“The Second Hut” Summary: Doris Lessing Short Story Plot Synopsis

“The Second Hut” is a short story by Doris Lessing. It’s about a farmer who deals with a sick wife and problems with his hired help. Here’s a summary of “The Second Hut.”

“The Second Hut” Summary

Major Carruthers started farming in his forties, having formerly been a soldier. He’s always done what his family expected of him, but he wasn’t particularly suited to being a soldier or farmer.

The house looks worn, inside and out. The farm isn’t doing well and now, making things worse, his wife has taken ill. The doctor says it’s her heart. She seems defeated by their poverty, lying in bed all day facing the wall. She was suited to be a soldier’s wife. She tried to adjust to life on an African farm, but the hopelessness eventually got to her. The two children are pale and overly timid. When they return to school, it doesn’t relieve much pressure.

Carruthers doesn’t sleep much, as his wife needs attending to at night. He starts taking medicine himself, which makes him look weak to her. He decides suddenly to hire an assistant, which he’s been needing. He puts out the word; there’s unemployment, so he knows he’ll get someone.

The Second Hut Doris Lessing Summary short story Plot Synopsis
“The Second Hut” Summary

A week later, a strongly-built Afrikaner named Van Heerden rides up on a bicycle. His interest in the job means he’s desperate for work. Carruthers shows him the living quarters—a small, thatched hut with growth all around it. Van Heerden kills a spider with his fingers and accepts it. Carruthers advances him a month’s salary and Van Heerden goes for some supplies.

If the new man had been English, Carruthers would have found a place in the house for him. He and Van Heerden would only make each other uncomfortable.

Carruthers is almost happy for a few weeks. Van Heerden takes over care of the cattle, having a natural ability with animals. Carruthers won’t have to appeal to his brother in England for any help. His wife perks up a bit in response to his improved mood. Carruthers can see she would recover if her old life were possible.

Two months into Van Heerden’s stay, Carruthers sees a small flaxen-haired boy. He follows him to the hut, where there’s an untidy woman cooking too close to the hut and many children.

Carruthers goes off looking for Van Heerden, angry at the squalor they’re living in and knowing he could end up that desperate himself. He finds him breaking an ox to the plough, fighting it impressively.

Van Heerden’s been out of work a year and couldn’t reveal he had a family because he wouldn’t have been hired. He’s thirty-four and has nine children. Their births haven’t been registered, so they don’t have to go to school. Carruthers can’t afford to pay more. He’s angry over the situation but washes his hands of responsibility and leaves. He tries to put the family out of his mind but can’t.

The farm is very busy with the reaping and all the repairs needed. Still, Carruthers feels he must have a second hut built to relieve a fraction on the family’s discomfort.

The boss-boy tells Carruthers he and his fellows will leave unless the Dutchman (Van Heerden) is fired. He treats the natives badly and they already don’t like Dutchmen. Carruthers can’t bring himself to put Van Heerden’s family out. He uses his history as a good employer, his wife’s illness and a promise to have a word with Van Heerden to get the boss-boy to relent.

Carruthers goes to see his wife. She asks him to write to his brother. He sees again that her condition is tied to her level of hope.

“The Second Hut” Summary, Cont’d

The laborers have been working a seven-day week for some time. Now that the maize has grown, they’re expecting to get their Sundays back. Knowing there’ll be resistance, Carruthers informs the boss-boy he needs another hut built for Van Heerden on Sunday. He accepts the order with an underlying hostility.

Carruthers goes and informs Van Heerden of the plans. He’s playing with his kids while his wife cooks. He’s proud of his family and of his ability to make children.

On Saturday they prepare the spot. On Sunday, the laborers don’t show up until eight. Carruthers watches as the children and woman come out of the hut. The laborers start and then Van Heerden emerges. Carruthers knows they’ll slack off if he’s not there, and he points out when something isn’t done right. At midday, when the frame is complete, they take a break.

Carruthers goes home to eat and lie down. He oversleeps until after three. He rushes back in a panic. Van Heerden is yelling and hitting the natives, who’ve only just returned to work. Carruthers orders the laborers back to work and calms Van Heerden down.

They work somberly until sundown. The plastering is shoddily done and they complete it the next Sunday. It takes another two weeks for everything to fully dry and lose it’s strong smell. In the meantime, relations between the natives and Van Heerden are calmer than Carruthers expected. Carruthers feels something is brewing.

Van Heerden appreciates the second hut. The first night it’s used, Carruthers is awoken near dawn by the boss-boy. The hut is on fire.

They rush over where Van Heerden is pouring buckets of water, handed by the natives, onto the first hut to protect it. The new one is too far gone.

One of the infants was hit with a piece of fiery debris and is badly burned and twitching. He quickly gets the car and orders the woman in with the child. He’ll take her to the hospital; Van Heerden says it’s too late. They don’t get half a mile before the infant dies. They go back where the remaining family watches the hut burn.

Carruthers goes back to his place and drinks tea, keeping himself under control. He sends for the boss-boy and asks about the fire. He claims ignorance and points out the cooking station was too close to the hut, which is true. Of course, one of the natives whom Van Heerden abused had set the fire, but it could never be proven. He orders that the hut be rebuilt today.

Carruthers eats breakfast and returns to the clearing. Everything is black, including the children who are playing nearby. Van Heerden leans against the original hut; his wife can be heard moaning inside. The deceased infant has been buried on the grounds. Van Heerden has tears in his eyes.

Carruthers realizes his wife is in labor. The shock of the tragedy brought it on early. He’s surprised it hadn’t occurred to him that Van Heerden would have more children. Van Heerden will assist; their last one was born when they lived in a tent.

Carruthers sees the depths of poverty and hopelessness he could sink to. He walks to his house stoically. He takes out pen and paper and writes a difficult letter that hurts his pride.

He goes into his wife and tells her he’s written for a job in England. Touching her wrist, he feels her pulse quicken. Her tears of thankfulness soak the pillow.

I hope this summary of “The Second Hut” by Doris Lessing was helpful.