The hero of the poem, fisherman turned merchant sailor Enoch Arden, leaves his wife Annie and three children to go to sea with his old captain, who offers him work after he had lost his job due to an accident; in a manner that reflects the hero's masculine view of personal toil and hardship to support his family, Enoch Arden left his family to better serve them as a husband and father. However during his voyage, Enoch Arden is shipwrecked on a desert island with two companions; both eventually die, leaving Arden alone there. This part of the story is reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe. Enoch Arden remains lost and missing for ten years.
He finds upon his return from the sea that, after his long absence, his wife, who believed him dead, is married happily to another man, his childhood friend Philip (Annie has known both men since her childhood, thus the rivalry), and has a child by him. Enoch's life remains unfulfilled, with one of his children now dead, and his wife and remaining children now being cared for by his onetime rival.
Enoch never reveals to his wife and children that he is really alive, as he loves her too much to spoil her new happiness. Enoch dies of a broken heart.
The story could be considered a variation on and antithesis to the Classical myth of Odysseus, who after an absence of 20 years at the Trojan War and at sea found a faithful wife who had been loyally waiting for him.
In 1897, Richard Strauss set the poem as a recitation for speaker and piano, published as his Op. 38. on May 24, 1962, Columbia records released a recording of Enoch Arden (recorded: Oct 2-4, 1961), with Glenn Gould on the piano and Claude Rains as the speaker. The LP made at a cost of $1500 and with only 2000 copies released remains a collector's item.,
"Enoch Arden" in popular culture
- In Evelyn Sharp's 1897 children's novel, The Making of a Schoolgirl, the girls put on a play of Enoch Arden for a student's birthday.
- The Guy de Maupassant story "Le Retour" has a similar plot. In Maupassant's version, however, the long-lost husband reveals his identity to his wife and her family.
- A 1911 film, directed by D. W. Griffith is based on this poem.
- A 1915 film, directed by Christy Cabanne is based on this poem.
- The 1925 Australian film The Bushwackers is based on this poem.
- The 1940 film Too Many Husbands has a similar theme to the poem.
- In the 1940 screwball comedy film My Favorite Wife, the character Ellen Wagstaff Arden (Irene Dunne) is a comic inversion of Enoch Arden. She returns from the sea and boldly reclaims her husband and children. Cary Grant's character in the film is called "Nicky Arden." A remake called Something's Got to Give starring Marilyn Monroe and Dean Martin, and directed by George Cukor, was partly filmed in 1962 before being stopped due to Monroe's studio management problems and her subsequent death, but was shot and released the following year as Move Over, Darling, with Doris Day and James Garner.
- Enoch Arden is the alias taken by Charles Trenton to suggest the survival of the deceased Robert Underhay, in Agatha Christie's 1948 crime mystery novel Taken at the Flood.
- Agatha Christie's "While the Light Lasts" was first published in the Novel Magazine in April 1924 with the deceased husband, Tim Nugent, coming back as Arden. This plot was also used to greater effect as part of "Giant's Bread" (1960) which was the first of her six novels written under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott.
- The title of this poem is thought to be the origin of the trade name "Elizabeth Arden", adopted by Canadian Florence Nightingale Graham for her cosmetics empire.
- The 1946 film Tomorrow Is Forever is based on the poem, although no writing or based-on credit is given to Tennyson. (The credited author of the screenplay is Lenore J. Coffee, and the story is credited to Gwen Bristow.) The film stars Orson Welles as the Enoch Arden character, and Claudette Colbert as his wife.
- The 1966 Konkani film Nirmon is based on this story.
- The 1967 Hindi film Taqdeer was a remake of the Konkani film Nirmon.
- The 1969 Donald E. Westlake (as Richard Stark) Parker novel The Sour Lemon Score features a newly-notified widow complaining about not expecting to receive an official notification of her criminal-husband's death in a gangland slaying, saying, "So now I have to wait seven years for an Enoch Arden."
- The 1988 novel The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie makes a reference to the poem in the chapter "Ellowen Deeowen."
- Jacob Appel's short story, "Enoch Arden's One Night Stands" (2004), features an in-depth discussion of the poem by a pair of would-be lovers.
- The 2000 Tom Hanks film Cast Away shares the premise of the poem, but focuses on the hero's time on the island. The term "cast away" appears twice in the poem.
- Agatha Christie. While the Light Lasts (2003 ed.). HarperCollins. p. 251.