In this retrospective chronicle of a difficult marriage from 1899 to 1915, the archaic prose is modeled on Victorian mores, inhibited mannerisms and social customs as dictated by strict rules of comportment. While public behavior is priggish and prudish, with no hint of sexuality, in private, men indulge with a wink of the eye, and "nice" women endure rather than enjoy. It is the dawn of a new century in a world full of amazing inventions and conveniences, the future brimming with promise.
Nicholas Van Tassel, Professor of Literature and Rhetoric at a small New England college, introduces himself at thirty as self-effacing and modestly aware of his shortcomings, not quite handsome and not quite brilliant. His senses heightened in a moment of incipient danger, Van Tassel notices the woman who will fill his thoughts throughout the following years. Intuiting an uncomfortable domestic situation, Van Tassel sets his mind to the courtship and marriage of Etna Bliss. Although he assesses her "occasionally" beautiful, he is unable to withstand the compulsion of desire, aware that Etna does not return his affection when she agrees to the marriage. True to form, Van Tassel denies all but his own unquenchable needs, intent in his purpose that Etna eventually learn to love him.
Shreve leads her protagonist from his first insufferable air of propriety, over time, to the base nature of his truest self, a man whose self-importance renders him incapable of empathy. By accepting less than love from his spouse, Van Tassel extracts his pound of flesh, chipping away at the marriage's meager foundation, bit by intrusive bit, suffocating the beleaguered Etna. For her part, Etna has signed a pact with the devil, never imagining the enormous price she will pay.
The true nature of obsession is often thinly veiled with romanticism. Shreve, however, has stripped this particular emotion of any appeal; Nicholas Van Tassel is unworthy of sympathy, deluded by ego into despicable actions, demanding that fate bend to his will with astounding hubris. The failings he so freely admits to are actually conceits, as he blindly pursues his own fulfillment, sublimating all else. Unflinching in the face of such a distortion of love, Shreve portrays true obsession without artifice, as craven and venal as any of the seven deadly sins.