The novel’s action is limited to the characters’ observation of the flora, fauna, and elements that surround them. The plot focuses on the characters’ gradual appreciation of the cause-and-effect relationships inherent among all natural phenomena. The main theme is the conflict between carnal and spiritual love, which John Erskine dramatizes by involving the biblical couple in a romantic triangle with the provocative Lilith. Adam’s attention vacillates between the sensual Lilith and the more mystical Eve.
In the novel’s first of five parts, Adam encounters various animals, including a dog that helps to lighten the tone of this philosophical novel. Adam also observes the beauty of nature and meets Lilith. In part 2, Adam and Lilith milk a cow and learn how to kiss. Part 3 begins with Adam’s realization that he has invented love. Adam and Lilith go swimming, and Adam discovers that love alters the physical senses.
The cow bears a calf at about the time Eve appears in the novel. In the same way that part 2 had ended with Adam kissing Lilith, Adam kisses Eve at the end of part 3, and she slaps him in response. In part 4, Lilith assumes the form of a serpent and offers Adam and Eve the forbidden fruit. Adam builds a wall around the garden and teaches Eve to swim. By the end of part 4, Adam has become confused about whether he is happier with Lilith or with Eve.
In part 5, Eve begins to wear clothes for modesty and learns to cook with fire. She becomes pregnant and bears a son. The novel concludes with Adam resolving to teach his son so he will not repeat his father’s mistakes. Adam’s experiences have taught him that intelligence is fundamental to happiness.