Stepan Verhovensky, a self-styled progressive patriot and erstwhile university lecturer, is at loose ends in a provincial Russian town until Varvara Stavrogin hires him to tutor her only son, Nikolay Stavrogin. Stepan’s radicalism, which is largely a pose, shocks Varvara, but the two become friends. Varvara’s husband dies, and Stepan looks forward to marrying his friend. They travel together to St. Petersburg, where they move in daringly radical circles. After attempting without success to start a literary journal, they leave St. Petersburg, Varvara returning to the province and Stepan, in an attempt to assert his independence, going to Berlin. After four months in Germany, Stepan, realizing that he is in Varvara’s thrall emotionally and financially, returns to the province to be near her.
Stepan becomes the leader of a small group that meets to discuss progressive ideas. The group includes Shatov, the independent son of one of Varvara’s serfs, a liberal named Virginsky, and Liputin, a man who makes everyone’s business his business. Nikolay, whom Stepan had introduced to progressivism, goes on to school in St. Petersburg and from there into the army as an officer. He resigns his commission, however, returns to St. Petersburg, and lives in the slums. When he returns home, at Varvara’s request, he insults the members of Stepan’s group. He bites the ear of the provincial governor during an interview with that dignitary. Everyone concludes that he is mentally unbalanced, and Nikolay is committed to bed. Three months later, apparently recovered, he apologizes for his actions and again leaves the province.
Some months later, Varvara is invited to visit a childhood friend in Switzerland, where Nikolay is paying court to her friend’s daughter, Lizaveta. Before the party returns to Russia, Lizaveta and Nikolay break their engagement because Nikolay is interested in Dasha, Varvara’s servant woman. In Switzerland, Nikolay and Stepan’s son, Pyotr, meet and find themselves in sympathy on political matters.
A new governor, von Lembke, comes to the provinces. Stepan is lost without Varvara, and he visibly deteriorates during her absence. Varvara arranges for Dasha, who is the sister of Shatov and twenty years old, to marry Stepan, who is fifty-three years old. Dasha submits passively to her mistress’s wishes, and Stepan reluctantly consents to the marriage, but he balks when he discovers from a member of his group that he is being used to cover up Nikolay’s relations with the girl.
New arrivals in the province include Captain Lebyadkin and his disabled sister, Marya. One day, Marya attracts the attention of Varvara in front of the cathedral, whereupon Varvara takes Marya home with her. She learns that Nikolay had known the Lebyadkins in St. Petersburg. Pyotr assures Varvara, who is suspicious, that Nikolay and Marya Lebyadkin are not married.
Using his personal charm and representing himself as a mysterious revolutionary agent returned from exile, Pyotr begins to dominate Stepan’s liberal friends and becomes, for his own scheming purposes, the protégé of Yulia, the governor’s wife. Nikolay at first follows Pyotr in his political activities but then turns against the revolutionary movement and warns Shatov that Pyotr’s group is plotting to kill Shatov because of information he possesses. Nikolay confesses to Shatov that on a bet he had married Marya Lebyadkin in St. Petersburg.
As a result of a duel between Nikolay and a local aristocrat who hates him, a...
(The entire section is 1445 words.)