A healthy young couple, a barber named Manica and a hairdresser named Arlia, marry, in spite of the misgivings of Arlia’s uncle, Father Calogero, who knows that tuberculosis runs in their family. He had become a parish priest, thereby keeping moderately healthy and avoiding many of the troubles that beset the urban poor.
Each year, Arlia becomes pregnant, affecting adversely her work; Manica, too, is unsuccessful financially as a barber. Child after child dies of tuberculosis; the costs of medicine, special broths and food, and burial expenses offset any economic gains of the working couple.
One of the boys is named Angiolino; he is bitter at having been born, when facing death. Arlia seeks help for the child from the Church, through prayer and a mass, though Manica is cynical. Finally Arlia has recourse to a woman who tells fortunes from the whites of eggs. She has been told that a countess who had wanted to have her hair cut because of unhappiness in love had found consolation from the fortuneteller. The fortuneteller tells Arlia that she will be happy, but that she will have troubles first. Her uncle believes that the prophecy is a satanic fraud, but Arlia’s despair is overcome temporarily by the hope that Angiolino will recover. The child grows worse, however, and Father Calogero offers to pay for his funeral. Still, Arlia persists in her faith in the prophecy and pities Manica for his lack of belief. Her hope is finally dashed by the death of the boy. Filled with despair, she wonders what the fortuneteller’s promise could have meant.
The suffering causes Manica to turn to drink; Arlia persists in her trust in the prophecy. A daughter, Fortunata, is the only child who survives. The family’s economic situation becomes worse, debts pile up, and customers desert Arlia and Manica. Arlia seeks reassurance from her daughter that the prophecy of the fortuneteller will come true, but Fortunata is interested in a young man, a clerk named Silvio Liotti.
When questioned by her mother, Fortunata says that she does not want to die like her brothers; the neighbors and the girl’s father warn the mother to be careful about her daughter’s relationship with Silvio. Finally, Fortunata confesses to her mother that she has been seduced by Silvio.
Through an intermediary to Father Calogero, Silvio learns that Manica cannot afford a dowry for his daughter; thus, any marriage seems impossible. Fortunata begins to show signs of developing tuberculosis, as well as a tendency toward suicide, so that Arlia fears that she will lose her daughter also and that Manica will learn about Fortunata’s affair. Arlia finds solace in the prophecy and turns to gambling, buying lottery tickets each week, as a key to financial success, and to her daughter’s health and happiness. One day, Manica, looking for money with which to pay for liquor at the tavern, finds some of the lottery tickets and becomes angry. Arlia explains that they must allow good luck to come to them. He demands money from her and later returns drunk from the tavern.
Fortunata, however, finds no consolation. Arlia continues to be certain of their future happiness; they invite Father Calogero to a fine meal at their home on Christmas Day. He becomes touched by their problems and arranges for a dowry for Fortunata, making possible her marriage to Silvio.
The marriage does not work out well; Silvio spends the dowry and beats Fortunata. Each year, as her mother had before her, she gives birth to a child. Her children are healthy and have huge appetites, putting a strain on family finances. Arlia is forced to continue to work in her old age, running errands for shopkeepers. Manica, too, continues to work each Saturday at his trade, spending the remainder of the week at home or in the tavern. Arlia now spends the lottery-ticket money for brandy, deriving a measure of consolation from her secret drinking.