Set against a bleak New England background, the novel tells of Frome, his ailing wife Zeena and her companion Mattie Silver, superbly delineating the characters of each as they are drawn relentlessly into a deep-rooted domestic struggle. Burdened by poverty and spiritually dulled by a loveless marriage to an older woman. Frome is emotionally stirred by the arrival of a youthful cousin who is employed as household help. Mattie's presence not only brightens a gloomy house but stirs long-dormant feelings in Ethan. Their growing love for one another, discovered by an embittered wife, presages an ending to this grim tale that is both shocking and savagely ironic.