WAGES begins in the sultry summer of 1961 on a small island (Poldock) off the South Carolina coast. Sylvie Shaker (18) believes she is pregnant by Clovis Tully (21). At his party, Clovis tells her he is going to New York to see his “Beatnik” friends and maybe become an artist. He has the little town blues like Sylvie does, but refuses to take her with him. Now Sylvie does not tell Clovis about their possible child because she is furious with him.
That night Sylvie meets Clovis’ friend, Will Haydon (21). They fall in love in Clovis’ absence. Will is going to get his law degree at Harvard and Sylvie imagins him as president someday and herself as first lady (like the Kennedys are now).
Sylvie’s home is shabby and disfunctional and she longs for escape (fantasy or real). She does not tell Will about the possible pregnancy. But one night when they are dancing at the Pubba Tubba, she miscarries and Will (shocked and anguished) drives Sylvie to the hospital. This crisis ultimately bonds them closer together, but drives a wedge between Will and Clovis.
Both men have been drunks and womanizers. Clovis remains so, but Will becomes a Christian and soon feels he has been called to be a missionary. Sylvie still loves Will, but her dream of worldly greatness is shattered. When Will begins to criticize Sylvie for taking a drink, her low-cut evening gown, etc., she begins to cool toward him.
When Clovis returns that Fall and Will goes off to seminary (instead of Harvard Law), Sylvie re-connects with Clovis. Clovis is bitter that he has not succeeded in being an artist and must work in his father’s business. Now Clovis falls deeper into alcohol and drugs (and Sylvie with him). Sylvie gives her depressed friend, Patty Flack, some of the tranquilizers Clovis has given her. That night Patty is found dead and Sylvie believes she has killed her.
Will’s father (an attorney) hates Sylvie, believing she is only a cheap gold digger. He tells Sylvie she is under investigation for murder. He says he has police connections and will stop the investigation if Sylvie will work for him in his stable of call girls (which he uses to help illicit funds for his current state congressional campaign. Sylvie is horrified, but panics and meets him secretly.
Now Will’s father rapes Sylvie. Will’s father drives to the seminary and tells Will that Sylvie has returned to Clovis, engages in drugs, and has become the town tramp, even attempting to seduce himself. Will is shattered. He puts his righteous calling behind him and gets drunk. Losing control of his car, he plunges off a steep ravine. He is left crippled and comatose.
After a fight with Clovis, Sylvie dumps him and returns to Will (not knowing his condition). When Will finally comes out of the coma, his love for Sylvie overrides the story his father had told him. But Sylvie lives in terror of Will discovering that she may be a murderer and that Will’s father has raped her. Finally the truth comes out. Will is devastated. He plans to relinquish his spiritual call, his past (including Sylvie) and go out west to start over. He will only stop at Poldock one last time.
Once there, Will finds his father’s home in shambles, his father a broken man, at the point of insanity and dying of cancer. Will forgives him, knowing he will never see him again and attempts to lead him to Christ. His father refuses. But Will now realizes if he can do this, he has a greater ability and hunger to serve God than before. Will stops at the pier cafe for coffee before leaving sees Sylvie up the beach. They are rejoined. She eagerly joins with Will in marriage and later in the mission field.