Mr. Cathcart was born on an island. It does not suit him, however, because there are too many other people on it. His life purpose becomes to own an island that he can make into a world of his own. The would-be islander acquires an island, four miles around, with three cottages on it. It has a smaller island lying off it, which also belongs to him. He loves his island, but there is a sinister side to it. It is a timeless world in which the souls of the dead live again, pulsating actively around the living. At night, places and things that seem uncanny in the day become threatening.
To escape such awareness, Cathcart concentrates on the material aspect of the island. He tries to fill it with his own gracious spirit and render it a minute world of pure perfection, made by the man himself. He begins by spending money. He brings a housekeeper and butler from the mainland and installs a bailiff in the farmhouse. He acquires a herd of cows and a yacht. He fills the cottages with tenants, all of whom display a smooth and deferential manner to "the Master.” The Master visits his tenants and is treated almost with adulation, but after he leaves, they have subtle, mocking smiles on their faces. It is doubtful that any of them really likes him, or whether he likes any of them.
At the end of the first year on the island, the bills flood in. Cathcart is shocked at how much money the island has swallowed. He thinks up projects to make the farm more efficient and conveys them to the bailiff, who watches him as if he were a strange, caged animal but does not register any of his suggestions. There is a good harvest and, at the harvest supper, everyone toasts Cathcart, dances, and seems happy. Underneath the gaiety, things are not well. A cow falls over the cliff. The men haul her up the bank and bury her, as no one will eat her meat. This incident is symbolic of the periodic malevolence of the island. More catastrophes happen: A man breaks a leg, a storm drives the yacht on a rock, the pigs get some strange disease, and families come to hate each other.
Cathcart begins to fear his island. He feels strange, violent feelings he has never known before. He now knows that his people do not love him. Several of them grow discontented and leave, including the housekeeper. At the end of the second year, the island has lost thousands of pounds. The housekeeper has swindled him. He gives notice to the butler and the bailiff.
In the fifth year, Cathcart sells the island to a hotel company, which plans to turn it into a honeymoon-and-golf island. He then moves onto the smaller island, which still belongs to him-taking along with a few faithful staff-an an old carpenter and his boy, a widow and her daughter, and another boy as helpers. The island is a refuge, with no human ghosts. The islander no longer has to struggle and believes himself free from desire. He begins a book on flowers, which he does not mind if he never publishes.
During his stay at Second Island Cathcart falls in love with the widow’s daughter, Flora and immediately he feels disturbed. Caught in the automatism of sexual desire, he resents losing the state of desirelessness that he had achieved. Eventually, even his desire for Flora dies, and he is left feeling that his island’s purity is soiled. He leaves the island to travel but receives a letter from Flora saying she is going to have a child. At an auction of islands, he buys another tiny island to the north. This island is even smaller and more barren than the last, with no buildings or trees on it.
Cathcart marries Flora, but as soon as the child is born, he escapes, as if from prison, to his new island. He builds a hut and lives on the island with a few sheep and a cat. He is glad there are no trees or bushes, as they assert their presence too strongly, and this would offend him. He loses interest in his book about flowers and avoids contact with anyone. When he watches the mail steamer on the horizon, his heart contracts in fear lest it molest him. He becomes shocked by the sound of his own voice and irritated by the mew of the cat and the bleating of the sheep. He wants only the sound of the sea and silence.
One day, the mail steamer comes and Cathcart talks to its men. He resents their intrusion into his neatly ordered environment. He cannot bear to open the letters they bring because any contact is repulsive to him. The cat disappears, for which he is glad. Sometimes he gets ill, but he knows this only because he falls down; he has ceased to register his own feelings.
In winter, the snow walls in the house. Cathcart tries to get on his boat, but he is too weak and is overcome by the snow so that he must crawl back inside. When he reaches the boat, there is a great storm. He digs himself out, and when he emerges, the island has changed, with great white hills where no hills had been. He is repulsed: He cannot win against the elements. He climbs a hill, and, as the sun feels hot, he reflects that it is summer, the time of leaves. However, he already senses the snow rolling in over the sea.