Whilst studying at Cambridge, George Ordyne is informed of the death of his father. He is therefore forced to abandon his medicine course and try to obtain work in order to support his mother and sister. He succeeds in being taken on as an unpaid trainee by an engineering firm called Hanly’s in Berrington, Lancashire and begins work in their rate-setting department. On his first day, George has an encounter with one of his colleagues, a ghoulish grotesque called Masters, who warns him that the job he is performing is tantamount to a slow death. A short while later Masters dies of pneumonia but not before he has issued another warning to the young rate-setter from his deathbed about the dangers of a life in industry:
“It kills souls—takes the heart out of a man, and leaves him walking about just like a living shell.”
George harbours ambitions as a writer and so begins a correspondence course in short-story construction. However, realizing that the wages he would be able to send home if he was given a permanent job would bring about an improvement in the straitened circumstances of his mother and sister, he accepts such a post when it is offered to him by Hanly’s and ditches his literary aspirations, in spite of some encouraging feedback from the proprietor of the writing course.
The tight rates imposed by George’s department stir up trouble on the shop floor. The shop steward protests about them and orders his men to work more slowly than usual when George is timing them, forcing the piece-rate to be set artificially high. When George points out this sharp practice to the shop steward he is accused of being a lackey of the bosses:
“If the men won’t work fast enough for their rates to be cut, we shan’t be able to pay the shareholders, and then where shall we be?”
As a result of this confrontation, George decides that he will stop being essentially fair-minded as far as the shop-floor workers are concerned and will instead side with his rate-setting colleagues in future. He proposes a way of setting tight rates that does not require any worker involvement and is congratulated on it by his boss.
At a dance in Berrington, George meets the shy, working-class Lily (“A flaxen-haired little girl, with a wax-doll face and china-blue eyes…”) and quickly becomes very close to her. He takes her home to meet his mother and sister but over the course of a weekend in Sussex it dawns on him that it would not be in his best interests to marry the girl. Partly this is because her father is a tobacconist and thus George feels that he would be marrying beneath himself but he is also concerned about the lack of a shared aesthetic sense: Lily describes her boyfriend’s favourite landscape as merely “a nice view”. George decides to let the relationship cool off and thus doesn’t see Lily for several days when he returns to Berrington. But as the Lancashire town is a dull, characterless place with little to offer in the way of entertainment he soon starts feeling lonely again and so re-establishes contact with the girl. In the aftermath of their temporary estrangement, Lily is concerned that George is becoming bored with her and in order to allay her fears on that score he feels duty-bound to propose. The story ends with George ensnared by his profession, just as Masters had predicted he would be, and the couple trapped in a loveless marriage.