The action takes place at the beginning of the last century in Switzerland.
One fine day in the village of Glattfelden, which is located somewhere in the north of Switzerland, there is a handsome and beautiful stranger dressed in a green frock coat. This is Master Leia. Once upon a time he left his native village and went to wander around the world.
Having traveled from apprentice to skilled stonemason and architect, having worked in all the big cities of Germany, he returns to his homeland. Here, Master Leia decides to try his luck in the capital and set up his own business in Zurich. Before moving to the city, he marries the daughter of a rural pastor.
On arrival, the young architect not only works hard and hard, but also takes part in public life. Unfortunately, death overtakes him in the prime of life.
Master Lea left his widow with a lot of unfinished business, and after they were put in order, it turns out that the entire state of the family is only one house. It is populated from below to the top, like a hive. It is the income from the tenants that helps the widow Leia and her son named Henry to make ends meet.
In this house, the boy first realizes himself as a thinking being. Already at an early age, he begins to think about what is God. Once he refuses to pray, just like the girl Meret, whose story will amaze Henry’s imagination many years later. The girl refused to pray and was tortured to death by a certain pastor.
Henry meets an old woman named Mrs. Margret. He spends a lot of time in her shop, listening to stories about ghosts, sorcerers, evil spirits, etc.
Heinrich turns seven, and his mother sends him to school. Two of his suits were changed from his father’s green military uniform. Therefore, the boys of our hero are called “green Henry”. In school, he first encountered such concepts as lying, arrogance, boasting.
He spent a lot of time alone with himself, in his secret children’s world. Like many of his peers, he catches butterflies and beetles, collects colored stones. Once seeing a menagerie, Henry decides to create the same in himself. In his zoo there are sparrows, a rabbit, a mouse, several lizards, spiders, snakes. But one day Heinrich decides to kill animals: alive, he digs his pets into the ground.
Once in the anatomy museum at the hospital and seeing in it the vessels with embryos, he decides to create something similar and at home. Henry molds wax embryos and puts them in bottles from under cologne and alcohol. To each he gives a name. To each of them he makes a horoscope, according to some theosophical manual, which he found in Mrs. Margret’s house. But this world is also dying: defending himself from an enraged cat, Henry throws his waxen freaks into it.
Finally quiet games alone with himself bother Henry. He converges with the company of boys. Together, they arrange theater performances, and when the troupe of German actors comes to the city and gives an introduction to “Faust,” Henry also takes part in the play. He plays the role of fur seal.
At the age of twelve Henry enters a real school. Among the sons of wealthy townspeople, our hero feels himself a stranger. To become like everyone else, Heinrich steals silver coins from his mother’s savings. When the hero accidentally takes part in the obstruction of an unloved teacher, his comrades give him out as “the chief instigator of outrage.” As a result, Henry is expelled from the school. Now, free from classes, he discovers a passion for drawing and declares to his mother that he wants to become an artist. Mother resists this and decides to send Henry to the village to his brother the pastor. Here the young hero meets a young widow named Judith. An intense, inexpressible pleasure envelops Heinrich when he is next to her.
And in the village Henry continues to draw. He often goes into the woods, where he draws from nature trees and forest streams. For this, his relatives call him “an artist”. Once the hero enters the house of a village teacher. There he meets Anna, his daughter. In his heart, Henry carries away her light, unearthly image.
In one of the letters Henry again informs the mother about his intention to become an artist. To various people, Mrs. Leia is asking for advice on how to deal with her son, not from anyone, however, she does not receive a sensible answer. Meanwhile in the village Henry continues his studies in painting. He gives some of his drawings to Judith. But his heart belongs to Anna. Green Henry becomes a frequent visitor in her father’s house.
Meanwhile, Henry’s grandmother is seriously ill and dies. At the funeral, according to ancient tradition, Anna and Henry perform the dance. After a sad ritual, our hero takes Anna home. Their path lies through the cemetery. And here, among the graves, they kiss for the first time.
Henry needs to return to the city. He becomes a disciple of a certain engraver Habersaat, an artisan from art, creating lurid Swiss landscapes according to one standard: festive blue skies and emerald green landscapes. Henry does not like the copying from the samples of Habersaat.
When next summer our hero again leaves for the village, hoping, of course, to see Anna, he is disappointed: the beloved has gone to study in French Switzerland. Heinrich writes long love letters to Anna, but does not send them. He lets the most passionate of his letters float along the river, thinking that no one will read it. However, the bathing Judith finds this letter.
Our hero returns to the city, where he continues his “training” of painting. But Henry does not want to be an artisan, he breaks with his mentor and informs his mother about it.
In the spring of next year Henry again goes to the village and meets with Anna, who returned to her homeland. However, now their relationship is much colder than they were before. Fine manners, grafted Anna abroad, scare Henry. Every time the hero sees Anna, he feels timidity and does not dare to enter into conversation with her. He often secluded in the forest more often, where he paints a portrait of his beloved. For the first time he knows a languorous languor.
Time runs fast. And then another six months passed. Soon after Christmas, Henry... receives an invitation from his uncle to take part in the festival: several villages joined together in order to celebrate Maslenitsa with a grandiose theatrical performance. The basis of the view is taken Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell. Anna plays the role of Bertha von Bruneck, Henry gets the role of Ulrich von Rudenz.
