The play takes place in a small German town in the first half of the last century. In the house of the joiner Anton, known for his diligence and thrift, two women, mother and daughter. They began the morning with the fitting and discussion of the old wedding dress, and ended up talking about the illness and preparing for death. The mother has just recovered from a serious illness, for which she thanks God. She does not know for herself any sins, but still must adequately dress up to the “heavenly crown”, while she is allowed time. She is worried about her son, Karl, who leaves the job before everyone else, and comes home from work later, and he can not save money and really can not spend it, he always asks his mother. And she only has enough money for a modest household.
The mother goes to the church to pray for her daughter, whom it is time to marry. Clara watches her mother through the window and guesses who she’s the first on the way to get caught. Sinister dreams have completely tortured Clara, she feels guilty before her parents. The first is the gravedigger who emerges from the recently dug grave.
At this time, the girlfriend comes to her fiance Leongard, with whom she saw the last time two weeks ago, and this meeting proved fatal for her. Then Friedrich, the first love of Clara, who was leaving to study for a “secretary”, returned to the town. At one time, her mother forbade Clara to dream
The father already knows about the new service of the groom and shows complete frankness in the presentation of his money affairs, checking it. Master Anton had long ago realized that he had lost his money, but he took the decision not to recover them from a sick old man who had taught him free of charge good craft. At the funeral the master broke the debt receipt and imperceptibly slipped it into the coffin – let him “sleep peacefully”. Shocked Leonhard still shows full willingness to marry and without a dowry, and an honest master holds out his hand to him.
Meanwhile, the whole family is going to the house, except for Karl. The father is always displeased with them, especially if he plays somewhere on cards with money earned by hard work. Mother, as usual, intercedes for her son. And Leonhard, fenced off from all the newspaper, feverishly realizes how to not let him fool around with marriage. Suddenly, court executors appear in the house, declaring that Karl was imprisoned on charges of stealing valuables in the merchant’s house. Mother falls dead. Taking advantage of the turmoil, Leonhard escapes. Only master Anton hardly keeps his composure. He is waiting for new blows of fate. And here is the letter from the messenger from the groom’s daughter – with a break in the engagement. The father advises the daughter to forget the “scoundrel”, but, noticing her despair, begins to suspect something is amiss. He makes his daughter swear at the grave of her mother that she is “
The master curses the criminal son, he blames the whole world and himself. He is sure that in the eyes of “all honest people” he now looks like a loser and a deceiver. In the future, the master is afraid to look, but he hopes that his daughter will become a woman worthy of her mother, then people will forgive him for having lost his son. If it is not so, if people show their fingers on Clara, she should know – the father will commit suicide, he can not live in the world, where “people only out of pity do not spit in his direction.” The daughter knows the mores of his environment no worse than his father and is also defenseless against her. Therefore, she is tormented by transgressing her laws. Clara herself is ready to die, if only my father lived the entire period, given to him by God.
In the absence of his father, Clara unexpectedly learns that his brother was accused by mistake, he is released. The first thought of the unfortunate is that now sin lies on her alone.
Here in the house comes Secretary Friedrich, still missing his beloved girl. He does not understand that he can connect her with a very unenviable fiancé. And she is eager for Leongard, there is no other way, “he or death.” A stunned secretary tries to hold her. Then Clara opens his heart to him, because she has not ceased to love Frederick all these years, but now must relate herself to the other. Inspired by her confession, the secretary immediately asks Clara to become his wife, the rest will be settled. When a simple-minded girl confesses to him in her sin, he retreats and says that “through this” he can not cross. With determination to settle with the villain for Clara’s honor, the secretary leaves.
Driven by a weak hope, Clara goes to Leonhard. She must at all costs become his wife, not to be brought to the grave of his father. Although the marriage with Leonhard is a grief for her, so let God help her in this; if not in happiness, so at least in grief, if so dictates fate.
Leonhard already prepares the approaches to marry the daughter of the mayor. He feels sorry for Clara, but everyone must “bear his cross.” He does not expect the arrival of the girl. Clara returns his letter to him, because the brother is justified, and there are no obstacles to marriage. She begs him to marry, otherwise the father will learn about the dishonor of his daughter and kill himself. Then Leonhard asks her a terrible question – can she swear that she loves him as “a girl should love a man who will forever bind himself to her with the bonds of marriage?”. As an honest and very straightforward person, Clara can not give him such an oath. But she swears to him in another, that, whether she loves him or not, he will not feel it, for he will find in it full sacrifice and obedience. Klara promises that he will not live long, and if he wants to get rid of it earlier, he can buy her poison, she will drink it and make it so,
Clara’s passionate plea meets a cold refusal. Then follow condescending exhortations, accusations against the father who gave away his daughter’s dowry. This Clara does not want to listen anymore. She thanks Leonhard for allowing him to look into his soul – to the “bottom of the underworld”, now she can die peacefully. Clara made a decision and on the same day “will leave this world.”
Friedrich, with two pistols, is breaking into Aeongard’s complete indecision, fighting for Clara’s honor. The scoundrel dies in a duel.
Released from prison, Karl comes home and shares his dream with his sister. He wants to go to sea from these petty-bourgeois everyday life, where he is only allowed to “knock, saw, nail, eat, drink and sleep.” Clara is glad to her brother, but she is preparing to leave her life and turns to God with the words: “… I’m coming to you, only to save my father!” She rushes into the well, hoping that people will take it for an accident. But one girl saw how she jumped herself. A father who has learned about this, perceives the act of his daughter as his disgrace. In vain avenged Clara Friedrich explains to him the reasons for the suicide of her daughter. He does not relent, because the sinful daughter has not managed to hide her sin and protect her father from the condemning rumor. Immersed in his thoughts, he says: “This world I no longer understand!”