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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 894

After the Civil War, Maurice Oakley, a southern businessman, was able to recover his fortune quickly because of his prudence. Maurice is more than generous in supporting his younger half brother, Frank, who is studying art in Paris; he is also generous to his African American servant, Berry Hamilton.

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After the Civil War, Maurice Oakley, a southern businessman, was able to recover his fortune quickly because of his prudence. Maurice is more than generous in supporting his younger half brother, Frank, who is studying art in Paris; he is also generous to his African American servant, Berry Hamilton.

On the last night of one of Frank’s brief visits home, a jolly going-away party is held, but the party is spoiled for the brothers when Frank discovers that the money for his trip has been stolen; he had left the money, $986, in his room. Maurice says that the crime does not embarrass him financially—he can resupply Frank with funds—but he is hurt by the fact that a friend or employee would steal from his house. Suspicion falls on Berry, who is the only person other than Frank who had been alone in the room. When it is discovered that Berry deposited a large sum in the bank on the day after the theft, Maurice and the police feel that the case against Berry is proved. Although Berry’s years of loyal service show that such stealing is very out of character for him, the servant receives a ten-year prison sentence.

Among the town’s whites, Berry’s alleged criminal behavior confirms their belief in the natural depravity of blacks. Ironically, the town’s African Americans are almost as prejudiced against Berry as are the whites. Berry’s son, Joe, is fired from his barbershop job, and no one else will hire him because of the family disgrace. For the same reason, no fellow African American will rent rooms to Berry’s wife, Fannie, when she needs quarters. Berry’s family members make the momentous decision to relocate to New York City. Although Fannie is afraid that her children might succumb to the temptations of urban life, the family has to start anew in order to survive.

Fannie’s fears prove all too justified. Joe is the first to fall. As a first-class barber in a whites-only establishment in the South, he had listened enviously as the town’s young blades had recounted their high-living exploits. In New York, he finds that even African Americans can aspire to such aristocratic dissipation. Becoming friends with the sporting character William Thomas, Joe is quickly initiated into the wild goings-on in cabarets, gambling dens, and cheap saloons. He meets and falls for the aging, hardened showgirl Hattie Sterling, who, charmed by his youth and, particularly, by the good money he makes as a barber, becomes his mistress.

Meanwhile, Fannie and her daughter, Kitty, maintain their respectability by working in a factory. Their humdrum life is shattered, however, when Minty, a hometown acquaintance, arrives and spreads the story of Berry’s imprisonment. As a result of the scandal, Fannie and Kitty lose their apartment and their jobs. Lacking other economic prospects, Kitty auditions for a job as a vaudeville singer. Once hired, she soon follows her brother into blind devotion to the sensations of the moment.

Concurrently, at the Oakley mansion, an equally somber story is unfolding. Maurice receives a revelatory letter from his brother in which Frank confesses that the money had never been stolen; he had gambled it away and had been ashamed to admit it. Stunned by this admission, Maurice becomes a changed man. Rather than damage his family honor, he refuses to divulge the secret, thereby leaving Berry in prison. Growing almost psychotically fearful of exposure, Maurice changes from an affable man-about-town into a reclusive misanthrope; he keeps the letter with him at all times, in a hidden breast pocket.

Five years pass. The New York Hamiltons having gone further down the road to ruin, the despairing Fannie has been talked into marrying a racetrack character, Gibson, who has convinced her that her first marriage is void. Now, however, Berry’s fortunes, at least, change for the better. A white newspaper reporter named Skaggs is interested in Joe Hamilton’s story of how his father was railroaded into jail. His curiosity piqued, Skaggs travels to the Hamiltons’ hometown. Posing as a friend of Frank, he tricks the half-mad Maurice into handing him Frank’s letter, which he then publishes in his New York newspaper. Public outcry over this miscarriage of justice forces Berry’s pardon, and the paper sponsors his trip to New York.

While these events are going on, Joe is being driven to despair by Hattie’s repeated rejections; eventually he strangles her. He goes on trial for her murder, and Kitty is so estranged from her family that she pays no attention to her brother’s problems. When Berry at last reaches his wife’s home, he finds her married to another man and his children jailed or out of touch.

Berry has nothing left but one desire: to kill the man who has taken his wife. For a second time, however, fortune smiles. When Berry has worked up the courage to confront Gibson, he discovers the man’s house in mourning. Gibson has been killed in a brawl, and Fannie is ready to reunite with Berry. The couple return to their old cottage on the Oakley place, where they are welcomed back by Maurice’s repentant wife. Maurice himself has gone insane, and Berry and Fannie occasionally hear his ravings as they go about living their simple life.

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