In the beginning of spring 1857 the spouses of Volgina stroll through Vladimirskaya Square in St. Petersburg. Twenty-nine-year-old journalist Alexei Ivanovich Volgin is ugly, clumsy and seems to be a phlegmatic. His wife, twenty-three years old Lydia Vasilievna Volgin, on the contrary, is attractive, curious and used to produce the effect. During the walk, Volgin is carried away not so much by talking to her husband as by helping a young lady named Antonina Dmitrievna Savelova to get rid of the persecution of a jealous husband. Savelov tries to wait for his wife during her secret meeting with her lover, Pavel Mikhailovich Nivelzin. Nivelzin is an aristocrat, a fairly wealthy landowner, and besides – a mathematician and an astronomer whose works are printed in the bulletins of the Academy of Sciences.
Leaving his wife to engage in a fascinating affair – someone else’s love affair, Volgin talks with a student at the Pedagogical Institute Vladimir Alekseevich Levitsky: he promises a well-known journalist to bring some article for review. Besides, not knowing that the swarthy young lady is Volgin’s wife, Levitsky with obvious interest asks him about her. During the conversation, Levitsky is surprised at the strange laugh of the liberal celebrity: “The screech and roar come out from him so deafening when he bursts into laughter.”
Soon Savelova comes to the Volgin – in order to explain his current situation. She does not like her husband, and he does not feel any feelings for her: a wife needs him, a large state official, only to establish himself in an aristocratic society. Volgin urges Savelov to abandon her husband and run with Nivelzin abroad. After falling into exaltation, she agrees, and with her usual enthusiasm, Volgin takes to organizing the case. But at the last minute, when foreign passports are already ready, Savelova refuses to leave her husband, which is very disappointing to Volgin.
Volgin with his young son Volodya lives in the country house, near the Petrovsky Palace. Her husband is busy with business in St. Petersburg and only comes to visit his family. Volgin gets acquainted with the daughter of the chamberlain Nadezhda Viktorovna Ilatontseva, who recently returned from abroad. Levitsky at this time serves in the Ilatontsev family as the tutor of Yurinka, the little brother of Nadezhda Viktorovna. However, Volgin tries not to let his wife know about this: noticing her obvious interest in Levitsky, Volgin does not want her to communicate with him. By the way, he informs his wife that he is worried about his future: “the affairs of the Russian people are bad,” so an influential journalist can have all sorts of trouble. Sobbing about the fate of his wife, Volgin gets to him even more location. She dreams that her husband “was once told what he understood before all, what is needed for the benefit of the people, and did not regret for the benefit of the people – not that “himself” – it is important to him not to pity himself! – He did not spare me either! “And they will say it, I know!” “And let Volodya and I be orphans, if necessary!” Volgin said these ideas to Nivelzin, who, having lost Savelova’s disposition, starts courting her.
Volgin himself has other subjects to talk with Nivelzin: they are discussing the matter of the liberation of the peasants, which Volgin considers premature. And in that he understands things more correctly than others, Volgin does not doubt at all.
Once during an ordinary walk along the Nevsky Volgin and Nivelzin get acquainted with Mr. Sokolovsky. A thirty-year-old dragoon officer, a Pole, wishes to use all his strength to improve the fate of the Russian soldier. Sokolovsky gets acquainted with Volgin, but he does not want to converge with him because of the discrepancy between his views: Volgin believes that reforms should not be made at all, rather than be done in an unsatisfactory manner.
While her husband finds out relations among liberals, Volgin finds them out with Savelova: after refusing to escape from Nivelzin, she again tries to get closer to Boltina. Savelova invites Volgina to the name day of her husband, and she reluctantly agrees. At the dinner at the Savelovs, Volgin sees Count Chaplin – a disgusting creature “with droopy shoulders to the shoulders, with a half-open, slobbery mouth alternately tapering and widening with each explosion of snot and snoring, with tinny, fat-lidded tiny eyes.”
Savelova is recognized by Volgina that her husband... demands from her to flirt with the ugly Count, on which his career depends. In indignation, Volgin again takes up the organization of the affairs of another’s family: she makes suggestion Savelova, accusing him of the fact that he is selling his wife.
The next day after lunch Savelov’s liberals gather from their leader, university professor Ryazantsev. Volgin is not among the assembled. They discuss the betrayal of Count Chaplin’s liberal principles and his transition to the camp of the conservatives. Chaplin accused the liberals of wanting to free the peasants a means to overthrow the entire existing order, that is, to bring about a revolution. However, soon Count Chaplin leaves for a vacation abroad, and the liberals celebrate the victory. Now they are preparing a program for the liberation of the peasants, which will be signed by the influential landowners of all provinces.
Meanwhile, Volgin begins to look for Levitsky, who all this time lived in the village with Ilatontsev, but suddenly disappeared. It turns out that Levitsky is ill and is in St. Petersburg. The Volgins visit him and wonder why he left the village so hastily. The reasons for this act become clear from the diary of Levitsky for 1857, which forms the second part of the novel.
Student Levitsky was the center of a circle of liberal student youth. By the end of the course, he was convinced that the institute was killing the students’ mental life, and by starvation and despotism forever deprived them of “all those who could not reconcile themselves to the principles of servility and obscurantism.” Levitsky felt a lively love for people, but believed that they were too frivolous to fight.
Levitsky is a woman-loving. Many pages of his diary are dedicated to his mistress Anyuta. Once Levitsky defended Anyuta from her despot husband, and then bothered about her divorce. Anyuta’s story is simple, like this woman herself. She came from philistines, was brought up even in a boarding house, but after her father’s death she was forced to go to the maids. Jealous of Anyuta to the master, the mistress accused her of stealing a brooch. Anyuta was forced to become the mistress of the police ranks to avoid unjust punishment. Soon her patron decided to marry and at the same time married Anyuta.
Anyuta was a good mistress to Levitsky, but soon she moved to live with a rich merchant. Parting with her made Levitsky think: “Is it possible to love a woman who passively allows a lover to caress, while she thinks at this time, what dress to sew herself: a voice or a mitten?”
In the village, in the Ilatontsev estate, Levitsky got acquainted with the beautiful Mary, the maid of the lady of Nadezhda Viktorovna. Meri’s parents were servants of Ilatontsevs. Mary lived with masters abroad, in Provence, then went to Paris, where she received a decent salary and could live on her own. But soon the girl returned to her former masters. Levitsky could not understand why the energetic and clever Mary exchanged an independent life in Paris for the unenviable position of the maid in the Ilatontsev family. Being a sensual and romantic person, he fell in love with Mary. This did not stop him, however, entertain himself with the charming and easily accessible Nastya, the serf mistress of his neighbor, the landowner Dedyukhin, and even almost take her to his house.
Mary told Levitsky that she had become a maid to be closer to Nadezhda Viktorovna, whom she loved from childhood. But soon, seeing that Levitsky has a sincere feeling for her, Mary confessed: she had become the lover of Viktor Lvovich Ilatontsev for a long time. She was bored with the life, to which she was doomed by her birth, Mary found the only opportunity to get rid of the miserable fate and seduced her master. He sincerely fell in love with her, left his former mistress. Soon Mary began to become attached to him. But she was afraid that the true state of things would be revealed to Nadezhda Viktorovna. She believed that Ilatontsev – a bad father, for whom the mistress is more expensive than her daughter: after all, the existing marital status could prevent Nadezhda Viktorovna from finding a good husband. Levitsky advised Mary to move to Petersburg and live separately from Ilatontsev to the marriage of Nadezhda Viktorovna. In the preparations for this act went the girl’s further life.