Returning from the holiday, Henry, seized with passion, begins to shower Anna with kisses, but the girl breaks out from his embrace. Strange feeling envelops Henry: he seems that he holds in his embrace an infinitely distant and lifeless object.
Conducting Anna, the hero on the way home goes into the tavern, where the village youth is having fun. In the tavern he meets Judith, who invites him to his place. Judith shows Heinrich his letter addressed to Anna, and demands that he, without concealment, tell her the whole story of his relationship with the teacher’s daughter. Suddenly, Judith embraces Henry and begins to kiss him. Henry responds to her in return, but suddenly, before our hero appears the image of Anna, he breaks out of the embrace of a young woman and runs away, promising himself never again to see Judith.
Returning to Zurich, Henry finally finds himself a worthy teacher of painting: he becomes a famous and talented watercolorist named Remer (which in German means “Roman”), who just returned from Rome. Under his leadership, Henry begins to make complex and meaningful work. After a while it turns out that Remer suffers from a serious mental illness. He suddenly leaves for Paris, where, according to the rumors that reached Henry, he spent the rest of his days in a hospital for the insane.
One day a rural teacher and his daughter visit Henry’s mother. Anna is seriously ill, and her father brought her to the city to show the doctors. When they are going to return to the village, Henry announces his intention to interrupt his painting classes and go with them.
All the days he spends in the house of the village teacher at the bedside of Anna. In the evenings, breaking his promise, secretly meets with Judith. Anna’s health is getting worse. She almost does not get out of bed. After a while Anna dies. When at the funeral the last sunbeam illuminates the face of the deceased, surrounded by white roses, Henry suddenly feels almost happy: as if with him was buried a part of his life, part of his experience.
Immediately after the funeral, Henry hastens to Judith. He forever says goodbye to his girlfriend and returns with his mother to the city.
Henry turns eighteen. He is subject to conscription. Once on a road that crosses the parade ground for military occupations, a large cart is passing by. Such carts, loaded to the top with all good, serve as a means of transportation to families headed to America. Among the immigrants Henry notices Judith.
To continue his art education, Henry goes to Munich. Unfortunately, due to lack of funds, he does not have the opportunity to study at the Royal Academy, but he gets acquainted with two young painters: Swede Erickson and a talented Dutchman named Luce. Together they take part in the festival of artists. Henry and his friends depict heroes of ancient myths: Luce is dressed as an Assyrian king, Erickson as the leader of the suite of the goddess of hunting, Rosalia, his beloved, rich young widow, depicts Venus, and Agnes, Luca’s friend, rides a chariot in the image of Diana.
After the feast, Luce tries to seduce Rosalia, promising to quit that, forget Agnes. Not only Erickson, whom, as it turns out, Rosalia is already secretly engaged, but Henry also witnesses this scene. And when our hero tries to stand up for the honor of Agnes, Luce summons him to a duel. Then he takes his call back and informs everyone present of his intention to leave Munich..
Erickson and Rosalia are married and soon leave Munich. Henry is left alone.
He continues his education, attending lectures on anatomy, engaging in philosophy, history and literature. Soon he gets a certain fame in the student community, but a free life leads to the fact that our hero is in the power of creditors. He tries unsuccessfully to sell one of his paintings. The mother of the hero not only sends Henry his last savings, but also pawns his house. Her money is enough for Henry for a little while. For several days Heinrich is forced to starve. The hero for a song sells his flute and some of the drawings. He is forced to work at a certain junkman, painting flagpoles for holidays. His dreary existence brightens friendship with the servant Huldoy.
Suddenly, the mistress of the house where Henry stopped was dying. In addition, the hero meets his compatriot, who makes a honeymoon in Europe. He tells Heinrich about his mother. After this meeting, Henry sees a dream in which the mother calls him to her. Henry decides to return to his homeland.
For several days, Henry wanders along the road. Charter, he wants to spend the night in the church. But the pastor drives him away. The tired Henry falls on a garden bench in the middle of the cemetery. There he finds the daughter of Count Dietrich V… of Dorothea Shonfund of Berg. She leads him to the castle of Count where, among the large collection of paintings, Henry, to a great surprise, finds his creations.
In the castle Henry arranges the collection of paintings of the Count, falls in love with Dorothea, with whom he is engaged in a debate with the local pastor. Here he meets an atheist Peter Gilgus, professing the teachings of Ludwig Feuerbach. On the advice of Count Heinrich again decides to expose his paintings for sale, and two of them are bought by his Munich friend Ericson. Unexpectedly, Henry receives the legacy of the junkman, whom he once worked for. Having made a fortune, he makes the final decision to return home. His mother is at death, and when Henry enters her room, the priest is already reading a prayer over her.
After the death of his mother, Henry Leu enters the civil service. His life is now flowing quietly and measuredly. But his soul is devastated, more and more often Henry pursues the desire to settle his life. Accidentally, he meets Judith, who, after getting rich, returned from America. Judith confesses to Henry in love.
For twenty years, Henry and Judith have lived together. During the deadly epidemic, Judith, while helping the poor children, is seriously ill and dies.