The novel is in three parts. There is an epigraph with two quotations, the first from Pushkin's poem Demons and the second from Luke 8:32-6.
After an almost illustrious but prematurely curtailed academic career Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky is residing with the wealthy landowner Varvara Petrovna Stavrogina at her estate, Skvoreshniki, in a provincial Russian town. Originally employed as a tutor to Stavrogina's son Nikolai Vsevolodovich, Stepan Trofimovich has been there for almost twenty years in an intimate but platonic relationship with his noble patroness. Stepan Trofimovich also has a son, Pyotr Stepanovich, from a previous marriage but he has grown up elsewhere without his father's involvement.
A troubled Varvara Petrovna has just returned from Switzerland where she has been visiting her son and her friends the Drozdovs. She berates Stepan Trofimovich for his slovenliness and financial irresponsibility, but her main preoccupation is an "intrigue" she encountered in Switzerland concerning her son and his relations with Lizaveta Nikolaevna Tushin (Liza) - the beautiful daughter of her friend Praskovya. Varvara Petrovna's young protegé Darya Pavlovna (Dasha), the daughter of a former servant, is also somehow involved in the unpleasantness, but the details are ambiguous. Varvara Petrovna suddenly conceives the idea of forming an engagement between Stepan Trofimovich and Dasha. Though dismayed, Stepan Trofimovich accedes to her proposal, which happens to resolve a certain rather delicate financial issue for him. Influenced by gossip, he begins to suspect that he is being married off to cover up "another man's sins" and writes "noble" letters to his fiancé and Nikolai Vsevolodovich. Meanwhile the Drozdovs have returned to the town, but without Nikolai Vsevolodovich who has gone to Petersburg. Matters are further complicated by the arrival of a mysterious "crippled woman", Marya Lebyadkina, to whom Nikolai Vsevolodovich is also rumoured to be connected, although no-one seems to know exactly how. A hint is given when Varvara Petrovna asks the mentally disturbed Marya, who has approached her outside church, if she is Lebyadkina and she replies that she is not.
Varvara Petrovna takes Marya (and Liza who has insisted on coming with them) back to Skvoreshniki. Already present are Dasha, her older brother Ivan Shatov, and a nervous Stepan Trofimovich. Praskovya arrives, accompanied by her nephew Mavriky Nikolaevich, demanding to know why her daughter has been dragged in to Varvara Petrovna's "scandal". Varvara Petrovna questions Dasha about Marya and a large sum of money that Nikolai Vsevolodovich supposedly sent to Marya's brother, but in spite of her straightforward answers matters don't become any clearer. Marya's brother, the drunkard Captain Lebyadkin, comes looking for his sister and confuses Varvara Petrovna even further with semi-deranged rantings about some sort of dishonour that must remain unspoken. At this point the butler announces that Nikolai Vsevolodovich has arrived. To everyone's surprize, however, a complete stranger walks in and immediately begins to dominate the conversation. It turns out to be Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, Stepan Trofimovich's son. As he is talking, Nikolai Stavrogin quietly enters. Varvara Petrovna stops him imperiously and, indicating Marya, demands to know if she is his lawful wife. He looks at his mother impassively, says nothing, kisses her hand, and unhurriedly approaches Marya. In soothing, respectful tones he explains to Marya that he is her devoted friend, not her husband or fiancé, that she should not be here, and that he will escort her home. She agrees and they leave. Amid the din that breaks out after their departure, the strongest voice is that of Pyotr Stepanovich, and he manages to persuade Varvara Petrovna to listen to his explanation for what has occurred. According to him, Nikolai Vsevolodovich became acquainted with the Lebyadkins when he was living a life of "mockery" in Petersburg five years earlier. The downtrodden, crippled and half mad Marya had fallen hopelessly in love with him and he had responded by treating her "like a marquise". She began to think of him as her fiancé, and when he left he made arrangements for her support, including a substantial allowance, which her brother proceeded to appropriate as though he had some sort of right to it. Varvara Petrovna is elated and almost triumphant to hear that her son's actions had a noble foundation rather than a shameful one. Under interrogation from Pyotr Stepanovich, Captain Lebyadkin reluctantly confirms the truth of the whole story. He departs in disgrace as Nikolai Vsevolodovich returns from escorting Marya home. Liza has