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The novel is the story of Philip Carey. The story opens with his mother dying after childbirth. The nine-year-old Philip is taken by his uncle to Blackstable. After spending a few initial years at the Vicarage, the boy is admitted to King's School at Tercanbury. Having a clubfoot, he is ostracized and becomes introverted, but his intelligence and his aptitude for studies help him academically. Unable to bear the humiliation and taunts of his fellow students and the rigid norms of school, he finally quits and goes to Germany. In Germany, Philip learns new languages, is introduced to philosophy, and discovers the beauty of nature. His stay in Heidelberg expands his vision of humanity and life. He graduates and starts planning his future.
After talking to his uncle, Philip decides to go to London to become a clerk; however, he discovers after a few months that he is more inclined toward art than accounting. Taking financial aid from his aunt, he leaves for Paris to study. The city gives him an insight into the world of artists and their struggle to exhibit their talent. At the end of two years, he also discovers that he lacks the potential to be a great artist. As a result, he leaves Paris and returns back to Blackstable.
Philip overcomes over his disappointment about Mildred and starts concentrating on his studies. With Norah's encouragement, he passes his examinations and looks ahead to his medical future with hope. His prospects suffer a setback when Mildred enters his life once again. After her Miller deserts, leaving her pregnant, she comes to Philip to seek his protection. Philip takes pity on her and attends to her needs. After the baby is born, he pays her bills and plans a trip to Paris with her. Mildred, however, is heartless and mean. After taking financial and emotional support from Philip, she deserts him to run away with his friend.
Philip forgives Mildred and tries to gather the threads of his life, but Mildred's presence haunts him. He rescues her from a world of shame and poverty and brings her to live with him. He no longer loves her, but she forces herself on him. When he repulses her advances, she is enraged. She curses him, damages his property, and leaves. Her exit precedes his calamity. During the war, his fortunes drop, and he becomes homeless. His medical studies are suspended as he struggles for a living.
With Athelny's help, Philip secures a job as a salesman and is promoted to designer. Shortly thereafter, his uncle dies and he inherits enough to continue his medical studies. He acquires a degree in medicine, and his future looks bright. His desire to travel urges him to look for a job on the sea. Fate decides otherwise. Due to a sudden turn of events, he marries Sally and settles down in Dorcestershire.