Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1135
Pierre Glendinning is a young man who lives amid luxury and ease, the heir to vast estates that form the larger portion of two counties in New York State. His time is taken up with outdoor recreation, reading, and the courting of beautiful and well-to-do Lucy Tartan, a woman of whom Pierre’s mother approves completely. Mrs. Glendinning, who is jealous of her influence over her son, sees nothing to fear in quiet, nonaggressive Lucy Tartan.
One evening, however, a strange incident occurs when Mrs. Glendinning and Pierre visit a sewing bee in a nearby home. One of the women there shrieks and faints when she sees Pierre. The incident bothers the young man, but he is totally unprepared for a note he receives from the young woman a short time later. In the note, she requests that Pierre visit her in the evening at the farm where she is employed. Pierre, disturbed by the mystery involved, goes to the farm and discovers that the woman, Isabel, is his half sister, the illegitimate child of his father and a Frenchwoman. Pierre resolves immediately to acknowledge Isabel as his sister, but the question of how to accomplish the acknowledgment is a weighty one.
At first, Pierre intends to tell his mother of his discovery, but his mother’s attitude toward Delly Ulver, a farm woman who had been born an illegitimate child, warns Pierre that he can expect no sympathetic understanding from Mrs. Glendinning. He next thinks of approaching his minister for help with his problem, but the minister follows his mother’s opinion, which causes Pierre to fall back on his own thinking. He also realizes that his mother cannot bear to have her husband proven to be an adulterer, nor can he bring himself to dishonor his father’s name. The only road that seems open to Pierre is to acknowledge Isabel by making her his wife rather than his sister.
When Pierre tells his mother that he has been married secretly, she orders him to leave the house immediately. Disowned and cast forth from his mother’s affections, he also tells Lucy Tartan that he has married another woman. His story throws Lucy into an almost fatal illness.
Having been disowned by his family, Pierre takes Isabel from her home at the farm and goes to New York City. They are accompanied by Delly Ulver, whom Pierre has decided to help. Although he announced that he and Isabel had been married, Pierre and his half sister entered into no such union; the announcement is only a means to permit them to live together. In New York City, they find life barren and difficult, for Pierre has only a small supply of money. He had hoped to find a haven for himself and the two women with his wealthy cousin, Glen Stanly, but the cousin refuses to recognize Pierre and throws him out of his home.
Forced to rely upon his own resources, Pierre resolves to become an author. He has, he believes, acquired quite a reputation by publishing some short poems and some essays in various periodicals. He also thinks he has great talent, sufficient, at least, to enable him to write a philosophical work. After much difficulty, he manages to find a publisher who agrees to take his unwritten novel and to advance him enough money to live. For months Pierre, struggling to write his great work, lives in three miserable, unheated rooms in a vast tenement, along with Isabel and Delly Ulver, who acts in the capacity of servant to them both.
One day, word comes to Pierre that his mother had died just a few weeks after he had left for New York City; her heir is Pierre’s cousin, Glen Stanly. The news makes Pierre very bitter, particularly when he discovers that his cousin is a suitor for the hand of Lucy Tartan, whom Pierre still loves dearly. Despite the feeling of utter helplessness that the news creates in his mind, Pierre keeps working on his book. Pierre is unable to keep Isabel from realizing that she is not alone in his affections, and the woman becomes jealous and dislikes the fact that another woman could claim his attentions and love. Her attachment for Pierre goes much deeper than ordinary love for a brother by a sister.
Sometime later, Pierre receives a letter from Lucy. She had rebuffed Glen Stanly’s suit, and she writes to tell Pierre that he alone has her affections. She tells Pierre that, even though he is married, she wishes to travel to New York City to live near him. Pierre cannot prevent her from joining his household, although he lies to Isabel and tells her that Lucy is his cousin. Lucy arrives the next day. As she enters the tenement where Pierre lives, her brother and Glen Stanly try to take her away by force. Pierre interferes on her behalf, and the two men have to leave without her.
Lucy, listening only to the prompting of her heart, refuses to leave Pierre, even though she is told by Pierre that Isabel is his wife. Having brought along her painting materials, she intends to support herself as a painter of portraits. Isabel dislikes the idea of a third woman in the home, but she is powerless to turn Lucy out. The two women live in a state of distrustful and watchful truce.
Glen Stanly and Lucy’s brother, not wishing to see Lucy remain near Pierre, send him a letter of premeditated insults in hopes of provoking him. Angered by their message, Pierre finds two pistols in the apartment of a friend and sets out to find Stanly and Lucy’s brother. He encounters them on a crowded street. When they meet, Stanly lashes at Pierre with a whip, whereupon Pierre draws his pistols and kills his cousin. The police immediately seize Pierre and arrest him.
In prison, Pierre has no hope of life. Nor does he care to live, for he feels that fate has been too cruel to him. One evening, Isabel and Lucy are allowed to visit him for a few hours. When Isabel reveals that she is Pierre’s sister, the shock of her announcement kills Lucy immediately. Pierre, driven mad by her death, seizes a vial of poison Isabel carried in her bosom. He drinks a portion of the poison, and Isabel empties the vial of the remainder.
A short time later, Lucy’s brother is looking for her, still hoping to rescue her from Pierre’s influence. When the turnkey opens the cell door, Pierre is already dead, lying close to Lucy. Isabel still has sufficient life to say that no one knew the real Pierre. She then dies as well, completing the tragedy of their ambiguous relationship.