a mild attack of hysterics and she, her mother and Varvara Petrovna leave the room for a few minutes. When the ladies return Nikolai Vsevolodovich addresses himself to Dasha with congratulations on her impending marriage, of which, he says, he was expressly informed. As if on cue, Pyotr Stepanovich chimes in to say that he too has received a long letter from his father about an impending marriage, but that one cannot make sense of it - something about his having to get married because of "another man's sins", and pleading to be "saved". An enraged Varvara Petrovna tells Stepan Trofimovich to leave her house and never come back. In the uproar that follows no-one notices Shatov, who has not said a word the entire time, walking across the room to stand directly in front of Nikolai Vsevolodovich. He looks him straight in the face and says nothing: the room goes quiet. Suddenly, Shatov hits Stavrogin in the face with all his might. Stavrogin staggers, recovers himself, and seizes Shatov. But he immediately takes his hands away, turns pale, and stands there calmly returning Shatov's gaze. It is Shatov who lowers his eyes, and leaves, apparently crushed. Liza screams and collapses on the floor in a faint.
News of the events at Skvoreshniki spreads through society surprizingly rapidly. The main participants seclude themselves, with the exception of Pyotr Stepanovich who actively insinuates himself into the social life of the town. After eight days, he calls on Stavrogin and the true nature of their relations begins to become apparent. There was not, as some suspect, an explicit understanding between them. Rather Pyotr Stepanovich is trying to involve Stavrogin in some radical political plans of his own, and is avidly seeking to be of use to him in various ways. Stavrogin, while he seems to accept Pyotr Stepanovich acting on his behalf, is largely unresponsive to these overtures and continues to pursue his own agenda.
That night Stavrogin leaves Skvoreshniki in secret and makes his way on foot to Fillipov's house where Shatov lives. The primary object of his visit is to consult his friend Kirillov, who also lives at the house, about an unrelated matter. Stavrogin has received an extraordinarily insulting letter from Artemy Gaganov, the son of a respected landowner whose nose he pulled as a joke some years earlier, and has been left with no choice but to challenge him to a duel. He asks Kirillov to be his second and to make the arrangements. They then discuss philosophical issues arising out of Kirillov's firm intention to commit suicide in the near future. From there Stavrogin proceeds to Shatov, and once again the background to the mysterious events at Skvoreshniki begins to reveal itself. Shatov had guessed the secret behind Stavrogin's connection to Marya (they are in fact married) and had struck him out of anger at his "fall". In the past Stavrogin had inspired Shatov with spiritual and nationalistic fervour, but this marriage and other actions have provoked a complete disillusionment, which Shatov now angrily expresses. Stavrogin defends himself calmly and rationally, but not entirely convincingly. He also warns Shatov, who is a former member but now bitter enemy of Pyotr Verkhovensky's revolutionary society, that Verkhovensky might be planning to murder him. Stavrogin continues on foot to a distant part of town where he intends to call at the new residence of the Lebyadkins. On the way he encounters Fedka, an escaped convict, who has been waiting for him at the bridge. Fedka has been informed by Pyotr Stepanovich that Stavrogin may have need of his services in relation to the Lebyadkins, but Stavrogin emphatically rejects this. He tells Fedka that he won't give him a penny and that if he meets him again he will tie him up and take him to the police. At the Lebyadkins' he informs the Captain, to the Captain's horror, that in the near future he will be making a public announcement of the marriage and that there will be no more money. He goes in to Marya, but something about him frightens her and she becomes uncharacteristically mistrustful. His proposal that she come to live with him in Switzerland is met with scorn. She accuses him of being an imposter who has come to kill her with his knife, and demands to know what he has done with her "Prince". Stavrogin becomes angry, pushes her down, and leaves, to Marya's frenzied curse. In a fury, he barely notices when Fedka pops up again, reiterating his requests for assistance. Stavrogin seizes him, slams him against a wall and begins to tie him up. However, he stops almost immediately and continues on his way, with Fedka following. At last Stavrogin bursts into laughter. He empties the contents of his wallet in Fedka's face, and walks off.
