(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Aubrey Tanqueray, a wealthy widower, is to be married to Paula Ray, a woman younger than he and of questionable character. Aubrey’s first wife did not contribute a great deal to his happiness. A daughter, Ellean, was born to the Tanquerays shortly before the first Mrs. Tanqueray died of a fever, the only warmth, in the opinion of one of Aubrey’s friends, ever to have come to the woman’s body. Ellean has spent most of her life in a convent and is planning to take final vows.

Cayley Drummle, a friend of Aubrey, discusses with him the inadvisability of marriage between members of different social classes, but Aubrey, intent on having warmth and companionship in his home life, is resolute in his determination to marry Paula. Aubrey has momentary misgivings, however, when Paula appears late at night at his apartment. Such conduct does not become a lady, Aubrey charges; it will cause talk among the servants. Paula’s opinion, indicative of her treatment of domestics, is that servants are merely machines to do chores and to appear for testimony in the divorce courts. Despite her glib pretenses, Paula, too, feels somewhat unsure about the social abyss that she and Aubrey are attempting to bridge. While she goes to put on her cloak, Aubrey, reminded by his servant that he has not opened the day’s mail, reads a letter from Ellean in which she tells him that she has communed with the spirit of her mother, who has admonished her to return to Aubrey in his loneliness. Perplexed, he is unable to foresee happiness between his daughter and his wife-to-be.

Two months after their marriage, the unhappiness of the Tanquerays in their domestic life is apparent to all their friends. Paula is bored with the inactivity of country life at Aubrey’s house in Surrey, and Aubrey is apprehensive about Ellean and Paula’s incompatibility. Both women wonder why their neighbors do not call on them.

Since her arrival, Ellean has become a barrier between her father and stepmother because of her life in the convent. Although Aubrey tries to throw the two women together, they soon show that they have nothing in common. When Cayley Drummle, who is staying at an adjoining estate, calls on the Tanquerays, he becomes the confidant of both Paula, who expresses her wishes for the life she knew before her marriage, and Aubrey, who expresses keen disappointment regarding Ellean’s lack of interest in meeting eligible young men. Benevolent Drummle encourages Mrs. Cortelyon, his host at the neighboring estate and Aubrey’s longtime friend, to call on Paula. Although Aubrey sees through Drummle’s efforts, he appreciates Mrs. Cortelyon’s visit and her invitation to have Ellean as her guest in Paris during the Easter holiday.

Paula resents Mrs. Cortelyon’s attentions to Ellean, who makes no attempt to conceal her preference for a member of her father’s social set. Mrs. Cortelyon makes the situation more awkward when she courteously and straightforwardly tells Paula that her memories of...

(The entire section is 1228 words.)