Arthur Mervyn is born into a happy Quaker home in the country. His widower father, however, marries a young woman who only wants his land, and when his father dies, Arthur is kicked out of his home. He finds himself on the road to Philadelphia, and for the most part, this is fine with Arthur because he wants to be an educated, wealthly man, and he thinks he will need to go to the city to start this quest. Along the way to the city, he notices that there are a lot of wagons traveling from the city. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Arthur finds out that the yellow fever has struck the city. The people are struggling because of the plague and the business owners who have decided to capitalize on the situation. Arthur himself struggles because he has no money and because he feels out of place in the city. He does find work as a scrivener, though, and determines to make his way up the social ladder.
His employer is Mr. Welbeck. At first, Welbeck seems an ideal boss when he buys Arthur new clothes. Increasingly, however, Arthur finds out that Welbeck is a con man who has cheated a young woman named Clemenza Lodi. Arthur decides that as soon as he has sufficient money he will return to the country. One night, he returns to the house he shares with Welbeck, and he finds Welbeck sitting in his office with a dead body. Welbeck tells Arthur a long story about an old enemy returning to Philadelphia to attack him. Arthur believes Welbeck's story of self-defense and helps him to dispose of the body in the river. At the river, though, Welbeck falls in and is swept away. Arthur, frightened by being his connection to the two deaths, flees the city.
In the country, Arthur meets some former acquaintances from his country life, the Hadwin sisters. Immediately, he is struck by Eliza Hadwin, the younger of the sisters, and he eventually becomes engaged to her. The other sister, Sara, is engaged to a man who had traveled to the city and never returned. She fears that he has been struck down by the plague. Arthur gallantly volunteers to return to Philadelphia to find the lost fiancÚ.
He does find the man, Wallace, sickened by yellow fever, and he manages to provide Wallace transportation to the country. While in the city, though, Arthur himself becomes ill. He takes refuge in his and Welbeck's old house. While there, he accidentally finds a great sum of money before going into an unconscious fit. Upon waking, Arthur realizes there is somebody in the house. It is Welbeck, who did not actually die in the river and who is now looking for the money. Arthur keeps it hidden from Welbeck and determines to return to money to its rightful owner, Clemenza.
Eventually, Arthur recovers enough to find his way out of the city. He first spends his time trying to find Clemenza. He finds that she's been driven to a life of prostitution, and the money Arthur brings saves her.
At the house of prostitution, Arthur also meets a refined widow named Achsa Fielding who hadn't realized that her friends were prostitutes. During this time, Arthur realizes that his interest in Eliza is waning. Arthur's exposure to the city has given him a taste for education and a higher social status, and he doubts that the simple country girl can attain a satisfying level of sophistication. Arthur eventually decides that Mrs. Fielding could teach Eliza some of the desired skills, and so Eliza moves in with Mrs. Fielding. This gives Arthur opportunity to be around Mrs. Fielding. One night, he and Mrs. Fielding have a long conversation, and they each reveal that they have feelings for the other. They decide to marry and live sophisticated lives in Europe. It seems the fulfillment of Arthur's dream to be an Enlightened, wealthy man.
This synopsis report prepared by J.C. Pierce