An insecure young writer struggles to retain his artistic and moral clarity in the face of mounting professional failures and family drama. We first meet Rickie Elliot as a bright and promising student at Cambridge. Orphaned by his (hated) absentee father and the premature death of his beloved mother, Rickie had few friends and spent much of his childhood at boarding school, where his physical frailties and meek manner led to him being abused by his more aggressive classmates. But at Cambridge, among other intelligent and artistically sensitive boys, he finally feels at home. He is even welcomed into a group of philosophically enlightened students led by Stuart Ansell, whom Rickie becomes particularly in awe of.
The plot is set in motion with the visit of two of Rickie's friends from back home: Agnes and her brother Herbert Pembroke. Agnes reveals that she has become engaged to a boy named Gerald, who has all the physical gifts Rickie himself lacks, and who it turns out was Rickie's chief tormentor at boarding school. Rickie, who was always attracted to Agnes, buries his own feelings (for Agnes and against Gerald) and tries to help their relationship along, in order to live vicariously through their happiness.
But then Gerald dies in a sporting accident. Rickie, who is already in position as close confidante, becomes even closer to Agnes in her grief and they get married, though Agnes does not seem to be entirely committed to the relationship. Rickie, for his part, has a small inheritance from his parents, but his writing career is not going the way he hoped it would as no publishers are interested in his work.
Soon after they marry, Agnes and Rickie visit his aunt, who claims to have a surprise for him. When they arrive, Rickie is introduced to Stephen, a half-brother he never knew he had. Stephen, though uneducated, is full of life and carries himself with a blunt honesty. Rickie believes Stephen must be his father's illegitimate son, since as a half-brother he was clearly never conceived within the marriage. Rickie – manipulated by Agnes, who believes that bastards are inherently unworthy and only deserve scorn and shame – transfers the hate he has for his father onto his brother and Agnes and Rickie leave him behind with Rickie's aunt.
Meanwhile, Agnes's brother, Herbert, has become an administrator at the Sawston School, but the terms of his job offer requires Agnes to become a kind of on-site mother/chaperone and Rickie to teach. With no other options, they take Herbert up on this offer. Rickie quickly loses himself to the monotony of his teaching responsibilities. He becomes short-tempered with his students and finds it increasingly difficult to engage in his own writing. From time to time, he tries to get in contact with his old literary friends at Cambridge, especially Stuart Ansell, but they treat him as a pariah, a sell-out. And his marriage to Agnes, already tenuous, becomes colder and more formalized, as they both settle into an uneasy indifference toward one another.
In a strange coincidence, Stuart Ansell meets Stephen, Rickie's half-brother, and immediately takes a liking to him. After Stuart learns of his connection to Rickie, he takes Stephen and confronts him. Stuart tells Rickie that Stephen is not his father's illegitimate son, but his mother's. This news sends Rickie reeling. He realizes how foolish he's been – with his marriage, his professional life, his treatment of his brother – and he vows to change. To this effect, he agrees to accompany Stephen back to his aunt's house. On the way, the two bond and Rickie finds himself enjoying life again for the first time in years. He feels his artistic impulses returning, his creative vision sharpening. But unfortunately for Rickie, he doesn't live long enough to put this into practice. Stephen, who it turns out is a bit of an alcoholic, passes out drunk one night on some train tracks. When Rickie struggles to drag him to safety, he is killed by an oncoming train.
Stephen survives and, riddled with guilt, carries on his brother's legacy. He champions his brother's writing, and the novel ends with Rickie finally achieving the recognition, albeit posthumously, that his artistic brilliance deserved.
Best scene in story:
The scene where Rickie realizes Stephen's true identity as the child of his beloved mother and proceeds to literally faint with shock is a little melodramatic, but still highly effective.
Opinion about the main character:
It's impossible not to empathize with Rickie, with his crippling awareness of his physical failings and his later artistic and marital failings, or to feel his triumph when he shakes off all this ennui, however briefly it lasts, at the novel's climax.