After a rough start, Roderick becomes an expert at his artistry, and at handling the parties that go with it. He throws a dinner party with friends to celebrate his success; he is attracted to Miss Blanchard, although he is still engaged to Miss Garland. He then decides to part with Rowland; he shall go to Switzerland or Germany while Rowland goes to England. The latter writes to Mrs Hudson to inform her of the situation. She replies saying she is pleased the situation has gone so well. However, when Rowland finally hears from Roderick, he begs him for money to cover the debts he incurred while gambling at Baden-Baden.
The two men return to Rome and Roderick paints something different from his usual style, to Rowland's dismay. Later the Lights visit his studio and Roderick asks if he can do a bust of Christina. Although the girl doesn't like him, she likes his bluntness - however, she tells Rowland she doesn't like him. The bust is finally made. Sam and Rowland discuss Roderick's affection for Christina and his 'completeness'. Later Christina has a party - her mother has invited everyone she knows under the sun - and she tells Rowland she likes him after all, and that Roderick is likeable too but he is too poor. The latter is very saddened by that, and feeling uninspired with regards to his art.
Rowland and Roderick are lying in the grass when Christina, Mrs Light and the Cavaliere, and the Prince come upon them and decide to have lunch with them. Roderick and Christina go for a walk while Rowland talks to the Cavaliere - the latter says Christina genuinely feels for Roderick but will have to go for the Prince because he is rich. Mrs Light then tells him she used to think her daughter was ugly until she dressed her up and changed her mind, gave her the best education she could have, which is why she must now marry the Prince.
Later Rowland walks into Christina and Rowland at the Colisseum. He saves him from nearly killing himself by attempting to catch an out-of-reach flower for her. He despairs again on making a sculpture for Mr Leavenworth. In the Trastevere, Rowland walks into Christina ans Assunta. He begs her to leave his friend alone. A few days later, she has left for Naples with the Prince.
Rowland writes a letter to Cecilia about Roderick's fall. Later Roderick decides not to complete his sculpture for Mr Leavenworth, leading Rowland to be annoyed with him. Rowland visits Madame Grandoni and meets Christina there. He then decides to leave for Florence, but decides to make up with Roderick and bring his mother and his betrothed over to Italy to save him. While doing some sighseeing, Miss Garland admits to being afraid of changing. They walk into Christina and Roderick says she might not marry the Prince after all.
Roderick then does a sculpture of his mother. Mrs Hudson thinks she owes something to Rowland for all he has done. Upon completing the bust, he says he will not marry Miss Garland. Rowland and Gloriani witness another of Roderick's tantrums. Later, Mrs Grandoni says Miss Blanchard is marrying Mr Leavenworth, although she is in love with Rowland. She then throws a party and Christina turns up uninvited to observe Miss Garland and be vituperative. The next day the latter admits she takes Christina to be fake. Later after the Prince has left, the Cavaliere visits Rowland and entreats him to advise Christina, as she has no father to turn to. After checking on Roderick because his mother has received a note from him saying he didn't want to be disturbed, he goes to the Lights's and talks to Christina. She says she doesn't like the Prince but likes Roderick as a friend. She has however married the Prince...
Roderick admits to his mother he is unable to work and crippled with debts. Upon Rowland's counsel, they move to cheaper accommodation in Florence. When his morale isn't improving, his mother suggests moving back to Northampton, Massachusetts. Instead, Rowland persuades them to move to Switzerland. There, he seems a little closer to Miss Garland; Rowland asks him about Christina and he eschews the question. Later, they walk into Sam; then Rowland chances upon Christina and the Prince; Roderick comes along and he is stupefied with her beauty. He then wants to join her in Interlaken as she has asked him to. He begs Rowland, his mother and Miss Garland for money. Rowland admits he is in love with Miss Garland. Finally, Roderick dies in a storm while on his way to Interlaken; Rowland and Sam find his dead body the next day. Mrs Hudson and Miss Garland return to Massachusetts.
F.R. Leavis called the book "an extremely interesting and extremely distinguished novel...remarkable in its maturity and accomplishment...has better claims to classical currency - is more worth reading and re-reading than the greater number of Victorian fictions that are commonly offered us as classics."
It has been suggested that the relationship between Rowland Mallet and Roderick Hudson is one of unfulfilled "love story and "thinly veiled passion. Further, the novel has been propounded as a study of the impossibility to admit same-sex desires within an era of "homosexual prohibition". It has also been argued that it is an "erotic relationship, not physically consummated because ruled by aestheticism, and only ended in Roderick's death. However, it has also been put forward that while the novel may seem homoerotic in retrospect, it should perhaps be regarded as a 'pre-text' of homosexuality. Indeed, although the references hellenism would seem like a homosexual signifier because of Walter Pater's 1873 Studies in the History of the Renaissance, and Roderick's tone of voice would also point to his effeminacy, the novel's standing as a gay text is perhaps most notable in the influence it would later have on Oscar Wilde's 1890 The Picture of Dorian Gray and Willa Cather's 1905 Paul's Case.
Moreover, it has been noted that the novel may have been based on William James's frustrated wish to be an artist.