Miss Lucy Honeychurch is a somewhat naïve young woman sent on holiday to Italy under the charge of her older cousin, Miss Charlotte Bartlett. The two are staying at the Bertolini Pension in Florence. The story opens around the dinner table at the pension, where Lucy and her cousin lament that though promised rooms in the front of the pension, they have been given rooms in the back, with no view. One of the other guests, Mr. Emerson, offers to switch rooms with them, as he and his son George, a quiet young man, have a view from their two rooms. However, his generous offer is viewed with suspicion by the other pension guests, just as his abrupt and open manner offends their own "upper class" notions of tactful behavior. Charlotte refuses the offer.
Mr. Beebe, a clergyman who once worked in Lucy's parish and will be returning there in a few months, makes a surprise appearance. He is now vacationing at the pension, which excites and pleases Lucy. He intercedes in order to help the Emersons save face, and the two parties do switch rooms. Affixed to the wall in George Emerson's former room, Charlotte finds a large question mark drawn on a piece of paper.
The next day, Lucy goes out for a first look at Florence, under the guidance of another pension guest, the "clever," energetic Miss Eleanor Lavish. Lavish, a writer, claims she can show Lucy "the true Italy," and takes away her copy of Baedeker's guidebook. After losing their way, they finally reach Santa Croce church, where Lucy's companion becomes distracted by an acquaintance and abandons her. However, Lucy finds the two Emersons inside the church, and the three admire the fine Giotto frescoes and carved tombstones. The Rev. Cuthbert Eager is leading a tour through the church and Mr. Emerson offends him by loudly criticizing his lecture on Giotto's frescoes. Alone together, George speaks to Lucy about his father's frank manner of speaking and how it offends everyone despite his good intentions. Then Mr. Emerson and Lucy walk together and he explains his son's mysterious melancholy, saying that George's trouble is that he is distressed that the "things of the universe...don't fit." He asks Lucy to make George realize "that there is a Yes," a joyfulness in the world itself. Then Charlotte arrives on the scene and whisks her unescorted cousin away.
Lucy plays the piano at the pension on a rainy afternoon, while Miss Catharine Alan, an old wealthy woman, and Mr. Beebe discuss the other guests, particularly the Emersons, who have fallen out of nearly everyone's favor. Miss Catharine decides that they are "not nice," and points out, "they don't understand our ways. They must find their level." Lucy says that she thinks the Emersons are nice. The rain has cleared, and Lucy, on a rebellious impulse, decides to go outside, wanting to take the circular electric tram. Her elders disapprove of the notion, and she sadly agrees to walk.
Walking in Florence, Lucy feels discontented and dull, thinking that "nothing ever happens to me." She buys some photographs of Italian artworks. Suddenly, as she enters the Piazza Signoria, she comes near two Italians bickering about a debt. As one turns toward her, blood pours from his mouth while the other stabs him in the back. Lucy faints, seeing George out of the corner of her eye as she falls. She awakes next to him on the steps nearby, apologizing for herself. George insists on walking her to the pension; Lucy tries to evade him while he collects her fallen postcards. He commands her to wait, and they walk back together. He suddenly throws the postcards into the River Arno, explaining upon rigorous questioning that they were covered in blood. Lucy, fearing gossip and disapproval, asks George not to tell anyone about her "foolish behavior" (fainting and being caught in his arms). As they gaze down to the roaring river, Lucy sums up their experience saying, "How quickly these accidents do happen, and then one returns to the old life." George simply says mysteriously, "I shall probably want to live."
Forster's book presents detailed analyses of and commentary on the social mores and tensions of his day. The opening chapters are mostly concerned with his masterful fleshing out of a cast of characters. The pension guests are culled from the "better class of tourist." That is, they come from wealthy, supposedly better-educated families of good breeding and social standing. They identify themselves through polite, genteel conventions of speech and manners and accept and reject all others based on their accordance with these and other standards.
Lucy, the book's main character, is somewhat impetuous, but has led a sheltered life up until now and becomes easily confused by the novelty of Italy and the presence of the Emersons, who constantly seem to fly in the face of propriety. Her own family is well-off, but her cousin Charlotte's is not; hence Charlotte's sense of obligation to Lucy and the Honeychurch family, who have partially paid for her journey. Of the other pension members, the Emersons are clearly of the wrong class. Outspoken Mr. Emerson startles the others, who are accustomed to veiling their own thoughts under polite civilities. His son George is described from the start as quiet, "perplexed," and "sorrowful." The clergyman, Mr. Beebe, is the only wise character--though able to interact agreeably with everyone, his inner thoughts are revealed to be on a more removed and sophisticated level than most of the other guests.
Within the first chapter, Lucy asks Charlotte about Mr. Emerson, questioning "Have you ever noticed that there are some people who do things which are most indelicate, and yet at the same time--beautiful?" Charlotte responds "Are not beauty and delicacy the same thing?" These questions form the crux of Forster's exploration of the nature of beauty and the ways in which refined society can fail to apprehend a wilder, less authorized kind of beauty and truth. Lucy begins to understand that she can harbor a personal, individual idea of beauty that exists outside of society's official standards.
The country of Italy contains beauty that is at once refined (great artwork and architecture) and pedestrian (its people and countryside). Italy is "chaotic," and "dangerous," and its unpredictability opposes the rigidity of Britain and its upper classes. The influence of this foreign land can challenge and possibly nullify the usual ties that hold British high society together. Lucy, though the product of years of English breeding, is still susceptible to other influences. Her piano playing summons up a sense of "victory," and takes her into a world of beauty completely separate from society; she often emerges from these somewhat sensual emotions feeling a vague desire to experience more than her limited life has allowed thus far.
Lucy has been taught that men and women have strict roles in society--that men should be chivalrous and women can be strong as long as they remain "ladylike." Charlotte claims that woman's mission "is to inspire others to achievement, rather than to achieve themselves." Lucy feels occasionally rebellious toward these ideas; she is full of impulses that alternately guide or confuse her. Miss Lavish, the old, unmarried novelist, is the book's most unconventional female character; however, her snooty attitude toward Italy and remarks about the simplicity and crudeness of Italians places her within the same social bracket as the rest. For instance, she willingly seeks out the "adventure" of getting lost in Florence for its own sake, but once lost, she has reached a limit, and insists upon quickly finding the way back, never stopping to admire the beauty of the places that are passed by.
The novel is narrated in a third-person omniscient tone. Forster's characters are revealed through both their own dialogue and the narrative, which tends to probe their thoughts and expose what they are really thinking. The petty snobberies of the pension guests are easily exposed by Forster's pen, especially regarding attitudes toward the British lower classes and the Italians. Often, Forster gently pokes fun at his characters or belittles them, showing their fallacies, confusions, and weaknesses as well as their good intentions. Lucy receives much of this inward attention, and most of the other main characters receive some. However, Forster does not enter the minds of the Emersons, so these two men appear as mysterious to the reader as they do to the rest of the pension guests. /PARAGRAPH