The duel takes place the following afternoon. Despite close barriers and three attempts no-one is killed or injured. Stavrogin, to Gaganov's intense anger, appears to deliberately miss, as if to trivialize the duel and insult his opponent, although he says it is because he doesn't want to kill anyone any more. He returns to Skvoreshniki where he encounters Dasha who, as now becomes apparent, is in the role of a kind of confidant and "nurse" in relation to him. He tells her about the duel and the encounter with Fedka, admitting to giving Fedka money that could be interpreted as a down payment to kill his wife. He asks her, in an ironic tone, whether she will still come to him even if he chooses to take Fedka up on his offer. Horrified, Dasha does not answer.
Pyotr Stepanovich meanwhile is very active in society, forming relationships and cultivating conditions that he thinks will help his political aims. He is particularly focused on Julia Mikhaylovna Von Lembke, the Governor's wife. By flattery, pretending to be devoted to her, surrounding her with a retinue, and encouraging her exaggerated liberal ambition, he acquires a power over her and over the tone of her salon. He and his group of co-conspirators exploit their new-found legitimacy to generate an atmosphere of frivolity, irreverence and cynicism in society. They indulge in tasteless escapades, clandestinely distribute revolutionary propaganda, and try to stir up workers at the local Spigulin factory. For reasons of their own, they are particularly active in promoting Julia Mikhaylovna's 'Literary Gala' to raise money for poor governesses, and it becomes a much anticipated event for the whole town. The Governor Andrey Antonovich Von Lembke is deeply troubled by Pyotr Stepanovich's success with his wife but is painfully incapable of doing anything about it, or about the young man's habitual careless disregard for his authority. As part of his plan, Pyotr Stepanovich sows the idea in Andrey Antonovich's head that there is a secret group of desperate revolutionaries in the town, centred around Shatov and Kirillov, who are conspiring to bring down the government. Andrey Antonovich does not know how to cope with the strange events and mounting pressures and begins to show signs of mental disturbance. Pyotr Stepanovich adopts a similarly destabilizing approach to his father, driving Stepan Trofimovich into a frenzy by relentlessly ridiculing his noble ideals and further undermining his already disintegrating relationship with Varvara Petrovna.
Pyotr Stepanovich visits Kirillov to remind him of an "agreement" he made to commit suicide at a time convenient to the revolutionary society, and to warn him that the time is approaching. He invites Kirillov, and subsequently Shatov, to a meeting of the local branch of the society to be held later that day. He then calls on Stavrogin, arriving just as Mavriky Nikolaevich, Liza's new fiancé, is angrily departing. Stavrogin, however, seems to be in a good mood and he willingly accompanies Pyotr Stepanovich to the meeting. Present at the meeting are a wide variety of idealists, disaffected types and pseudo-intellectuals, most notably the philosopher Shigalyev who attempts to expound his theory on the historically necessary totalitarian social organization of the future. The conversation at the meeting is inane and directionless until Pyotr Stepanovich takes control and seeks to establish whether there is a real commitment to the cause of violent revolution. He claims that this matter can be resolved by asking a simple question of each individual: in the knowledge of a planned political murder, would you inform the police? As everyone else is hurrying to assert that they would of course not inform, Shatov gets up and leaves, followed by Stavrogin and Kirillov. Uproar ensues. Pyotr Stepanovich abandons the meeting and rushes after Stavrogin. Meeting them at Kirillov's place, where Fedka is also present, Verkhovensky demands to know whether Stavrogin will be providing the funds to deal with the Lebyadkins. He has acquired proof, in the form of a letter sent to Von Lembke, that the Captain is contemplating betraying them all. Stavrogin refuses, tells him he won't give him Shatov either, and departs. Verkhovensky tries to stop him but Stavrogin grabs him by the hair, throws him to the ground, and continues on his way. Verkhovensky rushes after him again and, to Stavrogin's astonishment, suddenly transforms into a raving madman. He launches into an unrestrained and incoherent monologue, alternately passionately persuasive and grovelingly submissive, desperately pleading with Stavrogin to join his cause. The speech almost amounts to a declaration of love, reaching a climax with the exclamation "Stavrogin, you're beautiful!" and an attempt to kiss his hand. Verkhovensky's cause, it turns out, has nothing to do with socialism, but is purely about destroying the old order and seizing power, with Stavrogin, the iron-willed leader, at the helm. Stavrogin remains cold, but does not actually say no, and Pyotr Stepanovich persists with his schemes.
