Marya Aleksandrovna Moskaleva, thanks to her unrivaled ability to throw dust into her eyes, “kill” her opponent with a sharp word and cleverly fired gossip, is recognized as the “first lady” of the provincial town of Mordasova. Hating and fearing, everyone, however, recognizes its influence. Her husband Athanasius Matveyevich, rustic and extremely intimidated by his wife, once lost his place “for inability and dementia” and lives alone in a “suburban village”, soaring in a bath and sipping tea. The Moscavites have only one hundred and twenty souls of estate; Marya Alexandrovna dreams of a brilliant life in “high society”, the only way to which is the profitable marriage of her twenty-three beauty Zina’s daughter. Therefore, two years ago she sharply opposed the girl’s love for the humble teacher of the soon-to-be-killed little brother. A handsome and educated young man was only the son of a sexton, received a penny salary in a district school, but considered himself a great poet with a great future. Zina, despite the mother’s refusal to marry them, continued to see and correspond with Vasya. After some quarrel, the proud youth in a fit of revenge handed one of her love letters to the city gossips, which threatened a scandal. Saving her daughter’s reputation, Marya Aleksandrovna paid two hundred rubles to her nastasekas Nastasya Petrovna for stealing letters from ill-wishers. Zina’s “honor”
Not seeing the best party, the senior Moskalev not averse to give out a “overripe” daughter for twenty-five-year-old Pavel Aleksandrovich Mozglyakov. He only has a hundred and fifty souls and “a little empty in his head,” but “not bad manners,” great costumes and “high hopes” for a place in St. Petersburg. Mozzglyakov “in love with madness” and has already made a proposal. Zina, who is indifferent to him, does not respond with a definitive refusal, but asks for two weeks to meditate. The impatient young man, however, uses the opportunity to appear before the Moscavites. Hoping to please the pretender to the role in the light of Mary Alexandrovna, he brings to her house the rich and noble prince K., who just “saved” from the snowdrift during a road accident.
Seven years ago, K. spent six months in the Mordasian “society”, subduing me with gracious courtesy and lowering the remnants of the state. Already without a penny, the prince suddenly heard of a new rich inheritance – the estate of Dukhanov near Mordasov with four thousand souls – and went to Petersburg for its decoration. Upon his soon return, without entering the city, he permanently settled in Dukhanov under the supervision of a certain Stepanida Matveyevna, who manages the estate and does not allow relatives to go to the old man, including Mozzgalakov, who is with the prince in a very distant relationship, but calls him uncle. They say that other heirs wanted to take the idiot prince into custody and even put him in a madhouse. And now, thanks to a “happy” occasion, he returned six years later to his “friends” in Mordasov.
This “God does not yet know what kind of old man” so “worn out” that “everything is made up of pieces”: with a glass eye, false teeth, false hair, in a corset, with a prosthesis instead of one leg, with springs for wrinkles, etc. He spends most of the day sitting at his toilet, dressed like a fashionable youth, and reduces all talk to love affairs. Already powerless, he preserves voluptuous habits, making compliments, admiring “forms”, “eagerly lornivaya” “attractive” female. Always narrow-minded, in recent years he has completely died out of his mind: he confuses people and circumstances, does not recognize acquaintances, is nonsense. And yet Marya Alexandrovna is proud of his “aristocratic” society, elevating her over other contenders for the championship in the city.
In a joke Mozzglyakov suggests Nastasya Petrovna to marry a “half-dead man” to soon become a rich widow. She does not mind. However, the “idea” “caught fire… in the head” and the very mistress. When Mozzglyakov takes “uncle” on visits, with an indispensable promise to return to dinner, Marya Alexandrovna begins to talk with her daughter.
Zina, the girl of “stubborn romanticism” and “stern nobility”, at first flatly refuses to “meanness”: “go for the cripple to get his money out of him and then every hour to want him dead.” But the mother uses all her “brilliant” eloquence, the extraordinary art of seduction, then drawing poetic pictures of travels through Spain, the feats of Christian charity towards the helpless old man, the opportunity to cure the beloved Vasya for the money of the prince and, widowed, marry him. Zina, though with contempt, but agrees. But the “mother” should take over the “dirt” and “stench”. Now the main thing is the secret, so that the jealous ladies do not destroy the plan. In the meantime, Nastasya Petrovna, who had overheard them, insulted by unflattering reviews of herself, decided to take revenge.
Soon Moskaleva learns about the “interception” of the prince by rivals, who almost guessed her intentions. She rushes to the carriage and almost by force returns the old man to herself. After dinner, Mozglyakov very opportunely going to tea to the godfather. But on the threshold of it Nastasya Petrovna secretly keeps and conducts to overhear “comedy” of seduction.
In the “salon” three: the old man, Zina and mother. She makes her daughter sing a song twice, which awakens in the prince passionate memories. Skillfully directed by the hostess, drunk and feeling bon vivant makes Zina an offer. Satisfied Marya Alexandrovna leads the “depressed” guest upstairs, “lie down”.
Shocked by the “cunning” Moskalev Moszgalyov runs into Zina and arranges a scene for her. The girl haughtily oppresses the ex-groom. He is ready to take revenge, but Marya Alexandrovna comes in time, by means of the most sophisticated demagoguery, “pacifies” him. Mozzglyakov leaves, confident in Zina’s love and future brilliant life with her after the death of the prince.
Moskaleva decides to immediately take the old man to the village, where to marry Zina. She flies for her husband, now necessary for “representation” before the prince. Athanasius Matveyevich receives strict instructions to remain silent and “sarcastically” smile in response to any questions. On her return to the city, Marya Alexandrovna finds in her “salon” uninvited guests – with a dozen ladies exuding envy, anger and ridicule under pretense of courtesy. Their goal is to frustrate the plans of the hostess.
Meanwhile, Mozzglyakov, who sensibly understood the “Jesuitism” of Marya Alexandrovna, returned to Moskalev, quietly rose to the newly awakened “uncle” and convinces the half-witted that the proposal to Zina is just his “charming” dream.
In the “salon” Marya Alexandrovna decides to disarm the “enemies” with a bold “trick”: publicly announces the offer of Prince Zina. However, the old man supported by the “nephew” stubbornly denies that it was “real”, and not in a dream. The disgraced mistress, forgetting about proprieties, rudely scolds Moszgalov “shit”. Everyone laughs angrily. Zina, for her part, pours guests disdain and, frankly telling about the intrigue, asks the prince for forgiveness. Once again charmed by her, Mozzglakov repents of the deception of “uncle”. Meanwhile, an ugly quarrel between the ladies flares up, in which the prince gets strong. In horror he goes to the hotel, where he dies on the third day.
Zina, summoned by Vasya’s mother, spends these days with a dying teacher. Her reputation is undermined completely. However, Mozzglyakov “renews” his proposal. After receiving a refusal, he leaves for St. Petersburg. Having sold the property, they leave Mordasov and Moskalev. A year later Zina marries an elderly general, the governor of the “remote land,” where she becomes the first lady. Marya Alexandrovna together with her daughter shines in “high society”. Both of them hardly recognize the Mozzgalov who happened to come to their places by chance.