A smitten Philip Carey admiring a photograph of Mildred Rogers with his painting of a naked lady on the wall behind his desk
Mildred Rogers destroying one of Philip Carey's paintings
Sensitive, club-footed artist Philip Carey is an Englishman who has been studying painting in Paris for four years. His art teacher tells him his work lacks talent, so he returns to London to become a medical doctor, but his moodiness and chronic self-doubt make it difficult for him to keep up in his schoolwork.
Philip falls passionately in love with vulgar tearoom waitress Mildred Rogers, even though she is disdainful of his club-foot and his obvious interest in her. Although he is attracted to the anemic and pale-faced woman, she is manipulative and cruel toward him when he asks her out. Her constant response to his romantic invitations is "I don't mind," an expression so uninterested that it infuriates him – which only causes her to use it all the more. His daydreams about her (her image appears over an illustration in his medical school anatomy textbook, and a skeleton in the classroom is transformed into Mildred) cause him to be distracted from his studies, and he fails his medical examinations.
When Philip proposes to her, Mildred declines, telling him she will be marrying a loutish salesman Emil Miller instead. The self-centered Mildred vindictively berates Philip with nasty insults for becoming romantically interested in her.
Philip begins to forget Mildred when he falls in love with Norah, an attractive and considerate romance writer working under a male pseudonym. She slowly cures him of his painful addiction to Mildred. But just when it appears that Philip is finding happiness, Mildred returns, pregnant and claiming that Emil has abandoned her.
Philip provides an apartment for her, arranges to take care of her financially, and breaks off his relationship with Norah. Norah and Philip admit how bondages exist between people (Philip was bound to Mildred, as Norah was to Philip, and as Mildred was to Miller).
Philip's intention is to marry Mildred after her child is born, but a bored and restless Mildred is an uninterested mother, and gives up the baby's care to a nurse.
At a dinner party celebrating their engagement, one of Philip's medical student friends, Harry Griffiths, flirts with Mildred, who somewhat reciprocates. After Philip confronts Mildred, she runs off with Griffiths for Paris. A second time, Philip again finds some comfort in his studies, and with Sally Athelny, the tender-hearted daughter of one of his elderly patients in a charity hospital. The Athelny family is caring and affectionate, and they take Philip into their home.
Once again, Mildred returns with her baby, this time expressing remorse for deserting him. Philip cannot resist rescuing her and helping her to recover from another failed relationship. Things take a turn for the worse when Mildred moves in, spitefully wrecks his apartment and destroys his paintings and books, and burns the securities and bonds he was given by an uncle to finance his tuition. Philip is forced to quit medical school, but before he leaves the institution, an operation corrects his club foot. The Athelnys take Philip in when he is unable to find work and is locked out of his flat, and he takes a job with Sally's father as a window dresser.
As time progresses, a letter is sent to Philip which informs him that his uncle has died, leaving a small inheritance. With the inheritance money, Philip is able to return to medical school and pass his examinations to become a qualified doctor.
Later, Philip meets up with Mildred, now sick, destitute, and working as a prostitute. Mildred's baby has died, and she has become distraught and sick with tuberculosis. Before he can visit her again, she dies in a hospital charity ward. With Mildred's death, Philip is finally freed of his obsession, and he makes plans to marry Sally.
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