Peter Schlemihl tells his story in a series of eleven letters to his good friend Adelbert von Chamisso. The book begins with the arrival of poor, hapless Peter in a port town, where he hopes to establish himself with the aid of Thomas John, a wealthy merchant. At a garden party, Peter encounters a strange “grey man,” who attracts his attention with his ability to magically extract from his pocket all kinds of unlikely objects: a telescope, a large golden Turkish carpet, a huge party tent, and three horses.
After fleeing the party in anguish over this encounter that no one else finds strange, Peter is approached by the grey man with a business proposal: an exchange of Peter’s shadow for a bottomless sack of gold. Without much thought, Peter agrees to the deal. Soon, however, he finds that rather than gaining respect and a place in society through his wealth, his shadowlessness makes him an outcast. Peter is forced to move from town to town and to lead an unsteady life. Finally, he falls in love with Mina, a forester’s daughter, and decides to woo her. Only through a number of preventive measures, such as hiding in his room during the day and being assisted by his loyal servant Bendel, is he able to prevent the discovery of his lack of a shadow. Another of his servants, Rascal, betrays Peter, and Mina’s family gives him an ultimatum: Produce a valid shadow within three days or lose Mina forever. The grey man reappears and offers to return Peter’s shadow, this time in exchange for his soul. Peter refuses to give up his soul, and he throws away his sack of gold, severing all contact with the grey man. Rather than suffer the continuous humiliation of being an outcast from society, he decides to spend the rest of his days in isolation. With the remainder of his money, he purchases what turn out to be seven-league boots and uses them to roam the earth, dedicating himself to the study of nature in remote areas and to writing scientific works.