As a young man—a novelist, happily married, with an infant son, Roger—Thomas Covenant is inexplicably stricken with leprosy. In a leprosarium, where the last two fingers of his right hand are amputated, he learns that leprosy is incurable. As it progresses, it produces numbness, often killing its victims by leaving them unaware of injuries which then become infected. Medications arrest the progress of Covenant’s affliction; but he is taught that his only real hope of survival lies in protecting himself obsessively from any form of damage.
Horrified by his illness, he returns to his home on Haven Farm, where his wife, Joan, has abandoned and divorced him in order to protect their son from exposure.
Other blows to his emotional stability follow. Fearing the mysterious nature of his illness, the people around him cast him in the traditional role of the leper: a pariah, outcast and unclean. In addition, he discovers that he has become impotent—and unable to write. Grimly he struggles to go on living; but as the pressure of his loneliness mounts, he begins to experience prolonged episodes of unconsciousness, during which he appears to have adventures in a magical realm known only as “the Land.”