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When a measles epidemic temporarily prevents the Davidsons and the Macphails from continuing their journey to Apia, Western Samoa, they find themselves stranded in Pago-Pago. Though the two couples have socialized on shipboard, they are very different: The Davidsons, who have been absent from their medical and religious mission north of Samoa for a year, are religious zealots whose single aim in life is to convert Samoans to Christianity. They are a drab and humorless pair who associate with the Macphails only because the rest of the ship’s passengers seem “fast” by comparison. Though the women find much to talk about, the men share only an association with medicine, for Dr. Macphail is a shy, contemplative man to whom religion means little.

When it is announced that they will be unable to leave the island for at least ten days, the energetic Davidsons take action. Through his influence with the governor, Davidson is able to find them rooms in the establishment of Mr. Horn, a local trader. Mrs. Davidson, with characteristic efficiency, helps the rather ineffectual Macphails settle into the boardinghouse, determined to make the best of things in spite of the bleak environment.

Soon Macphail learns that another of their shipmates will be lodging at Horn’s, a second-class passenger named Sadie Thompson. Sadie, en route to Apia where a job supposedly awaits her, has been judged “fast” by Mrs. Davidson and Mrs. Macphail for dancing with the ship’s quartermaster at the shipboard party the night before the landing at Pago-Pago. Vulgar in appearance and speech, Sadie is a friendly and vivacious sort who seeks, in the ensuing days, to enliven the depressing boardinghouse by giving frequent parties, loud and raucous affairs attended solely by the island’s sailors. One evening the couples’ dinner conversation is interrupted by especially loud noises coming from Sadie’s room on the floor below. As they try to talk over the din, Davidson has a sudden revelation: Sadie, who boarded the ship at Honolulu, must be a denizen of Iwelei, that city’s notorious red-light district, which has only recently been shut down through the efforts of Hawaiian missionaries. Further, she must be plying her trade here in Pago-Pago—just below them in her room at Horn’s.

Over the objections of Macphail, who considers Sadie’s actions none of their business, Davidson insists on storming into her room and trying to break up the party. As his wife and the Macphails listen, Davidson is thrown out of the room by the sailors. After the Davidsons go to their room, the party starts up again, even louder than before.

The arrival of the ship in Pago-Pago has coincided with the beginning of the tropical rainy season, and rain falls almost ceaselessly during the time period covered by the story—torrential, oppressive rain, which depresses the Macphails and greatly adds to the sense of claustrophobia that permeates the story. During a rare dry spell on the day after Sadie’s party, Mrs. Macphail and Mrs. Davidson twice encounter Sadie, who treats them rudely. Mrs. Davidson is certain that Sadie will regret having made an enemy of Davidson, who is tireless and vengeful in his battle against sin, but when he announces later that day that he intends to try to save the prostitute’s soul, even his wife is shocked: Surely the woman has sunk too low to be reformed. Davidson’s reply that no sinner is beyond God’s mercy leaves little doubt of his confidence that Sadie can be converted, and he has his first session with her that very day. It seems to be a standoff. Sadie is coarse, brazen, unrepentant; the Reverend...

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Mr. Davidson is determined.

Time passes on the island and the rain seems as though it will never stop. The weather, the climate, and the islanders are grating on Macphail’s nerves. One day Sadie calls him to her room, where she discloses that Davidson has convinced the governor to force her to leave on the next boat. Unfortunately for her, its destination is San Francisco, to which she does not want to return. She asks Macphail to speak to the governor for her: Why cannot she be allowed to leave on the next boat for Sydney instead? Sympathetic to her plight and irritated by Davidson’s lack of compassion, Macphail agrees. The governor stands by his decision, however, obviously intimidated by the missionaries’ influence in the region. Macphail is disgruntled and more disgusted than ever with Davidson’s intractability.

That evening, a distraught and disheveled Sadie comes to plead with Davidson for mercy. She admits that she is wanted by the police in San Francisco, and begs Davidson not to make her return. The missionary remains unmoved, however, despite Macphail’s pleas on her behalf. When Sadie becomes hysterical, Macphail helps her to her room. Later that evening, after Davidson has led the group in praying for her soul, the calmed and ostensibly contrite Sadie sends for Davidson, saying that she is ready to repent. Davidson stays with her until two o’clock the next morning and declares the next day that he has brought her to the Lord.

Sadie’s sessions with Davidson continue for several days, during which time the rain, the heat, and the mosquitoes make life on the island nearly intolerable. Macphail looks forward to the day when Sadie’s departure will break the tension that her religious conversion has brought to the boardinghouse. Davidson, exhausted from spending much of each night with Sadie, is nevertheless in a state of spiritual rapture. Sadie seems to have accepted the fact that she must return to the United States to face her punishment. This uncomfortable state of affairs continues until the morning that Sadie’s ship is to sail for San Francisco. Just after dawn, Macphail is awakened by Horn, who tells him that his services are needed. Horn leads him to the beach, where a group of Samoans stand huddled around a body. Macphail is shocked to find that the dead man is Davidson, who still holds the razor with which he has slit his throat. After making arrangements with the police, Macphail returns to Horn’s boardinghouse and asks his wife to break the news to Mrs. Davidson. Abnormally calm, Mrs. Davidson asks to see the body.

On the way back from the mortuary, the Macphails and Mrs. Davidson are startled by the sound of Sadie’s gramophone, which had been silent since her supposed conversion. Sadie herself has reverted to her former ways: Dressed in her old flashy costume and heavily made-up, she is entertaining a sailor. When she sees Mrs. Davidson, she spits at her. Mrs. Davidson hurries to her room, and Macphail chastises Sadie. What does she think she is doing? Fixing him with a look of intense hatred, Sadie gives Macphail the key to Davidson’s suicide: “You men! You filthy, dirty pigs! You’re all the same, all of you. Pigs! Pigs!” Macphail realizes in a flash the reason for the guilt that has driven Davidson to kill himself.