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Louisa Ellis’s fiancé, Joe Dagget, has returned to marry her after spending fourteen years in Australia, where he had gone to make his fortune, so he could support her. Louisa, however, has become used to her simple single life and does not know what to do with this large male who seems always to be disturbing the order of her life. Louisa’s meticulous ways are revealed as she takes care of her spotless house, her canary, and her old dog, Caesar, who, because he had bitten someone long ago, has been chained up approximately as long as Joe has been away. Then Joe arrives to court Louisa, a month before they are to be married. Joe tracks in dust and knocks things over, causing Louisa much discomfort. Both are relieved when the visit is over, he is outdoors again, and she can sweep up the dust and set the room to rights.

The narrator, omniscient but focused mainly on Louisa’s reflections and experiences, traces the course of the relationship between Louisa and Joe. Louisa, when young, had considered herself to be in love with Joe, although it is clear that Louisa was never a passionate person. In his absence, she has inherited her mother’s house and her brother’s dog and learned to enjoy a narrow, peaceful single life. Now she is reluctant to give this life up for the very different life Joe would offer. He has a big house with his mother in it, a domineering, shrewd matron who would look down on Louisa’s finicky housekeeping and her old-maid occupations, such as distilling the essences from herbs and flowers. One of Louisa’s major fears when she thinks of the coming marriage is the possibility that Joe might set free her old dog, whom she pictures as ravishing the neighborhood. Joe, on the other hand, has fallen in love with a young woman, Lily Dyer, who has been helping his mother. Both Louisa and Joe feel honor-bound by their engagement, however, and intend to go through with the marriage.

With the wedding a week away, things change for Louisa. She is sitting outdoors in the evening, resting in the middle of a late stroll, when she overhears Joe and Lily discuss their feelings for each other and their intention to deny their feelings and part because of Joe’s engagement. Now Louisa has reason to end the engagement and she does so, not mentioning Lily but claiming only that she has lived one way so long that she does not think she can change. Having made the break, she weeps a little, hardly knowing why, but on waking the next morning, she feels greatly relieved.

Now Joe is free to marry Lily, and Louisa is free to be herself, a New England nun who has created her own hermitage. She will not give up her cared-for home for Joe’s disorderly one, and she will not have children or experience passion.

The conclusion contrasts the wide world she has given up—“Outside was the fervid summer afternoon; the air was filled with the sounds of the busy harvest of men and birds and bees”—with the narrow world she has chosen of linen seams, distilled roses, dusting, and polishing.

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