About two years after the liberation of the Russian serfs, Ilya Artamonov arrives with his two sons, Pyotr and Nikita, and Alexey, his nephew and adopted son, in the little town of Dromov along the Vataraksha River. Ilya serves as a bailiff to a prince, and the nobleman recommends him highly to the authorities. Without giving the mayor of Dromov, Evgeny Baimakov, a chance for objections, Artamonov announces that he plans to build a linen factory and that he believes the mayor’s daughter Natalya would be a good wife for his oldest son. Disregarding the resentment his dictatorial behavior provokes in the town, Artamonov goes ahead with plans for the factory and preparations for Pyotr’s marriage. The mayor, who dies before the wedding, advises his wife Uliana to let Artamonov have his way. Pyotr’s marriage to the mayor’s daughter and the prospect of employment for many citizens do not, however, reduce the enmity felt toward the intruders.
When Uliana becomes Ilya’s mistress, she decides to live with the Artamonovs on the other side of the river, where the factory is located. Ilya tries to be a strict but humane superior to his men. Among his workers, Tikhon Vyalov is the ablest, although he begs not to be promoted because he does not want to supervise others. Meanwhile, Nikita, the hunchback, falls in love with Natalya, and when he overhears an unkind remark she makes about him, he tries to hang himself. The attempt fails, and Nikita enters a monastery.
The factory develops rapidly under Ilya’s direction. Pyotr is the second in charge. Alexey is unhappy at the factory and wants to join the army, but Ilya refuses to give him permission to enlist.
When Natalya bears her first child, the baby dies after only five months. Another girl, Elena, follows. Then a much-desired son, also named Ilya, is born. Alexey marries a woman nobody in the family likes or understands.
During the transportation of a heavy steam boiler, Ilya senior suffers a hemorrhage and dies soon afterward. As time passes, Pyotr’s only true happiness is his son. Against his wife’s wishes, he lets Ilya attend a good secondary school away from Dromov. While Pyotr devotes his time almost exclusively to the factory, Alexey makes the necessary business trips to trade fairs and to Moscow. Although Natalya gives birth to a second boy, Yakov, Ilya remains Pyotr’s favorite.
Despite all efforts to prepare Ilya as Pyotr’s successor as the factory director, his son shows a completely different attitude. He likes to talk to Vyalov, the philosopher among the workers, whom Pyotr despises, and he also forms a close friendship with an uneducated child of a worker. After completing his schooling, Ilya announces his desire to become a historian. His father objects because he still wants Ilya to take over the factory. Ilya refuses and leaves Dromov...
(The entire section is 1171 words.)