In "The Angel at the Grave," Paulina Anson moves into her grandfather's old New England home to look after his affairs and perpetuate his literary reputation. She chooses to devote her life to preserving Dr. Orestes Anson's work in lieu of pursuing her own path, even rejecting a marriage proposal from a suitor who wants her to move out of the house. After completing a massive biography about her grandfather (who has been dead for many years), Paulina is startled when her publisher tells her that Dr. Anson's work has gone out of vogue since his death. Paulina is disappointed, feeling as though she has wasted her life. Weeks later, a George Corby, a young scholar, arrives at the Anson home. He is a great fan of Dr. Anson's work and has come to find a secret scientific pamphlet the late doctor might have written. Paulina procures the pamphlet for him and he rejoices. In this brief moment, this eager young man validates Paulina's lifelong dedication.
In "After Holbein," an elderly New York society man, Anson Warley, begins to suffer some bouts of dementia, although he is not yet aware of it. He has been pickier lately in which social invitations he accepts, but makes plans to dine out one evening. Across town, the elderly society matron, Mrs. Jaspar, who suffers from extreme dementia, prepares for one of her "dinner parties." She has no idea that her guests never actually come because her household staff does everything possible to maintain the charade. That night, Anson Warley steps out to go to his dinner and suddenly forgets where he is going. He finds himself in front of Mrs. Jaspar's house and decides to call upon his old acquaintance. To the staff's shock, Anson Warley dines with Mrs. Jaspar. Both of them think it is a lively, crowded, and pleasant party, although they barely speak to each other and there is no one else there.
In "The Other Two," Mr. Waythorn marries a society woman, Alice, who has been married twice before. During the first months of their marriage, Alice's ex-husbands both re-appear in the couple's life. Alice has a daughter, Lily, so her first husband (and Lily's father), Mr. Haskell, comes to the house to see his daughter. Incidentally, Guy Varick, Mrs Waythorn's second husband, becomes Waythorn's client in an investment deal. Waythorn is disconcerted, even jealous, at first. Eventually, though, he grows to like both men. He notices that his wife behaves differently with each of her husbands and finds it odd that she is able to evolve so easily. He comes to terms with her past, however, because he feels that she has learned from her experiences and now, he is the beneficiary.
In "Roman Fever," two middle-aged widows meet up in Rome by chance, each accompanied by her teenage daughter. While the younger women run off to pursue dashing aviators, their mothers, Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley, talk about the past. Mrs. Slade feels proud to have had a rich and glamorous husband like Delphin Slade, and pities Mrs. Ansley because she knows her friend loved him too when they were all young and cavorting in Rome. Mrs. Slade confesses to Mrs. Ansley that she wrote a fake letter from Delphin, her then-fiancé, asking Mrs. Ansley to meet him in the Colosseum one night. Mrs. Ansley is upset because she always thought the letter was from Delphin and held onto it for years as a reminder of him. Mrs. Slade feels some pity for Mrs. Ansley because she had had to wait that night, but then Mrs. Ansley tells Mrs. Slade that Delphin actually did meet her, even though the message was false. Surprised, Mrs. Slade counters that she at least got to spend her life with Delphin, but Mrs. Ansley quietly responds by saying that her daughter is actually Delphin's daughter.
In "Autres Temps," Mrs. Lidcote is a middle-aged woman living in Florence after divorcing her husband many years ago. She returns to New York to be with her daughter Leila after she has made the sudden decision to divorce her own husband and quickly marry another. Mrs. Lidcote is worried about her daughter's reputation since she has been shunned by society for years, but her friend Franklin Ide and her cousin Susy Suffern reassure her that times are different. Mrs. Lidcote finds this to be true when she travels to the vast country home that Leila and her husband own. She even briefly wonders if Leila's intact reputation might save her own. As Mrs. Lidcote's visit continues, though, she realizes that her daughter and friends are ashamed of her and that nobody has forgiven her past scandal. She decides to return to Florence but before she goes, Franklin Ide visits her again. He wants to be with her and join her in her isolation. He also keeps trying to convince her that Leila is not ashamed of her in order to make her feel better. However, Mrs. Lidcote tests Ide by asking him to accompany her as she attempts to socialize with a society matron who is staying in the same hotel. Franklin Ide's deep discomfort with the idea reveals that even he is uncomfortable with Mrs. Lidcote's reputation.
In "The Last Asset," Paul Garnett, an American reporter stationed in London, meets with a wealthy American society woman in Paris. Cold, controlling, and proud, Mrs. Newell asks Garnett to do her a favor by asking her estranged husband to appear at their daughter Hermione's wedding. It is vital that Mr. Newell is there because the groom's traditional parents will call off the marriage if one of the bride's parents is missing. Garnett agrees to the task in order to make sweet Hermione happy. He is surprised to discover that he already knows Mr. Newell from the cafe they both frequent. At first, Mr. Newell refuses to consent, and when Garnett relays this information to Mrs. Newell, she is furious. Hermione approaches Garnett in secret and instructs him leave her father alone, because she would rather not marry than upset him further. Garnett, in turn, shares Hermione's pleas with Mr. Newell, who grudgingly consents to attend her wedding. On the day of the wedding, Garnett muses that every single guest is somehow one of Mrs. Newell's puppets. However, he is pleased that he took on Mrs. Newell's task because Hermione is happily married and she got to meet her father again.
In "Xingu," a group of society women form a regular literary gathering called the Lunch Club. They are reading a famous novel by the esteemed Osric Dane, and invite the author to attend one of their meetings. Mrs. Dane proves to be imperious and condescending. It seems like their conversation is going nowhere until Mrs. Roby, the most frivolous member of the group, claims that the group's attention has been focused on Xingu recently, giving them little time to discuss other topics. Mrs. Dane clearly does not know what Xingu is but does not want to admit it. Meanwhile, all the other ladies, who do not know what Xingu is either, scramble to make it sound like they know what they are talking about. Eventually, Mrs. Roby rises to depart and Mrs. Dane leaves with her. Left alone, the flummoxed women look up Xingu and discover that it is a river in Brazil. Annoyed by their embarrassment and ignorance, they decide to ask Mrs. Roby to resign from the club.
In "Souls Belated," Gannett and Lydia are traveling through Europe. She has just left her husband for Gannett and now has the divorce papers in her possession. Gannett wants to marry Lydia right away but she does not want adhere to society's restrictive norms. She still wants to interact with society, though, so the couple decides to stay at a fancy hotel in Europe. There, they easily fall in with the fashionable crowd, although they have to pretend to be married. Mrs. Linton, who is the outcast of the hotel, confronts Lydia and asks her for a favor because they are "in the same boat" (i.e., they are both divorcees). Mrs. Linton's discovery unnerves Lydia and forces her to discuss the issue of marriage with Gannett again. The next morning, Lydia sneaks off and almost leaves Gannett, but decides not to at the last minute. Wharton implies that they get married at the end, however grudgingly.