Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Hester Harper has a distinct limp. She leads an isolated existence on the farm of her father, who when the story opens is an old man. He soon dies. Perhaps to relieve her isolation and loneliness, possibly for more arcane reasons, such as a suppressed lesbianism, she brings an orphan, Katherine, into her father’s house. Jolley often wrote about people who have lost their mothers, as she had lost hers.

When Hester’s father dies, she and Katherine continue to live together in his house. They have a compatible relationship, but it is somewhat compromised by a fantastic event. The two women have gone to a dance and are on their way home following it. Hester is driving, and in the darkness she runs down something in the road, presumably a man. The two women, unnerved by what has happened, dump the limp object Hester has run down into a well that is no longer used as a source of water. It becomes a symbol of suppressed sexuality.

Jolley depicts with incredible detail and psychological accuracy the panic, verging on hysteria, the two women experience after this traumatic occurrence. After dropping the object into the well, Hester then concludes that they have hit a man who has stolen money from her. She thereupon orders Katherine to descend into the well to retrieve her missing money.

Katherine refuses to go down into the well. She tells Hester that the man they have disposed of is still alive. In fact, Katherine has spoken with him, and, in a bizarre twist, he has proposed marriage to her. As in much of Jolley’s writing, reality gives way to fantastic events well outside the normal bounds of reality, but Jolley handles this departure from normality deftly, so that in crossing the line, she does not lose her readers.