One Christmas Eve, a young girl named Abilene receives a large stuffed rabbit from her parents as a gift. She instantly falls in love with the rabbit and calls him “Edward Tulane.” For his part, Edward is less demonstrative with his love, a quality criticized by Abilene’s grandmother Pellegrina. Not long after the evening they meet, Edward is separated from Abilene on the deck of an ocean liner. Several years go by, as Edward’s search for love takes him on various adventures: from the bottom of the sea, to the home of a fisherman and his wife, to a junkyard and to a life on the rails with a hobo and his dog. When a young man named Bryce takes Edward home to console his ailing sister Sarah Ruth, he believes that has at last found home again.
Some weeks later, Bryce runs away from his abusive father after Sarah Ruth has passed away and brings Edward to Memphis where they both work as street performers. Having made enough money for a meal, they eat in a diner and order more food than they can pay for. The owner of the diner attacks Edward and damages his porcelain head. When Edward comes to, he discovers that he is in a doll shop and has been repaired by the shop’s owner, Lucius Clarke. Day after day, Edward waits on a shelf for someone to give him a good home—when a young girl and her mother walk into the shop.