Major Scobie lives in a colony in the West Coast of Africa during World War II, and is responsible for local security during wartime. His wife Louise, an unhappy, solitary woman who loves literature and poetry, cannot make friends. Scobie feels responsible for her misery, but does not love her. Their only child, Catherine, died in England several years before. Louise is a devout Catholic. Scobie, a convert, is also devout. Scobie is passed over for promotion to Commissioner, which upsets Louise both for her personal ambition and her hope that the local British community will begin to accept her. Louise asks Scobie if she can go and live in South Africa to escape the life she hates.