The narrator awakens at seven in the morning; her fiancé Jamie Harris left at 1:30 a.m. She mulls over her coffee, then begins writing a letter to her sister, Anne, to inform her of her upcoming wedding. Then, she begins to prepare for her wedding but is unable to decide between two dresses: a plain, silk, blue dress, which her fiancé has already seen, and a print dress, which she believes is too young for her. The narrator is 34 years old, although her license falsely indicates that she is 30.
For the first couple of hours in the morning, the narrator deliberates about her outfit and matching pocketbook, and prepares her apartment for her return with Jamie, as a married couple, later. Finally, she dresses, though she wishes that she had time to get another dress at the shop. She attempts the print dress, is repulsed by the thought that she is attempting to look too young, and rips it off. Jamie is scheduled to pick her up for the wedding at 10:00 a.m., and the narrator does not have time to buy a new dress, so she settles for the blue dress.
The narrator settles down to wait for her fiancé. “Reconciled, settled, she tried to think of Jamie and could not see his face clearly, or hear his voice. It’s always that way with someone you love…” (15). Then, the narrator starts to dream about her future with Jamie and about past conversations that they have had.
At 10:30, the narrator begins to wonder where Jamie is. As she waits for him, she sews the ripped seam on the print dress and wears it instead of the blue dress. At 11:30, she considers getting breakfast because she is very hungry. The narrator leaves a note for Jamie in front of her door and goes to the drugstore. When she returns, he still has not arrived. “Now, suddenly, she was frightened” (16).
The narrator takes a taxi to Jamie’s apartment, but she does not find a label on the outside for Jamie’s name. She rings the superintendent, and he answers. The superintendent and his wife both confirm that no one named Jamie Harris has ever lived in the building. While the superintendent is mocking the narrator’s insistence and desperation, his wife offers her a tip that he might have subletted an apartment on the third floor. The narrator checks with the Roysters, who reside at said apartment. Mr. and Mrs. Royster indicate that their apartment was recently subletted by a young man, but they do not know his name.
Desperate to find Jamie, the narrator goes to the local delicatessen to inquire if the man behind the counter has seen her fiancé, wearing his traditional blue suit, passing the store. The deli man is annoyed by her questions and brushes her off. On the way home, the narrator stops at the newsstand to ask the seller if he has seen Jamie. The newsstand man, conspiring with the man waiting in line behind the narrator, humors her and hints that he may have seen Jamie heading uptown, towards her apartment.
On the way home, the narrator stops by the florist to ask if he has seen Jamie or if Jamie has stopped by to buy her flowers. When the florist is unable to help her and the narrator declines his attempts to sell her anything, she departs. The narrator stops at a shoeshine stand and asks the old man if he has seen Jamie; he answers in the affirmative.
Joyful, the narrator runs home, only to find her apartment empty. She asks the clerk in the drugstore if he has seen Jamie, but he has not. The narrator returns to the shoeshine man, who points out the exact house into which he saw Jamie go.
The narrator rushes to the block of houses. A woman sits in front of one house with a baby and a twelve-year-old boy. The narrator asks if they have seen Jamie, but the woman says she has not. The boy, however, says that Jamie has entered a particular house, after having given him a quarter and telling him that it’s a big day. The boy confirms that Jamie was carrying flowers, then starts asking if the narrator will divorce him.
Leaving the boy screaming about the divorce, the narrator goes to the house, which is very run down. She thinks she hears voices inside, but they stop as soon as she knocks. After knocking repeatedly, the narrator finally opens the door. The house is bare, empty, decrepit. There is a rat staring back at her, looking “evil” (26). In her fright, the narrator stumbles out of the door and tears her dress.
The narrator believes the house is inhabited, for she again hears laughter and voices coming from behind the walls. From then on, she returns to the house often, knocking and listening, but no one ever answers the door.
