Ford Madox Ford opens his novel with Dowell's simple statement that "this is the saddest story I have ever heard." John Dowell proceeds to narrate the history of the nine-year acquaintance between himself and his wife, Florence, and an English couple, the Ashburnhams. The two couples are intimately associated. Dowell and his wife are leisured Americans who live in Paris and summer in Nauheim; the weather is better there for Florence, who has a heart condition. Captain Ashburnham also has a heart condition, and has come to Nauheim with his wife Leonora to recuperate. They are all very close in age, and Dowell calls them "quite good people." All four come from old, established families; Dowell is from Philadelphia and Florence is from Connecticut (though her ancestors are from Fordingbridge, England). The Ashburnhams are descended from old Loyalists who kept their manor in Fordingbridge.
Dowell explains to the reader why he is writing: he has seen destruction and longs to get the sight out of his head. He compares the relationship of the two couples to a minuet and to a prison of screaming hysterics. He claims that at least two pillars of their four-square house were rotten, and says that he was blind to the damage until it was too late. He feels horribly alone. He does not blame Florence for what has occurred; he does not understand how she was ever out of his sight.
Dowell describes the Ashburnhams as the "model couple," who are and who appear to be the county family. Years ago, Leonora told Dowell that once she tried to take a lover in the back of a carriage, but she was unable and ended up in tears. Dowell considers both Ashburnhams to be morally upright. He describes Edward Ashburnham as "the cleanest looking sort of chap, an excellent magistrate, a first rate soldier, just exactly the sort of chap you could have trusted your wife with." Dowell then vouches for his own cleanness of thoughts and absolute chastity of life. He ends the chapter wondering whether all of morality is a folly and a mockery. He concludes that if the morality of such a basic act as sex is blurred, then there is nothing to guide us, "it is all a darkness."
Dowell begins section II by admitting that he does not know how to tell this story. He decides to imagine himself at the fireplace of a country cottage, "with a sympathetic soul opposite."
He describes Florence as a woman with the "seeing eye," as one who loves history, and who loves to talk, but dislikes listening. They travelled frequently, but Florence only needed to see each place once. Dowell's sole function during their marriage is to keep Florence alive by keeping her away from topics that might upset her. Florence's aunts, the Misses Hurlbird, used to say that Dowell was the laziest man in Philadelphia. With all the money he wants, Dowell has no need to work. Dowell describes Florence's family, the Misses Hurlbird and Uncle John, as extremely old-fashioned but lovable. Uncle John was told by the doctors he had a heart condition, and after years of working at his facotry, John finally decided to take a rest and tour around the world, bringing oranges to everyone he meets.
Though Uncle John turns out not to have a heart condition, he dies five days before Florence. Dowell has to travel to Connecticut to appoint trustees and take care of the will, since he is now the inheritor of the Hurlbird estate. While he is in Connecticut, Dowell receives a letter from the Ashburnhams asking him to come visit their home in England. Dowell hurries over to England to meet their request and is greeted warmly by Leonora, but senses that Edward is in agony.