Social disquiet and paranoia escalate as the day of the literary gala approaches. The Governor's assistant, under the false impression that Stepan Trofimovich is the source of the problem, orders a raid on his residence. Deeply shocked, Stepan Trofimovich goes to the Governor to complain. He arrives as a large group of workers from the Spigulin factory are staging a protest about work and pay conditions. Andrey Antonovich, already in a precarious state of mind, responds in a somewhat demented authoritarian fashion. Julia Mikhaylovna and her retinue, among whom are Varvara Petrovna and Liza, return from a visit to Skvoreshniki and Andrey Antonovich is thrown further off balance by a public snubbing from his wife. As Julia Mikhaylovna engages charmingly with Stepan Trofimovich and the 'great writer' Karmazinov, who are to read at the Gala tomorrow, Pyotr Stepanovich enters. Seeing him, Andrey Antonovich begins to show unmistakable signs of insanity. But attention is immediately diverted to a new drama. Stavrogin has also entered the room, and he is accosted by Liza. In a loud voice she complains of harassment from a certain Captain, going by the name of Lebyadkin, who describes himself as Stavrogin's relation, the brother of his wife. Stavrogin calmly replies that Marya (née Lebyadkina) is indeed his wife, and that he will make sure the Captain causes her no further trouble. Varvara Petrovna is horrified, but Stavrogin simply smiles and walks out. Liza follows him.
The much vaunted literary matinée and ball to raise money for poor governesses takes place the next day. Most of the town has subscribed and all the wealthy and influential people are present for the reading, with the exception of the Stavrogins. Julia Mikhaylovna, who has somehow managed to reconcile Andrey Antonovich, is at the summit of her ambition. But things go wrong from the beginning. It quickly becomes apparent that a lot of unsavoury types have been let in, probably on purpose and without paying. Pyotr Stepanovich's associates Lyamshin and Liputin take advantage of their role as stewards to alter proceedings in a provocative way. The reading starts with the unscheduled appearance on stage of a hopelessly drunk Captain Lebyadkin, apparently for the purpose of reading some of his poetry. Liputin, realizing the Captain is too drunk, takes it upon himself to read the poem, which turns out to be a witless and insulting piece about the hard lot of governesses. To Julia Mikhaylovna's relief, he is quickly followed by the literary genius Karmazinov who is reading a farewell to his public entitled "Merci". But for over an hour the great writer plods through an aimless stream of self-aggrandizing fantasy, sending the audience into a state of complete stupefaction. The torture only comes to an end when an exhausted listener inadvertently cries out "Lord, what rubbish!" and Karmazinov, after exchanging insults with the audience, finally closes with an ironic "Merci, merci, merci." In this hostile atmosphere Stepan Trofimovich takes the stage. He plunges headlong into a passionate exhortation of his own aesthetic ideals as opposed to the materialism of the present generation, becoming increasingly shrill as he reacts to the derision emanating from the audience. He ends by cursing the audience and storming off. Pandemonium breaks out as an unexpected third reader, a 'professor' from Petersburg, immediately takes the stage in his place. Apparently delighted by the disorder, the new orator launches into a frenzied tirade against Russia and the establishment, shouting with all his might and gesticulating with his fist. He is eventually dragged off stage by six officials, but he somehow manages to escape and returns to briefly continue his harangue before being dragged off again. Supporters in the audience rush to his aid as a schoolgirl takes the stage seeking to rouse oppressed students everywhere to protest.
