The anonymous narrator begins by describing how a certain Captain Pavel Hlopov visits him in his hut in the Russian Caucasus to inform him of an impending Russian military action against the native Tatar tribesmen. As a consequence of their conversation, the two men begin to discuss the concept of bravery. Captain Hlopov offers a definition of bravery that reminds the narrator of Plato’s definition; the captain says quite concisely: “He’s a brave man who behaves as he ought.” The narrator adds that the man who risks his life out of vanity, or curiosity, or greed cannot be called brave, while a man who refuses to face danger out of duty to his family or on conscientious grounds cannot be called a coward.
The narrator is a former neighbor of Captain Hlopov’s mother, whom he visited before coming to the Caucasus. The old lady, Marya Ivanovna Hlopov, worships her son and has prayed for him since he went into the service eighteen years ago. The captain was wounded severely four times but has kept this information from his mother, who thinks that he has been safe all the while. Although the captain rarely writes and never visits his mother, he does send her money every year. Before the narrator departed for the Caucasus, he had agreed to deliver a black religious amulet from the mother to her son. When he arrives in the Caucasus, the narrator delivers the gift, which deeply touches the captain.
The next day, at four in the morning, the captain arouses the narrator and invites him to join the military operation. As they ride, the narrator is impressed by the splendid scenery and fauna and flora of the mountain setting. A young ensign in the captain’s regiment, Alanin by name, overtakes them and rides by, delighted at his first chance to be in a real battle. The young soldier’s romantic attitude toward battle mildly annoys Captain Hlopov.
The narrator gives a detailed profile of a Lieutenant Rosenkranz, a romantic type who often assumes a kind of Byronic pose—distant, contradictory, and misunderstood by those around him. The narrator notes with interest the pre-battle activities of the soldiers—playing cards, telling jokes and stories, and singing. “It was as though no one could conceive that some of them were destined not to come back along that road.”
The narrator describes in detail the life at the Russian fort and is struck again by the casual attitude of everybody toward the upcoming battle against the Tatars. Nature in the mountains is so picturesque and splendidly romantic that it is hard to imagine the possibility of danger and death so close at hand. He sums up the paradox: “Everything evil in the heart of man ought, one would think, to vanish in contact with Nature, in which beauty and goodness find their most direct expression.”
Soon Tatar torchlights are seen in the distance, signaling other tribesmen that the Russians are approaching. The Russians ford a river and are soon exchanging gunfire with the Tatars. The Tatars fall back, and the Russians advance, shelling a Tatar village with artillery.
The Tatar village is sacked by the Russians, and one old Tatar is taken prisoner. As the Russians advance beyond the village, the enemy’s resistance becomes stronger. The real confrontation begins. Lieutenant Rosenkranz and the young Ensign Alanin are in the thick of battle and are enjoying it. Only Captain Hlopov calls a Russian retreat and offers no excuses or explanations for his seemingly cowardly actions. “This, to my thinking, is the peculiar and noble characteristic of Russian courage,” observes the narrator.
As if fulfilling the captain’s prophecy that the ensign’s fear of nothing is immature and foolish, Alanin is wounded and carried off for treatment. The doctor is not able to stabilize the young man, and Ensign Alanin dies. The detachment marches back to the fortress singing in the moonlit Caucasus night, their mission accomplished.