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. The use of the name Enoch for a man who disappears from the lives of his loved ones may be inspired by the biblical character Enoch.
In 1897, Richard Strauss set the poem as a recitation for speaker and piano, published as his Op. 38. On 24 May 1962, Columbia Records released a recording of Enoch Arden (recorded 2–4 October 1961) with Glenn Gould on the piano and Claude Rains as the speaker. The LP was made at a cost of $1500 and only 2000 copies were released. It remains a collector's item.
In popular culture
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- 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.
- 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.
- In the 1940 screwball comedy film My Favorite Wife, the character Ellen Wagstaff Arden (Irene Dunne) is a comic inversion of Enoch Arden. See also "Move Over, Darling" and "Too Many Husbands".
- 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 1946 film Tomorrow Is Forever is based on the poem, although no writing or adaptation credit is given to Tennyson.
- The 1966 Konkani film Nirmon is based on this story.
- The 1967 Hindi film Taqdeer was a remake of the Konkani film Nirmon.