In the aftermath, Pyotr Stepanovich (who was mysteriously absent from the reading) seeks to persuade a traumatized Julia Mikhaylovna that it wasn't as bad as she thinks and that it is essential for her to attend the ball. He also lets her know that the town is ringing with the news of another scandal: Lizaveta Nikolaevna has left her home and fiancé and gone off to Skvoreshniki with Stavrogin.
Despite the disaster of the reading, the ball goes ahead that evening, with Julia Mikhaylovna and Andrey Antonovich in attendance. Many of the respectable public have chosen not to attend but there is an increased number of dubious types, who make straight for the drinking area. Hardly anyone is actually dancing, most are standing around waiting for something to happen and casting curious glances at the Von Lembkes. A 'literary quadrille' has been especially choreographed for the occasion, but it is vulgar and stupid and merely bemuses the onlookers. Shocked by some of the antics in the quadrille and the degenerating atmosphere in the hall, Andrey Antonovich lapses back in to his dangerously authoritarian persona and a frightened Julia Mikhaylovna is forced to apologise for him. Someone shouts "Fire!" and the news quickly spreads that a large fire is raging in part of the town. There is a stampede for the exits, but Andrey Antonovich screams that all must be stopped and searched, and when his distressed wife calls out his name he points at her menacingly and orders her arrest. Julia Mikhaylovna faints. She is carried to safety, but Andrey Antonovich insists on going to the fire. At the fire he is knocked unconscious by a falling beam, and although he later recovers consciousness, he does not recover his sanity, and his career as governor comes to an end. The fire rages all night, but by morning it has dwindled and rain is falling. News begins to spread of a strange and terrible murder: a certain Captain, his sister and their serving maid have been found stabbed to death in their partially burned down house on the edge of town.
Stavrogin and Liza have spent the night together and they wake to the dying glow of the fire. Liza is now ready to leave him, convinced that her life is over. Pyotr Stepanovich arrives to impart the news of the Lebyadkins' murder. He says the murderer was Fedka the Convict, denies any involvement himself, and assures Stavrogin that legally (and of course morally) he too is in the clear. When Liza demands the truth from Stavrogin, he replies that he was against the murder but knew it was going to happen and didn't stop the murderers. Liza, in a frenzy, rushes off, determined to get to the place of the murders to see the bodies. Stavrogin tells Pyotr Stepanovich to go after her and stop her, but Pyotr Stepanovich demands an answer. Stavrogin replies that it might be possible to say yes to him if only he were not such a buffoon, and tells him to come back tomorrow. Appeased, Pyotr Stepanovich pursues Liza, but the attempt to stop her is abandoned when Mavriky Nikolaevich, who has been waiting for her outside all night, rushes to her aid. He and Liza proceed to the town together in the pouring rain. At the scene of the murders an unruly crowd has gathered. By this time it is known that it is Stavrogin's wife who has been murdered, and Liza is recognized as 'Stavrogin's woman'. She and Mavriky Nikolaevich are attacked by drunk and belligerent individuals in the crowd. Liza is struck several times on the head and is killed.