In "The Daemon Lover," Jackson cleverly conceals the narrator's potential mental instability and only gradually casts doubt on her credibility. At the beginning of the story, the reader is introduced to a seemingly normal woman who is eager to marry her fiancé, Jamie Harris. The narrator prepares herself for her wedding day and anxiously awaits Jamie. Jackson's description of the narrator deciding between dresses, agonizing over the minute details of her apartment, and so on suggests the narrator's desperation and relief to be married. During Jackson's lifetime, societal conventions dictated that a woman "should" be married at a reasonable age, most likely in her twenties. Thus, the narrator, 34, would be considered rather old, hence her excitement about marrying Jamie. Furthermore, in other works by Jackson (most notably, The Haunting of Hill House), unmarried and lonely women are most susceptible to losing their senses of self and their grasps on reality.
Subsequently, when the narrator embarks upon her search for Jamie, the first inklings of her delusions surface. However, she remains the protagonist, though through her search, the reader becomes aware of her lack of narrative credibility. The first people she inquires of, the super and his wife, cast doubt upon her credibility when they reveal that Jamie has never lived in the building. "'You got the wrong house, lady ... or the wrong guy,' and he and the woman laughed" (17). The Roysters also confirm this. At this point in the story, this conflict does not completely determine the narrator's instability—perhaps she has been duped by an untrustworthy man, which seems to be what the super and the Roysters believe.
Next, the newsstand man clearly gives his responses about seeing Jamie only to humor the narrator. His sly glances at the man in line behind the narrator indicate that the two of them are complicit in their condescension towards her. Initially, he dismisses the narrator, but as soon as he receives an audience (the man in line), the newsstand man turns the conversation into a game. He carelessly tosses the narrator information and tells her what she wants to hear. "She wondered for a minute whether or not to tip the newsdealer but when both men began to laugh she moved hurriedly on across the street" (21).
Finally, the only two people who verify Harris's existence are also not credible: an old, seemingly senile man and an obnoxious boy. They both direct her to a decrepit house, where she believes she hears voices, even though the house is clearly empty. Thus, the transition from a credible narrator to one who is deluded by her fantasies is gradual and subtle. At the end of "The Daemon Lover," when the narrator believes Jamie to be inside of a deserted and empty house, the reader finally realizes the extent of her mental instability. The reader is thus jarred from complacency because the reader must question the validity of each statement he has read up until that point, once it becomes clear that the narrator could not be trusted.
The true conflict in "The Daemon Lover" is found not in the protagonist's external environment, but within her own mind—between reality and fantasy. While the obvious conflict is that the narrator is unable to locate her fiancé on the day of her wedding, Jackson's more compelling conflict pertains to the struggle between mental stability and insanity. The people whom the narrator encounters on her search represent reality, whether they give evidence to deny Jamie's existence (the super and the Roysters), humor her with potentially false information (the newsdealer), or are essentially as unreliable as she is (the old man and the little boy).
Jackson also hints at the true presence of evil at the conclusion of the story, anthropomorphizing the rat in the deserted house: "its evil face alert, bright eyes watching her" (26). Another source of evil lies in Harris's appearance (or rather, lack thereof) which, as in other stories in the collection, indicates a sinister presence. Harris is a writer, described as wearing a blue suit, the same color as the suit he wears in other stories. In these stories, such as "Like Mother Used to Make" and "The Tooth," Harris's presence hints at the loss of identity, of self, or of sanity.
Finally, the title of this story makes an allusion to "The Daemon Lover," a popular English ballad that also has been called "James Harris." In the ballad, a man lures his former lover away from her family on a ship with promises of happiness, love, and wealth. However, he reveals mid-journey that their true destination is hell and destroys the ship. Drawing upon this intertextuality, one can surmise that the deceptive James Harris lures the narrator of "The Daemon Lover" away from her sense of reality and, indeed, her sanity. Attracted to the supposed promise of a life with Harris, the narrator loses herself in the hell of unrealized hopes and unfulfilled fantasies.