Set in the months leading up to World War I and in an out-of-the-way Austrian garrison town, Beware of Pity is about Hofmiller, a young cavalry officer stationed at the town. Poor and from an undistinguished family, Hofmiller is uncomfortable among his fellow officers, most of whom are wealthy which makes him especially protective of his reputation and honor. When a friend secures him an invitation to the home of Herr von Kekesfalva, the local landowner and richest man in town, Hofmiller is thrilled, and goes to the dinner determined to represent himself as a gentleman of the highest class. At the end of the evening, drunk on good wine and good company, Hofmiller realizes that he has made the faux pas of failing to ask his host’s daughter, eighteen year old Edith, to dance, but when he does so the girl reacts in horror and hysteria. Having arrived late to dinner, Hofmiller has not had the chance to see that Edith is paralyzed, and once he realizes his mistake he is nearly as horrified as Edith was and immediately leaves the party.
What could have simply ended as a mortifying incident Hofmiller would shudder to look back on in later years balloons into a full-scale entanglement with the Kekesfalva family when Hofmiller, feeling terrible for his actions (and selfishly worried that his behavior might become known among his fellow officers), sends Edith flowers as an apology and accepts her invitation to call on her. As he enters into a friendship with Edith he pats himself on the back and sees himself a Good Samaritan, bringing this poor crippled girl some happiness to brighten up her otherwise sad, lonely life.
As he is able to charm and calm Edith during her terrible temper tantrums, he finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the family’s troubles also pitying Edith’s long suffering cousin Ilona and Edith’s father who is obsessed with finding a cure that would enable his only child to walk again. Hofmiller is plied with gifts, luxuries and status to keep him coming back. For Hofmiller, however, the appeal of his friendship with Edith isn’t the material gains it offers but the sense of belonging, importance and self-satisfaction it allows him to feel.
Hofmiller develops a dysfunctional relationship with both Edith and her father. Though unhealthy, the friendship is, at least at first, mutually beneficial, but soon Hofmiller finds himself being asked to do more and more for the Kekesfalvas, while the consequences of refusing them grow more dire. When Edith’s physician Doctor Condor visits the estate for a regular checkup, Kekesfalva asks Hofmiller to get an honest assessment out of the man as to Edith’s chances of recovery. Condor tells Hofmiller that there is at present no cure for Edith’s condition, but the young man can’t bring himself to destroy the desperate and obviously ill Kekesfalva, and wildly exaggerates the faint promise of a new treatment until the family believes that Edith’s ability to walk again is assured. Soon after, Edith professes her love for him (to which he was the only one who was unaware); he is at first disgusted but soon realizes that his refusal to marry her would surely lead the girl to suicide. In a way,Hofmiller reminds me of Hamlet. At each step of this journey he is crippled with indecision which eventually leads to disaster and tragedy. This book is simultaneously old-fashioned and strangely modern. The Victorian-era language masks the contemporary conflicting human impulses to help others and also free ourselves from their need.