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The first person narrator, a German-speaking man, is sent a letter by a man called the Major who asks the narrator to visit him for a while in Hungary. He invites him to perhaps stay for months or years. The narrator accepts this invitation and wanders for a while through Hungary in order to gain some insight into the land. The two men had gotten to know each other during a trip in Italy and were, for a time, inseparable.
The narrator meets a woman dressed as a man and riding astride a horse, and he first mistakes her for the Major himself. The woman, Brigitta, guides him to the home of the Major. After their reunion, the Major shows the narrator around his land and the narrator becomes familiar with his surroundings.
The Major is beloved by the people working his land and has a greenhouse in which he grows and sells various grains. He also has vines and cornfields. In Hungary, the Major finally accomplished his goal of finding fulfilling work. The Major tells the narrator that he had considered becoming an artist, but that he lacks the large and simple heart needed to inspire humanity with deep and penetrating words. The Major therefore satisfies himself with practical work.
The Major was inspired to do his work on the land by a woman named Brigitta Maroshely, who had begun turning the previously barren landscape in that part of Hungary into something fruitful. The narrator finally is introduced to this energetic and capable woman himself after hearing about her from the Major. The Major spoke of Brigitta with the highest praises. The narrator notices that the Major and Brigitta act almost as if they were in love. This is unremarkable at first, but becomes more and more noticeable as the story progresses.
Brigitta’s life story is thrown into the overall story as its own chapter in order to provide background and to make this remarkable woman more understandable. Brigitta lived with her family in a castle, but she more or less lived in her own apartment, isolated from the rest of the family. The development of Brigitta’s strong character is a result of almost complete lack of physical beauty.
Brigitta grew up with two lovely younger sisters. As children, Brigitta was ignored by guests, who would always just ask how her more attractive sisters were doing. Brigitta was never noticed by anyone and played by herself most of the time, rejecting pretty dolls and bringing bits of wood and stones into bed with her. Brigitta was, however, clever and learned to ride.
The beauty of her sisters attracted much attention when the girls grew older. Brigitta, on the other hand, was just strong and silent. She made her own plain dresses and strange headpieces for herself. A young man, recently returned from travels to the town of his birth, called Stephan Murai, came to one of the family’s social parties. This man was rumored to be one of the finest men that people had ever seen. The parents of Brigitta hoped to attract him to one of the two pretty sisters. Surprisingly, the handsome young man was fascinated by Brigitta and her ways. Murai fell in love with her. It takes Brigitta a long time to be convinced of Murai’s love and tells him it will only lead him to his downfall. She is eventually convinced and loves him immeasurably. They marry with the approval of both sets of parents and bear a son.
During his work of the land, Murai meets the beautiful young daughter of a man from the area. They flirt, race horses and joke together and Murai feels drawn to her beauty and light manner. She is quite the opposite of Brigitta. One day Murai lets his feelings out and heartily embraces the young woman. The relationship between the girl and Murai ends after the embrace, but Brigitta had some idea of Murai’s fascination for the girl and confronts him. He clasps both of Brigitta’s hands and tells her that he hates her. Murai leaves and Brigitta must raise her son alone. Brigitta migrates to the region in which the story takes place and starts working the land with her son.
Once as Brigitta lay sick with fever in bed, the Major came and cared for her during her illness. He stayed day and night by her bedside. Since that time, the Major and Brigitta experienced a true friendship.
Often discussed are the Major’s watchdogs that are supposed to protect his houses from wolves. After a hard winter, the wolves begin to hunt people. During a ride one night, the narrator and the major come across a pack of wolves attacking Gustav, Brigitta’s son. Gustav is bitten in the leg and loses much blood. The Major brings Gustav back to his house and calls for a doctor and for Brigitta. The doctor says that Gustav will be fine, but in a fever for several days. Brigitta stays by her son’s bedside in the Major’s house.
The Major, observing the love of Brigitta for her son, begins to weep. The Major tells the narrator that he had always wished to have a son himself. Brigitta overhears, looks at the Major, and they suddenly embrace passionately. The narrator learns that the Major is actually Stephan Murai. After running away from Brigitta, he could not forget about her and could never really think about another woman. He went to Hungary, where Brigitta was living and finds her feverish. She recognizes him as the father of her son when her illness is cured, and they promise to remain just friends. Tense feeling of more than friendship lurked under the surface for many years. When Brigitta’s son is ill, the Major’s heartfelt emotion breaks the treaty of friendship between Brigitta and the Major. Brigitta says that he has finally become a good person and they embrace, verifying the complete fulfillment of their love.
All the while, the narrator stands somewhat awkwardly by (as he has for much of the story). He stays with the newly reunited family for the entire winter in Hungary and becomes almost a member of the family himself. At the end, the narrator returns to his fatherland.