Rowland Mallet thinks he's found an artistic prodigy in Roderick Hudson and uses his wealth to jumpstart the young sculptor's career; but while Roderick's talent is undeniable, he proves himself to be fickle, immature, and a general bane to Rowland's sanity and happiness. Rowland fancies himself a discerning art critic – despite having no real talent of his own – a pastime which his immense wealth allows him to indulge in. During a visit to his cousin Cecilia in Massachusetts, he comes across a piece he is particularly taken with. Cecilia, it turns out, knows the artist and a meeting is arranged. The artist is Roderick Hudson, a young man with talent but little money to support his art full-time. Rowland decides to play patron and advances Roderick sufficient funds to remedy this.
He also has Roderick accompany him on his impending trip to Europe, hoping the exposure to so many great works in Paris and Italy will catalyze Roderick's development even further. Before they can leave, though, Rowland must first convince Roderick's overbearing mother that the trip is a good idea, which Rowland does. While at the Hudsons' home, he meets and becomes enchanted with Mary Garland, Roderick's cousin, a vivacious and refreshingly blunt young woman. Rowland suspects that he might even be in love with her, but due to their impending trip, which will take them away from America for some time, he forgoes telling Mary of his feelings. This proves to be a mistake as Roderick – overcome with the excitement of the trip and his suddenly bright artistic future – proposes marriage to Mary, which she, in the absence of any other offers, accepts.
Shattered, Rowland tries to bury his disappointment and begins an affair with Augusta Blanchard, an American artist he meets in Italy. Meanwhile, Roderick steadily proves out the potential Rowland saw in him, churning out original piece after piece. The two men separate for a time. Rowland heads to England, while Roderick travels to Germany. Rowland thinks everything is going great, until he at last hears from Roderick, who is suddenly stricken with enormous gambling debts and needs Rowland's money to once again bail him out.
Returning to Italy, Rowland keeps the pressure on Roderick to get back to work. Then one day Roderick draws the attention of the beautiful Christina Light, a wealthy young socialite with a cynical view of the world. She is immediately drawn to the socially uncultured, but immensely talented, Roderick – in a similar way to how Rowland became infatuated with Mary Garland. Rowland is torn between wanting to protect Mary and secretly wanting Roderick to go through with the affair with Christina, so as to nullify his engagement and leave Mary free to marry someone else.
Further complicating things, Mary and Roderick's mother arrive in Italy to see how Roderick is doing. There, Mary deduces the illicit seduction between Christina and her fiancé, but does nothing just yet, even after Rowland admits that he is in love with her. Roderick, meanwhile, is proving himself to be emotionally immature, prone to self-destructive tantrums and constantly neglecting his now-shriveling pool of contracts. Hounded by his debts and his lack of artistic production, Rowland decides to flee from his remaining responsibilities and take up Christina's offer to join her at a resort in Switzerland. But while sailing to the resort, a storm hits and Rowland drowns. Mary Garland is devastated, and Rowland cannot convince her to stay with him. The novel ends with Mary returning with Roderick's grief stricken mother to America.
Best part of story, including ending:
Henry James is the master of psychological nuance, and this novel, about an artistically and romantically impotent man, is a fantastic example of this.
Best scene in story:
The scene during the Atlantic crossing where Rowland, still on a high from his realizations that he is in love with Mary, has his hopes so casually snatched away from him by the indifferent Roderick is flat out devastating.
Opinion about the main character:
Rowland is at first a little pompous and lacking in self-awareness, but over time he becomes a pathetically tragic figure and quite deserving of our sympathy.