Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
On the brink of financial ruin, the Elliot family is forced to vacate their ancestral home in order to recover their debts and avoid losing face amongst their parish. The task of organizing their effects falls to levelheaded Anne Elliot, destined for spinsterhood at age 27 after being persuaded eight years earlier to refuse the proposal of Frederick Wentworth, a dashing (but destitute) naval officer. Anne's spendthrift father, Sir Walter Elliot, is obsessed with keeping up appearances — the appearances of nobility. He reluctantly agrees to rent out the ancestral home, Kellynch Hall, to Admiral and Mrs. Croft, who, by pure chance, are the brother-in-law and sister of the man Anne rejected years before. Anne has never stopped loving Wentworth, regretting that she allowed herself to be persuaded by her father and her godmother, Lady Russell, to break off the engagement.
Now a distinguished sailor wealthy from the spoils of war, Wentworth has returned from sea ready for another attempt at finding a spouse — anyone but Anne, whom he has never forgiven. Fate brings them together when Wentworth comes back to England to stay with his sister at Kellynch Hall, and becomes acquainted with the Musgrove family, with whom Anne is staying as she tends to her indisposed sister Mary. The Musgroves are related to Anne via Mary's marriage to Charles Musgrove, who had previously proposed marriage to Anne, and was subsequently refused.
Wentworth is now rich and free to play the field among the eligible young beauties, among them the jovial and carefree Musgrove sisters, Henrietta and Louisa. At their reunion, Anne is smitten all over again, while Wentworth coolly claims not to recognize his fading, lost love. Anne's emotional torment is complete as she silently watches Wentworth search to settle down, declaring, "All I desire in a wife is firmness of character; a woman who knows her own mind. I cannot abide timidity or feebleness of purpose."
Anne and the Musgroves are subsequently invited by Wentworth to accompany him to Lyme as he visits two close friends from the Navy, Captain Harville and Captain Benwick. Benwick, mourning the loss of his fiancée, Harville's sister, finds in Anne a comforting and understanding friend. Anne also runs into a distant cousin, William Elliot, purely by chance. But sudden tragedy strikes as Louisa Musgrove is injured in a fall, and Anne is whisked away with Wentworth and Henrietta to inform the family.
Her duty to her sister completed, Anne rejoins her family in Bath, where her father and sister have become indulgent and comfortable within society. There she learns that William Elliot has been in close contact with her family while she was away, and with her presence he turns his attentions to her. Soon she receives a visit from the Crofts, who bring news that Louisa has suddenly become engaged to Captain Benwick, much to everyone's surprise. Anne learns that Captain Wentworth has come to stay with his sister in Bath, and eventually meets him again, but under the ever-watchful eye of her family and Lady Russell.
In the midst of the societal airs and appearances, Anne receives a marriage proposal from William Elliot, and engagement rumors spread like wildfire throughout Bath — eventually reaching Captain Wentworth. But Anne confirms to Wentworth that those rumors are untrue, and that he has been utterly misinformed. Before they can speak further, Lady Russell interrupts their conversation and Wentworth excuses himself.
As she runs after Wentworth to confess her true feelings, Anne finds out that William Elliot only intends to marry her to secure his place as the heir to the Elliot family title. She meets Captain Harville, who is charged to give her a letter from Wentworth. Upon reading the letter, she learns that Wentworth has never loved another, and is waiting in agony and hope that she will accept him again. Upon knowing his sentiments to be matched with hers, Anne finds Captain Wentworth and accepts his proposal, determined never to be persuaded otherwise again.