Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1171
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 without receiving any financial assistance from his father. Thereafter, Pyotr becomes an unhappy man; his wife cannot please him, and he tries to find distraction with a local prostitute.
Often Pyotr has difficulty in controlling his temper, and one day he accidentally kills Ilya’s former playmate. Vyalov, too, irritates him with philosophizing whenever he has a question to ask. Hoping to find some spiritual guidance, Pyotr finally decides to visit his brother Nikita in the monastery. Nikita explains that he failed in his efforts to become a good monk. Although he considers himself unworthy, the monastery values him highly because he is able to give visiting pilgrims some comfort with patient ears and empty phrases.
When Pyotr fails to find peace of mind with Nikita, he attends a trade fair in a nearby city. Alexey told him so many exciting stories about city life that he hopes to find distraction there. After a series of extended drinking sprees and orgiastic behavior with prostitutes, he is finally discovered by Alexey, who hears from a friend of the family about Pyotr’s disgraceful behavior. Back home, Pyotr hears rumors that his son has become a member of a revolutionary extremist party. He also detects unusual new ideas in Alexey’s son Miron. Only his younger son, Yakov, seems unconcerned about the new ideas that are spreading among workers. Yakov is not good-looking; however, Pyotr considers his interests, mainly women, more normal than all the ideas expressed by the others, ideas that he believes are a threat to the factory.
The rapid growth of the factory brings a large settlement of workers to Dromov, along with many hardship cases. Pyotr tries to show his interest in his workers by building a new hospital or arranging a big party for them.
Alexey dies suddenly. A telegram is sent to summon Nikita, but he has left the monastery. Only Vyalov knows his address. After the funeral, Nikita and Vyalov are seen together frequently. Pyotr’s feelings grow against all people who do not think primarily of the factory, and when Nikita dies four days before the outbreak of World War I, he has no kind word for his dying brother.
When Pyotr grows too old for most of the factory work and Yakov takes over in his place, Yakov also becomes concerned over the growing signs of unrest among the workers. One worker, who spies for him in the factory, becomes his oppressor. Early in the war, many workers are drafted. Some return, crippled, to the factory. Yakov’s fear of being killed by his workers increases rapidly. He plans to go away with his mistress Pauline, a woman of easy virtue and expensive tastes. Trying to avoid suspicion, he lets Pauline leave Dromov first. His own plan is to meet her in Moscow with all the money he can raise, but he never arrives in Moscow. Reports reach Dromov that he has been robbed, killed, and thrown from the train.
Pyotr, who tried to ignore all rumors about uprisings and a new way of life for the workers, lives in a state of semicoma and asks constantly the whereabouts of Ilya and Yakov. He fails to realize what is going on around him until, one day, he feels a sharp sense of hunger and realizes that he is in his garden house. Outside he sees a soldier. When Pyotr calls for his wife, only Vyalov comes. He explains that Pyotr is a prisoner.
At first, Pyotr thinks Vyalov is jeering at him. Later, he believes that he was taken prisoner because someone learned the truth about the death of Ilya’s former playmate. Vyalov tries in vain to inform him about the revolution that took place and to explain that he is still alive only because of Ilya’s influence. Pyotr thinks Vyalov is mad. When Natalya arrives with a cucumber and a piece of bread, Pyotr considers himself insulted that she dares offer him such meager food when he is so hungry. Angrily, he throws away the food and with abusive words asks her to leave him alone.
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