On one of the hottest days of 1853, two young people were lying on the shores of the Moscow River in the shade of a blooming linden tree. The twenty-three-year-old Andrei Petrovich Bersenev has just graduated as the third candidate of the Moscow University, and an academic career awaited him. Pavel Yakovlevich Shubin was a sculptor who gave hope. The dispute, quite peaceful, concerned nature and our place in it. Berseneva is struck by the completeness and self-sufficiency of nature, against which background our incompleteness is clearly seen, which gives rise to anxiety, even sadness. Shubin also suggests not to reflect, but live. Take care of a friend of the heart, and longing will pass. We are driven by a thirst for love, happiness – and nothing more. “Is there nothing higher than happiness?” – objected Bersenev. Is not it selfish, does not it divide the word. Art, motherland, science, freedom can unite. And love, of course, but not love-pleasure, but love is a sacrifice. However, Shubin does not agree to be number two. He wants to love for himself. No, his friend insists, putting himself number two – all the purpose of our life.
Young people on this stopped the feast of the mind and, after a pause, continued talking about the ordinary. Bersenev recently saw Insarov. We must acquaint him with Shubin and the Stakhov family. Insarov? Is this the Serbian or Bulgarian, about whom Andrei Petrovich already told? Patriot? Did he inspire him with the thoughts just expressed? However, it’s time to return to the country: do not be late for dinner. Anna Vasilyevna Stakhova, second cousin of Shubin, will be dissatisfied, and Pavel Vasilievich owes her the very opportunity to engage in sculpture. She even gave money for...a trip to Italy, but Pavel (Paul, as she called him) spent them on Little Russia. In general, the family is very interesting. And how could such an extraordinary daughter like Elena have a similar parent? Try to solve this riddle of nature.
The head of the family, Nikolai Artemyevich Stakhov, the son of a retired captain, dreamed of a profitable marriage in his youth. At twenty-five he realized the dream – he married Anna Shubina, but soon she got bored, met with the widow Augustina Khristianovna and was already bored in her company. “They stare at each other, it’s so stupid…” – says Shubin. However, sometimes Nikolai Artemyevitch contests with her: is it possible for a person to travel the entire globe, or to know what is happening on the seabed, or to foresee the weather? And he always concluded that it was impossible.
Anna Vasilievna suffers infidelity of her husband, and yet it hurts her that he deceived the German with a pair of gray horses from her, Anna Vasilyevna, the plant.
Shubin has been living in this family for five years, since the death of his mother, an intelligent, kind Frenchwoman (his father passed away several years earlier). He devoted himself entirely to his vocation, but he worked hard, but in fits and starts he did not want to hear about the academy and the professors. In Moscow he is known as a budding hope, but he remains in his twenty-six years in the same capacity. He really likes the daughter of the Stakhovs Elena Nikolaevna, but he does not miss the chance to get caught up and behind the plump seventeen-year-old Zoya, who was taken into the house by a companion for Helen, whom she has nothing to talk about.