Based on Louis Bromfield's novel, a politician marries the wrong woman and continues to love his mistress, who has his child he adopts and raises.
During the funeral for John Shadwell, Vergie Winters (Ann Harding) is in jail and remembers back twenty years. Young Vergie sells women's hats in a shop. Her old flame, John Shadwell (John Boles), returns with his bride and learns that Hugo (Lon Chaney Jr.) did not marry Vergie. John tells Vergie that her father told him that she had to marry Hugo. Vergie realizes that lie is why her father got $10,000 from John's father-in-law. John and Vergie love each other. John runs for Congress, and the thoughts of his wife Laura (Helen Vinson), Vergie, John, and others are heard. John proposes a canal. Vergie tells Mr. Preston (Wallis Clark) she won't see John anymore so that he can support him without scandal. John suggests he get divorced; but Vergie says people will not accept that. Vergie's employee Sadie (Molly O'Day) returns from a date, sees John, and defends Vergie.
Six months later Vergie gets a letter from John urging her to go to Washington. Vergie says she is going away and closing the shop; Sadie is going to Chicago. Vergie has a baby. In 1914 John supports neutrality. Bartender Mike Davey (Donald Crisp) says he opposes John because the canal did not go through his land. John runs for Senate and has a baby with him. He asks Vergie to name her, and she is called Joan. Roscoe (Walter Brennan) sees John coming out of Vergie's backdoor late. Roscoe gets free drinks and tells Mike. Vergie learns that women are no longer shopping there because of gossip. Sadie comes back from Chicago and asks Barry Preston (Ben Alexander) for the money he owes her. Mike offers him the $500 for a document in his father's safe signed by Mrs. Woods, whose child John adopted. Going into the safe, Barry is shot by his father, who says a burglar did it. Herbert Sowerby (Wesley Barry) asks Sadie to marry.
In 1923 Vergie keeps a scrapbook on John. Madame Claire (Josephine Wittell) tells Vergie she bought the property and won't raise her rent. A girl buys a fan from Vergie, who gives her a ribbon and realizes it is Joan. John tells Vergie the fan was dropped in the fire. By 1932 John has developed a good airplane. Joan (Betty Furness) goes out with the pilot Ranny Truesdale (Frank Albertson), who asks her to marry. Laura learns that Vergie is Joan's mother. Against the will of John, she tells Joan that she was adopted; but Ranny still weds her, while Vergie sits home alone in her dream world. John asks Laura for a divorce and goes to tell Vergie. Laura comes in and shoots John dead. Vergie tells the police a man shot him, but she is convicted of murder. Ranny and Joan visit her in prison and say that Laura told them before she died, and the governor pardoned her.
This sentimental drama explores the suffering resulting from a mistaken marriage and the social stigma of divorce that would destroy a politician's career.