The story unfolds through a series of letters exchanged between John Flemming and his friend Edward Delaney, a young attorney vacationing with his invalid father. The first letter, however, is from Dr. Dillon to Edward Delaney. It explains John Flemming’s situation and the terms of his convalescence.
After slipping on a lemon peel and breaking his leg, Flemming has been ordered to remain at his New York City home for three to four weeks, confined to a couch. A robust, normally active young man of twenty-four, he finds his confinement at best tedious, at worst intolerable, and becomes extremely moody. When his sister Fanny comes home from the family’s summer resort to care for him, he drives her away in tears. Flemming’s servant Watkins then bears the brunt of his melancholy and sudden, unreasonable anger. The convalescent repeatedly pelts Watkins with volumes from the complete works of Honoré de Balzac. Hoping to calm his patient, Dr. Dillon encourages Delaney to write to him to buoy his spirits and still his rage.
The exchange of letters between Delaney and Flemming begins shortly thereafter, on August 9, 1872. Part of Flemming’s frustration arises from the fact that he was to have spent the late summer months with his friend in New Hampshire and that his accident has ruined their plans. Delaney, noting the quiet, uneventful life he leads at the Pines, his rustic retreat, innocently speculates what he might do, were he a novelist like the great Russian Ivan Turgenev. Then, without making it entirely clear that he is doing so, he begins to spin a story about imaginary neighbors—the Daws, who live in an imaginary colonial mansion across the road from his own cottage.
Delaney starts by describing a young, graceful, and fashionably dressed woman of about eighteen. She has golden hair and dark eyes and lies in a hammock in the neighbor’s piazza. The portrait that he creates fascinates Flemming, who hungers for more information about the young woman....
(The entire section is 815 words.)