaf old woodcutter who has not heard of his family’s disgrace, the rich merchant appears at the house with word that Karl is not guilty, that the jewels have been discovered in his own home, where the merchant’s own mad wife had hidden them.

Clara, pleased to learn that Karl had been exonerated, believes that something will occur to make her life right again. Her belief seems to come true when Friedrich, a childhood sweetheart, calls to tell her that he still loves her and wishes to marry her. Even after Clara tells him of her fall from virtue, he says he loves her and will make her his wife. He also swears that he will arrange a duel with Leonard and seek to kill the man who had seduced her. Since Friedrich has a good job as a secretary, Clara knows that her father will be glad to see her married to him. After the secretary leaves, however, all Clara’s doubts again assail her, and she once more begins to think of suicide.

At last, Clara decides to see Leonard, whom she finds planning to fulfill his ambitions by marrying the mayor’s daughter. Clara confronts him with the letter he had written her on the day of her mother’s death, a letter telling her that he found it impossible to unite himself with the sister of a thief. Even though her brother has been cleared of the charges, Leonard still does not want to marry her, for he knows that a marriage with the mayor’s daughter holds greater prospects for him. When Clara tells him of her father’s plans for suicide, Leonard says the old man thinks too well of life to take his own. Even though Clara tells him she herself contemplated death, he shrugs off her threat, telling her she is not the first woman to be faced with the prospect of producing an illegitimate child. After Leonard again refuses to marry her, Clara leaves.

Shortly after her departure, the secretary appears with a pair of pistols and forces Leonard to leave with him. As they leave to fight a duel, Clara, at home, meets her brother, who tells her of his plans to go to sea. He asks Clara to get him something to eat. She complies and then goes to the well, ostensibly to get some fresh water, but actually to drown herself. While she is gone, Anthony returns from his visit with the woodcutter. Soon afterward the secretary, mortally wounded from the duel, staggers to the door. He tells how Leonard has been killed and asks old Anthony to forgive the girl. Just as Anthony begins to realize Clara’s predicament, Karl runs in with the news that she has killed herself by jumping into the well. Friedrich points out to Anthony that his own weakness and pride caused him to talk of suicide and thus send his daughter to her death, lest her sin be a reflection on her father. All Anthony can say is that he no longer understands the world.

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