Most of society's anger for the night's events is directed toward Julia Mikhaylovna. Pyotr Stepanovich is not suspected, and news spreads that Stavrogin has left on the train for Petersburg. The revolutionary crew, however, are alarmed. They are on the point of mutiny until Pyotr Stepanovich shows them Lebyadkin's letter to Von Lembke. He points to their own undeniable involvement and tells them that Shatov is also determined to denounce them. They agree that Shatov will have to be killed and a plan is made to lure him to the isolated location where he has buried the society's printing press. They are worried about possible consequences for themselves, but Pyotr Stepanovich explains that Kirillov has agreed to write a note taking responsibility for their crimes before he commits suicide. Shatov himself is preoccupied with the unexpected return of his ex-wife Marie, who has turned up on his doorstep, alone, ill and poverty-stricken. He is overjoyed to see her, and when it turns out that she is going in to labour with Stavrogin's child he frantically sets about helping her. The child is born and, reconciled with Marie, he is happy that he is going to be the father. That night, the emissary from the revolutionary group, Erkel, arrives to escort Shatov to the isolated part of Skvoreshniki where the printing press is buried. Thinking this will be his final interaction with the society, Shatov agrees to come. As he shows Erkel the spot, the other members of the group jump out and grab him. Pyotr Verkhovensky puts a gun to Shatov's forehead and fires, killing him. As they clumsily weight the body and dump it in the pond, one of the participants in the crime, Lyamshin, completely loses his head and starts shrieking like an animal. He is restrained and eventually quietened, and they go their separate ways. The following morning, at a very early hour, Pyotr Stepanovich proceeds to Kirillov's place. Kirillov has been forewarned and is eagerly awaiting him. However, his aversion to Pyotr Stepanovich and the news of Shatov's death arouse a reluctance to comply, and for some time they parley, both with guns in hand. Eventually Kirillov seems to be overcome by the power of his desire to kill himself. Despite his misgivings, he hurriedly writes and signs the suicide note taking responsibility for the group's crimes, including the murder of Shatov, and runs into the next room. But there is no shot, and Pyotr Stepanovich cautiously follows him into the darkened room. A strange and harrowing confrontation ensues, ending with Pyotr Stepanovich fleeing in a panic. As he runs off, a shot rings out. He returns to find that Kirillov has indeed shot himself through the head.
Meanwhile Stepan Trofimovich, oblivious to the unfolding horrors, has left town on foot, determined to take the high road to an uncertain future. Wandering along with no real purpose or destination, he is offered a lift by some peasants. They take him to their village where he meets Sofya Matveyevna, a travelling gospel seller, and he firmly attaches himself to her. They set off together but Stepan Trofimovich becomes ill and they are forced to take a room at a large cottage. His health rapidly declining, Stepan Trofimovich tells Sofya Matveyevna a somewhat embellished version of his life story and pleads with her not to leave him. To his horror, Varvara Petrovna suddenly turns up at the cottage. She has been looking for him since his disappearance, and her ferocity greatly frightens both Stepan Trofimovich and Sofya Matveyevna. When she realizes that Stepan Trofimovich is extremely ill and that Sofya Matveyevna has been looking after him, her attitude softens somewhat and she sends for her doctor. A difficult reconciliation between the two friends, during which some rather painful events from the past are recalled, is effected. It becomes apparent that Stepan Trofimovich is dying and a priest is summoned. He is unafraid of death, and in his final conscious hours speaks with generosity and forgiveness.
When Shatov fails to return, Marie, still exhausted from the birth, seeks out Kirillov. Encountering the terrible scene of the suicide, she grabs her newborn baby and rushes outside into the cold, desperately seeking help. Eventually the authorities are called to the scene. They read Kirillov's note and a short time later Shatov's body is discovered at Skvoreshniki. Marie and the baby become ill, and die a few days later. The crime scene at Skvoreshniki reveals that Kirillov must have been acting with others and the story emerges that there is an organized group of revolutionary conspirators behind all the crimes and disorders. Fear and paranoia grip the town, until Lyamshin, unable to bear it, throws himself at the feet of the authorities. He tells the whole story of the conspiracy and the murders in great detail, and the rest of the crew, with the exception of Pyotr Stepanovich who left for Petersburg after Kirillov's suicide, are arrested.
Varvara Petrovna, returning to her town house after Stepan Trofimovich's death, is greatly shaken by all the terrible news. Darya Pavlovna receives a disturbing confessional letter from Nikolai Vsevolodovich. He is at a friend's house in a nearby town and asks if she will accompany him to Switzerland. Dasha shows the letter to Varvara Petrovna. As they are getting ready to leave, news arrives from Skvoreshniki that Nikolai Vsevolodovich is there and has locked himself up in his part of the house without saying a word to anyone. They hurry over, but are unable to find him. It is noticed that the usually locked door to the attic is wide open. They go up to find that Nikolai Vsevolodovich has hanged himself.