The story takes place in the mid-18th century. Enoch Arden, Philip Ray, and Annie Lee are childhood friends. Both boys fall in love with Annie, but the more confident Enoch makes his Love Confession first, and Annie accepts his proposal. They share seven happy years of marriage together and have three children.
Enoch supports his family as a merchant sailor, but then he is injured and unable to work for some time. When he recovers, he signs on for a voyage to China with another captain in hope of making a large amount of money. He sells his own boat and uses the money to set up a shop for Annie so that she will have something to live on while he is gone. After a tearful farewell, he leaves.
Annie's business fails, and her sickly youngest child dies soon afterward. Philip, now wealthy, begs her to let him pay for the other children's education, as Enoch wanted them to go to school. Not wishing to cause gossip that would harm Annie's reputation, Philip rarely visits the house, but he watches over the family and provides for them. Finally, after Enoch has been gone for ten years, Annie reluctantly becomes convinced that he is dead, and she agrees to marry Philip.
Meanwhile, Enoch has been shipwrecked on a Deserted Island. He is eventually rescued, but when he returns to town, he is so changed by his experience that no one recognizes him. On learning that Annie has married Philip, he goes to Philip's house and peers through the window, unnoticed. He sees that Annie and Philip are very happy, with a baby son of their own, and that his own children now regard Philip as their father.
Enoch is devastated, but he resolves not to ruin their happiness by revealing himself. He stays in town doing odd jobs for a year, and then he falls gravely ill. Before dying, he confesses his identity to his landlady and asks her to convey his blessings to his children, Annie, and Philip.
The story was filmed three times during The Silent Age of Hollywood, in 1911, 1914, and 1915 (this one starring Lillian Gish as Annie). Richard Strauss composed incidental music for a spoken recitation of the poem in 1897. It also inspired the following other works:
- Home and Beauty (1919), a play by W. Somerset Maugham, retitled Too Many Husbands for its New York run. It recasts the story as a Romantic Comedy focusing on the wife's dilemma at having to choose which husband to stay with.
- The Bushwhackers, a 1925 Australian film.
- Too Many Husbands (1940), a film based on the 1919 play, starring Jean Arthur, Fred MacMurray, and Melvyn Douglas.
- My Favorite Wife (1940), a Screwball Comedy retelling with a Gender Flip and a Revised Ending, starring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. This version is a Comedy of Remarriage, with a Romantic False Lead and a Disposable Fiancée for obstacles.
- Tomorrow Is Forever (1946), a loose retelling starring Claudette Colbert and Orson Welles, updated to the years after World War I.
- Three for the Show (1955), a musical remake of Too Many Husbands starring Betty Grable, Jack Lemmon, and Marge and Gower Champion.
- Something's Got to Give (1962), an unfinished remake of My Favorite Wife starring Marilyn Monroe and Dean Martin. Production was halted by Monroe's death, and the remake was redone the following year with a different cast.
- Move Over, Darling (1963), a remake of My Favorite Wife starring Doris Day and James Garner.
The poem provides examples of the following tropes:
- Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Annie holds out for a long time before marrying Philip and initially accepts his proposal mostly for the sake of her children, but she does finally return his affection.
- Accidental Adultery: Accidental bigamy of the Thought You Were Dead variety.
- The Aloner: Enoch on the island. The crew that rescues him are shocked by his appearance.Downward from his mountain gorge
Stept the long-hair'd long-bearded solitary,
Brown, looking hardly human, strangely clad,
Muttering and mumbling, idiotlike it seem'd,
With inarticulate rage, and making signs
They knew not what...
- Bittersweet Ending: Annie finds happiness with Philip, and Philip finally gets the heart of the woman he's loved all his life. Enoch loses his family but dies knowing that he helped his wife and his best friend to be happy together.
- Childhood Friend Romance: Both Annie/Enoch and Annie/Philip.
- Deserted Island: Where Enoch spends the years when he's missing.
- Dogged Nice Guy: Philip is very patient with Annie's hesitation and never tries to force her into accepting him.
- Ending Memorial Service: Not depicted in detail, but Enoch's funeral is described as one of the most lavish ever seen in the town.
- Foreshadowing: As children, Enoch, Annie, and Philip play house in a little cave on the beach. Enoch and Philip are supposed to take turns being the man of the house, but Enoch doesn't always want to give up his turn, leading to fights between the two boys.The little wife [Annie] would weep for company,
And pray them not to quarrel for her sake,
And say she would be little wife to both.
- Her Heart Will Go On: Annie, though it takes many years for her to get there.
- The Hero Dies
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Enoch. Even his dying confession to the landlady is intended to give Annie a sense of closure so that she can finally know what happened to him.
- Legally Dead: Enoch again.
- Literal Metaphor: Annie dreams of Enoch sitting under a palm tree in a sunny place and takes it as a sign that he is dead, thinking the sun and the tree are metaphors for heaven. However, Enoch is on a sunny island with real palm trees at the time.
- Love Triangle: Enoch/Annie/Philip.
- No Antagonist
- No Doubt the Years Have Changed Me: After ten-plus years on the island, Enoch is prematurely gray and "so brown, so bow'd, so broken" that no one recognizes him when he returns.
- Remarrying for Your Kids: Annie, at first.
- Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated
- Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: Enoch is a poor orphan, while Philip is the son of the town miller. Zigzagged in that Annie is never faced with a direct choice between the two—Philip does not make his Love Confession until after Enoch has been gone for many years—and subverted in that she eventually marries both.
- Robinsonade: Enoch's ten years on the island.
- Romancing the Widow: Philip and Annie.
- Second Love: Philip, for Annie.
- Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Philip and Enoch, respectively, though neither is a caricature. Enoch is described as a bold and dashing sailor, confident, and physically strong (but not reckless, and a caring family man). Philip cries more easily as a boy, and in his courtship of Annie he is very gentle and sensitive to her feelings (but he also works hard in his mill, and he bottles up his feelings for years after Annie marries Enoch).
- Shipper on Deck: Annie's children want her to marry Philip.
- Small, Secluded World: The island, for Enoch.
- Sole Survivor: Enoch, of the China ship.
- Two Guys and a Girl: The main characters.