Puerile Effi Briest, who is attracted by social honour, moves to the small Baltic town of Kessin. Her husband is away for weeks at a time, and Effi, who is shunned by local nobles, finds but one friend. Her suspicions their house may be haunted are, perhaps on purpose, not entirely laid to rest by Innstetten. When she says there may be a ghost, he calls her fears meaningless. The scorn he would bear if people knew of her terror would stall his career; hence his angry reply.
When Major Crampas arrives, Effi cannot help but relish his attentions despite his being a married womaniser, and their love is consummated. Her husband looks down on Crampas, whom he finds a lewd philanderer with cavalier views of law. Crampas says Innstetten is patronising.
Years later, Effi’s daughter Annie is growing up, and the family move to Berlin due to Innstetten’s ascent. All seems well, but when Effi’s letters to Crampas are found by her husband, he decides to divorce and gets custody of Annie and influences her to disdain Effi. When Effi and Annie meet briefly some years later, it is clear the two are estranged. Effi stops trying to establish a good relationship with Annie.
The Briests disown Effi, thinking it ill behooves them to deal with someone who tarnished their name. Innstetten tells Crampas he wants to duel; he agrees and is killed by Innstetten, who reappraises his deed. The halcyon days of his life are past: Even his career fails to delight him.
Her parents take Effi back when she becomes the victim of nervous disease; her grief is torturous. Facing death, she asks Luise to tell Innstetten about her regrets and willingness to forgive him. Her death forms a rather symmetrical ending that matches the novel’s start. In the end scene, her parents vaguely concede guilt for her fate without daring to question the social canons that sparked the tragedy ("that would be too wide a field").