Carol overhears the Jolly Seventeen talking about a new young man working at Nat Hick's tailor shop. The boys in town call him "Elizabeth" because he dresses in fine clothes and puts on airs though he is only a Swedish farmer's son. Carol first sees the boy, whose real name is Erik Valborg, on a rare visit to church and she is immediately taken with him. Carol associates his refined manner and Grecian good looks with the soul of a poet. She discovers that Erik learned his trade in Minneapolis. She muses that she is thirty and the boy probably twenty-five. Soon afterward she meets Fern Mullins, a young girl fresh out of college who has moved to Gopher Prairie to teach school. Fern is boarding at the widow Bogart's and she and Carol become fast friends. Fern confides that she misses the city life, especially dancing. When Carol finally meets Erik Valborg it turns out that he has heard of her and asks if they could start another dramatic club. She invites Ferd and Erik to the house to discuss a new play production. That evening Kennicott, amused and slightly offended that a mere work boy would be in his home, listens as Carol encourages him to pursue his dreams. Erik, has read much but learned little, and mispronounces every tenth word.
While on a walk with Hugh by the railroad tracks Carol encounters Erik and they sit down to talk. He tells her of his unstructured but vigilant reading and is happy when she encourages him to pursue his dream to study drawing. He wants to create something beautiful and, reminded of herself, Carol tells him that she understands. He boldly asks her why she isn't happy with her husband. She is shocked by his effrontery. He promises to behave. On the way into town Carol notices that the matrons are staring as she walks with Erik.
Erik organizes a tennis tournament to promote a new tennis association on the abandoned court just outside of town. Carol agrees to help and Harry Haydock agrees to be president of the association if Erik will put it all together. On the day of the match, however, Carol, Erik and a few other unpopular members of the town are stood up when the Haydocks hold their own tournament at their lake cottage. When Carol next sees the Haydocks she insists that they apologize to Erik and Juanita senses Carol's affection for the young man. Later that week, Carol visits Erik in the tailor shop where he shows her a rude sketch of an original dress design. On the way home she is surprised to find that Erik has evoked memories of her father, something Will has never inspired. In the following weeks she fantasizes about a life lived with a young artist whom she admits to herself resembles Erik. Desperate for new clothes, Carol visits the controversial milliner Mrs. Swiftwaite and is disappointed to find that the notorious woman is merely a 40 something divorc with the bad taste to pretend to be thirty. Carol hurries home and, evaluating herself in the mirror, and agonizes over her spinsterish, unstylish appearance. She realizes that she used to be the fashionable city girl but now she merely imitates them.
One day in September, Fern, Erik, Cy Bogart, Carol and the Dyers go for a picnic by the lake. Carol is jealous when she observes Maud Dyer flirting with Erik. When Erik asks Carol to go for a boat ride she accepts to spite Maude. Erik professes his affection for her; she doesn't yield to his advances nor does she resist. They return very late to the rest of the group. The next day Mrs. Bogart arrives and second-handedly questions Carol about Erik and Carol knows that the nosy woman's suspicions have been aroused. At a church dinner the following week Carol is relieved to see that Maud Dyer talks to Will instead of Erik and then she is discomfited to see Mrs. Bogart watching her watch Erik. Carol begins to confuse wanting youth with wanting Erik. She reasons that Main Street's dullness has driven her to desire an escape. Erik tells her that Myrtle Cass' father has offered him a position at the flour mill. Carol asserts that Myrtle Cass is trying to snare him. Erik claims to be interested in Carol, not Myrtle Cass. Carol begins to doubt her marriage.
One night while Will is on a house-call, Erik comes to see Carol. She lets him kiss her on her eyelid and then realizes that a romance with him is not possible. He leaves and Carol notices Mrs. Westlake watching from her home across the street. The next day Kennicott tells her that Ma Westlake has been spreading confidences that Carol told her. Vida visits and tries to convice her to desist in her attentions to Erik by confessing her own feelings, now long past, for Carol's husband. Carol realizes that that tragedy of her own life is that she will never have real tragedy, only Main Street melodrama. She feels guilty and begins to believe that all the men in town suspect her of being morally loose. Only Fern remains her devoted friend.
