Influenced strongly by the Sentimental movement, the protagonist of "Nevsky Prospekt" is a pathetic and insignificant romantic, the narrator is chatty and unreliable, (along the lines of Tristram Shandy, the definitive Sentimental novel) and realism dominates. The story is organized symmetrically; the narrator describes Nevsky Prospekt in great detail, then the plot splits to follow in turn two acquaintances, each of whom follows a beautiful woman whom he has seen on the street. The first story follows the romantic hero, the second follows his realistic foil. The story closes with the narrator once more speaking generally of Nevsky Prospekt.
The introduction describes Nevsky Prospekt, the central avenue of St. Petersburg, and its population at different times of the day. The narrator revels in the delights of the street, but he is filled with Poshlost, a Russian concept akin to kitsch, defined by Russian-English historian [D.S. Mirsky] as "self-satisfied inferiority." This is exemplified in the repeated admiring descriptions of mustaches, "to which the better part of a life has been devoted." The description of the street ends abruptly, and the story shifts to the conversation of two acquaintances who have decided to split up to each pursue a different woman seen on the street.
The first story told is of a young, romantic painter, Piskaryov, who follows a dark-haired woman to what turns out to be a brothel. However, his interest in the woman is completely innocent and chaste, so he is shocked by her true nature, and flees. Back in his room he dreams of her as a woman of wealth and virtue. Living only for his dreams, he develops insomnia and turns to opium to restore his ability to sleep and to dream. After dreaming of the woman as his wife, he decides to marry her, but when he returns to the brothel to propose the woman mocks him. He returns to his lodging and cuts his throat. His funeral is unattended.
The second story is of an officer, Lieutenant Pirogov. Crude and realistic, he is the romantic Piskaryov's foil. Pirogov follows a blonde woman to her home, but she turns out to be the wife of a German tinsmith. Returning when the husband is out, Pirogov attempts to seduce the woman, but he is caught with the woman in his arms and is beaten. Pirogov is at first furious and determined to seek revenge, but he is mollified by eating puff pastries, reading a reactionary newspaper and spending an evening dancing.
The story concludes with the narrator's warning that "Nevsky Prospect deceives at all hours of the day, but the worst time of all is at night... when the devil himself is abroad, kindling the street-lamps with one purpose only: to show everything in a false light."