As the story begins, Belacqua Shuah, the protagonist, is reading canto 2 of Dante’s Paradiso and having difficulty understanding it. At noon, he lays his task aside and considers his schedule for the day, consisting of lunch, picking up a lobster for his aunt, and his Italian lesson. The preparations for his lunch are strange. First, he toasts bread, which must be blackened through and through to suit him. He succeeds in achieving the desired glassy texture, but he burns his wall in the process. He then applies a thick paste of Savora, salt, and cayenne, wraps the “burnt offering” in paper, and goes out to buy cheese. Nothing would do but “a good green stenching rotten lump of Gorgonzola cheese.” Warning the grocer that if he does not come up with rottener cheese in the future, he will take his business elsewhere, Belacqua, with his now completed Gorgonzola sandwich in hand, heads for the public bar for his daily two pints of stout, looking forward to his lesson with his Italian teacher, Signorina Adriana Ottolenghi, whom he idolizes.
Belacqua then goes to school, lunch having been “a notable success,” far better than he had anticipated. The “pale soapy piece of cheese” had proved strong, and the toast had had the texture of glass: “His teeth and jaws had been in heaven, splinters of vanquished toast spraying forth at each gnash.” His mouth still burning and aching from his lunch, he then goes to pick up the lobster, which he believes to be freshly killed, and proceeds to his Italian lesson. While he is with the signorina, a cat attacks his parcel, which has been left out in the hall, but the French instructress rescues the lobster before any harm is done. The lesson continues. When it is over, Belacqua takes the lobster to his aunt’s house, where he is horrified to learn that the lobster is not yet dead and will have to be boiled alive. He comforts himself that at least it will be a quick death. The last line of the story is, “It is not.”