"The night was dark--the wind blew keenly over the frozen and rugged heath, when Agnes, pressing her moaning child to her bosom, was travelling on foot to her father's habitation. "Would to God I had never left it!" she exclaimed, as home and all its enjoyments rose in fancy to her view. And I think my readers will be ready to join in the exclamation, when they hear the poor wanderer's history."
Agnes and her father’s relationship is not only close but wholly consuming. When Fitzhenry is widowed, he refuses to remarry, worrying that he cannot split his affections between a new wife and his daughter, Agnes, in a struggle similar to Shakespeare's King Lear. Likewise, when Agnes’ pride fails her (she thinks she is strong enough to not succumb to temptation) and she is seduced by cad George Clifford, she is entirely distraught thinking how this will disappoint her father.
Though a typical nineteenth-century moral tale, the story lacks direct reference to religion. Language such as disappointing one’s father, remorse, worship, and wanting forgiveness are not primarily directed towards diety—which one would expect during this era—but instead towards Agnes’ father, Fitzhenry.
After Agnes becomes pregnant, she lives with Clifford hoping for a marriage that never occurs. On a rare venture to town, Agnes discovers that Fitzhenry is engaged to another girl who possesses a fortune. Distraught, Agnes walks off into the night with her son, Edward, towards home of her father in order to beg his forgiveness. Fitzhenry, however, has similarly been driven mad by the loss of his daughter and cannot recognize her upon her return. Reduced to working-class conditions, Agnes works tirelessly to provide and for her father. It is not until five years have passed that Fitzhenry awakens, recognizes his daughter, forgives her, and then promptly dies. Not surprisingly, Agnes herself is so overcome with shock that she too passes away, declaring Fitzhenry's moment of recognition as the only moment of happiness she has had in five years. Father-daughter analysis also pertains to the secondary characters Caroline and her father, Mr. Seymour, who take pity on Agnes and esteem her humble pursuit of redemption.
While literary history upholds Agnes as a fallen woman who earns a reclaim on virtue, at times the novel is overly melodramatic in its telling. Agnes’ disregard for her own child is disturbing especially given her focus on parent-child relationships. Furthermore, men are described only in terms of fatherhood, never as sons, brothers, or husbands: wives are either dead, mysteriously absent, or nameless. Opie’s uneven characterization of Clifford is problematic; he is little more than a scoundrel until two-thirds through the text when he is newly presented as misunderstood and truly in love with Agnes. During the story's concluding scene of Fitzhenry and Agnes’ joint funeral, Clifford (now Lord Mountcarrol) kidnaps his son Edward, grateful to finally have an heir to his fortune. Though the narrator claims Clifford truly missed Agnes, she and other women in general have been reduced to offering nothing beyond their reproductive capacity.
If unconvincing to modern audiences, readers should note that Sir Walter Scott--famed author of such historical novels as Ivanhoe-- told to Opie her text made him cry more than any other.