The story opens with a governement clerk called Ivan Dmitrich Tchervyakov sitting in a stall listening to opera. He is enjoying himself, but suddenly he sneezes. He wipes his face with a handkerchief and looks around the stall to see whether he had disturbed anyone. To his misfortune, Thchervyakov sees an old gentleman in front of him wiping his head and neck with a glove. The old gentleman is Brizzhalov, a civilian serving in the Department of Transport. He is not from Tchervyakov's department, but nonetheless an important man, so Tchervyakov decides he must apologize at once.
Tchervyakov leans forward and whispers an apology to the general's ear. Brizzhalov responds with "never mind," but Tchervyakov feels the need for further explanation. The general finds this annoying and tells Tchervyakov to forget about it and let him listen. Tchervyakov feels embarrassed and he is no longer able to enjoy the performance. He feels uneasy and tries to apologize again. Brizzhalov says he has already forgotten about it, but he looks impatient. Tchervyakov is under the impression that there is a 'fiendish light' in Brizzhalov's eye and that even though he says he has forgotten about it already, later he will think Tchervyakov spit on him on purpose.
When he comes home, Tchervyakov tells his wife about the accident. At first, she is a bit frightened, but when she learns that Brizzhalov is from different department, she does not find the matter so serious. Nevertheless, she suggests it would be better if Tchervyakov went and apologized.
The next day Thervyakov puts on a new uniform and goes to Brizzhalov to explain himself. When he arrives, he sees a number of petitioners and the general himself, who is interviewing them. After several petitioners are questioned, Tchervyakov starts speaking of his dreadful breach of manners. The general ignores him and continues questioning the petitioners. Tchervyakov thinks the general's lack of response means he is angry about the incident, so after the questionings are over he tries to apologize again. Brizzhalov accuses Tchervyakov of making fun of him. This makes Tchervyakov angry and he resolves to stop trying to apologize personally.
When Thervyakov arrives home, he decides to write a letter to Brizzhalov, but he is unable to make it up. He is left with no other option than to go to the general's office the next day and try to apologize in person once more. After he apologizes, the general feels seriously frustrated and shouts at Tchervyakov: "be off!" Thervyakov decides to go home; he feels sick and keeps staggering along. Upon his arrival, he lies down on the sofa and dies.