One morning Carol hears an argument coming from the Bogart home. Soon Fern emerges, downcast and carrying a suitcase. The widow Bogart follows shouting denunciations. That evening Mrs. Bogart arrives at the Kennicott's and after a great deal of self-righteous pity blurts out the story: Fern and Cy had gone to a barn dance and when they returned Cyrus was drunk. When Mrs. Bogart accused the girl of trying to corrupt her son Fern replied: "What purpose could I have in wanting the filthy pup to get drunk?" Fern also asserted that Cy had stolen a bottle of whiskey from a farmer's coat pocket. This had enraged Mrs. Bogart who threw the girl out of the house after she admitted that Cy had forced her to have a drink of the whiskey. Mrs. Bogart hinted that nobody could account for Fern's behavior on the ride home. Furthermore, Mrs. Bogart had gone to all the members of the school board to complain. Carol rushes to see Fern who has fled to the only hotel, the Minniemashie House, and finds the girl distraught. She pours out her story - that she was having a great time at the dance, Cy got drunk on stolen liquor and then she had to drive home and fight him off the whole way. When they returned Mrs. Bogart said nasty things to her while Cy was sick and then he accused her of getting him drunk on purpose. Carol goes to the various members of the school board to plead Fern's case. They believe her and have no illusions about Cy's character but they claim that the stain of the gossip won't wash out. Carol tells them that the girl will be ruined if she is summarily dismissed. The next day Carol overhears inflated gossip about Fern around town and wonders when she will suffer the same fate for her burgeoning relationship with Erik. The next day the board decides to accept Fern's resignation without making any formal charges. Carol walks the trembling girl to the train and is disgusted to observe Cy Bogart bragging to some men on the street. A week later she receives a letter from Fern: Her parents have rejected her and she can't find another job. She thanks Carol for her kindness.
A month later Erik comes Carol's house one night when Will is out and demands that she accompany him on a walk in the country. She readily assents. As they walk they hold hands. He recites two lines of a poem he has written for her and she is flattered by what she knows to be his bad verse. A vehicle approaches and stops. From the glare of the lights Carol hears her husband's annoyed voice call to her. He offers them a ride back into town. At home, Kennicott lectures and commands her to quit carrying on with Valborg. He asserts that though she is too romantically frigid to have an affair the town gossips will nevertheless destroy her just as they did Fern Mullins. When Carol defends Erik, Kennicott asserts that the boy will never amount to anything more than a tailor. She succumbs and comes to believe that she needs her husband more than anything. She promises to give up Erik. The next day he sends a note to say he's taking the train to Minneapolis and then to bigger cities. That evening she and Will are lovers for the first time in a long time. One week later, Erik's father knocks on the door and angrily accuses Carol of ruining his son. She faints and when Will arrives home she is supine on the couch; she begs him to take her on a trip to California. He agrees. Before they leave many of the women in town make allusions to Erik in Carol's presence. At a meeting of the Jolly Seventeen she steers the topic away from Erik by asking about Raymie. Vida informs the group that he was gassed in the trenches, has recovered and been promoted to major. Carol and Will leave Hugh with Aunt Bessie and leave on a train for California.
These chapters chronicle Carol's attraction and subsequent romantically tinged relationship with Erik Valborg. Carol is at her most hypocritical during this portion of the novel - she recognizes that Erik is really just a farm boy whose reading and good looks have given him the impression of a poet (she rightly recognizes that his one line of verse is bad) but she defends him to Will and
believes that she can teach him to become something more. Thus, she postures herself as his teacher knowing all the while that he has no desire to be treated like a school boy. Carol's relationship with Erik is enhanced by the sad story of Fern Mullins and her downfall as a result of going to a dance with Cy Bogart. Fern is in fact Cy's teacher just as Carol desires (at least overtly) to be Erik's teacher. When the town turns on Fern for allowing herself to be compromised by an unchaperoned trip with her student Carol realizes that it is herself the town is judging.