For nine years, John Dowell and his wife have spent the summer season at a German spa town in the company of the respectable Ashburnhams. Behind the placid exterior of their lives lie the destructive passions of men and women. When Dowell's world breaks apart, he tells his story as intimately as to a silent listener across the fireplace of a country cottage. 'Who in this world knows anything of any other heart -- or of his own?'.