Eighteen-year-old Caleb Williams after the death of his parents, poor farmers who lived in the realm of the rich squire Falkland Ferdinand, becomes his secretary.
Strange behavior of Falkland, who leads a secluded life and often falls into a gloomy reverie, successive bursts of anger, brings an idea to a young man that his master is being tortured by some mystery. Caleb has admitted himself that the main driving force that guides him throughout his life, has always been curiosity, and he is looking for what torments Falkland.
Mr. Collins, manager of the estate, at the request of Caleb tells the tragic story of their owner.
In his youth Falkland was inspired by ambitious romantic dreams of knightly exploits. Traveling around Italy, he has repeatedly proved his bravery and nobility. Returning after a few years to England, he settled in his family estate. In the face of the landlord Barnabas Tyrrel, his closest neighbor, Falkland gained a mortal enemy.
Tyrrel, a man of uncommon physical strength, coarse, despotic and unbalanced, used to reign unchallenged in the local community: no one dared to contradict him. With the arrival of Falkland, who was not only beneficially different from Tyrrel with his intelligence and courtesy, but, despite of the lack of physical strength, was not inferior in courage, the situation has changed dramatically: Falkland became the soul of society. Wanting to put an end to the senseless hostility and fearing a tragic outcome, Falkland did attempt of rapprochement with him, but Tyrrel hated him even more.
To avenge Falkland, Tyrrel decided to marry his poor cousin, Miss Emily Melville, who lived in his house, with Grimes, one of his hangers-on. But Emily refused. Her heart already belonged to Falkland, who saved her from certain death during a fire in the village, where she was staying. Then Grimes, at the instigation of Tyrrel, tried to dishonor her. Falkland again rescued the girl. Then Tyrrel put Emily in prison on absurd charges that she owed him a large sum of money. In prison, the unfortunate girl, whose health was damaged by a nervous breakdown because of the constant harassment of her cousin, died in spite of all the efforts of Falkland to bring her to life.
After Emily’s death everyone turned away from Tyrrel, and he insulted and humiliated, but not repented of his evil deeds, appeared uninvited at a public meeting and severely beat Falkland. Tyrrel was put out of the door, Falkland also left the meeting, and after a while the bloody corpse of Tyrrel was found nearby. The court, before which the Falkland delivered a brilliant speech, implicitly found him not guilty of murder.
Mr. Hawkins, a former Tyrrel’s tenant, was admitted to be responsible for this death. Hawkins had reasons to hate his former master, who caused him to poverty, and put his son into prison. Evidence was found that testified against Hawkins, and he was hanged along with his son, who had escaped from prison before the Tyrrel’s murder.
Here Mr. Collins ends his story, and it has been these events that had affected Falkland. Despite the kindness towards others he is always cold and restrained, and his usual somber mood at times gives way to fits of rage, and then he looks like a madman.
The story of Mr. Collins produces such a strong impression on the young man gifted with a vivid imagination that he constantly ponders over the history of the owner. By carefully analyzing all its details, he finds that Hawkins could not be the killer of Tyrrel. Accidentally discovered Hawkins’s letter to Falkland, who sympathized with the poor tenant and tried to save him from persecution of Tyrrel, makes guesses in firm conviction. Could Falkland have been a killer?
Caleb begins to watch him, noticing his slightest spiritual movement. Talking to Falkland on abstract themes, the young man is trying to direct the conversation in the right direction in the hope that Falkland would give out a careless word or gesture. Caleb’s desire in whatever to find out the secret of his master turns into a real mania, he loses all caution and almost openly leads with his master a dangerous game: with finely thought out questions and supposedly random hints he brings Falkland almost to madness.
Finally, Falkland admits that he is a genuine killer of Tyrrel, and has caused the death of innocent Hawkins. But Falkland is not broken by defeat. He warns the boy that he should be waiting for retribution for his insatiable curiosity: he would not banish him from the service, but will always hate him, and if Caleb shares with someone this secret, he will be the only one to blame.
The young man realizes that he actually became a prisoner of Falkland. During the service Caleb has grown up spiritually and matured as a person, albeit at great cost. Busy with constant surveillance and analysis of the behavior of Falkland, the young man learned to control his feelings, his mind became sharp and shrewd, but he completely lost the ease and vitality of youth. Bowing down before Falkland’s virtues, whose character and way of thinking he had thoroughly studied, Caleb realizes how dangerous can be a person who was forced to confess to the crime.
Caleb and Falkland as if have changed the places. Now Falkland is jealously watching every step of Caleb, and the lack of freedom to weigh upon him. Valentin Forster, the elder brother of Falkland, comes with a visit. Forster likes a young man, and Caleb hints that service is very heavy for him.
The boy asks Forster for protection in case of persecution by Falkland. But Falkland realizes that the young man wants to escape from his power, and demands that Caleb stopped all communication with Forster. He supports his claim with threats and Caleb decides to run away. Forster sends a servant after him with a letter in which he convinces him to return to the estate of his brother. Caleb returned, but the wily Falkland accused him that he had been robbed by Caleb for a large sum of money. In the presence of Forster and servants Falkland causes false evidence of Caleb's guilt, and the young man is taken to the prison. He tries to escape, but only the second attempt returns him his freedom.
Caleb is almost killed by robbers, but their leader, Raymond, who is not alien to nobility, rescues him and takes under his protection. Evil and greedy Gines, who robbed and wounded defenseless Caleb, Raymond expels from the gang. The young man lives among the robbers in thick woods, in old ruins, where a terrible old woman, the locals are afraid of and believe she is a witch, lead the housekeeping. She hates Caleb, as because of him Gines was driven away. The young man is not involved in gang’s raids, on the contrary, he admonishes thieves and their leader to quit stealing, and set foot on the honest way.
Meanwhile, leaflets describing the appearance of a dangerous criminal Caleb Williams are distributed in the district: for his capture a reward of one hundred guineas is promised. The young man realizes that the old woman, who has made an attempt on his life, wants to give him up to the authorities, and leaves the gang. He disguises himself as a poor and tries to sail to Ireland, but he is grabbed by two detectives, mistaken him for one of the swindlers, who have robbed the mail, and Caleb again almost gets in prison.
The young man does to London. First, he is constantly and carefully disguised altering the appearance. Then he pretends to be a poor and crippled Jewish boy (for that Caleb wears an artificial hump) and begins to make a living with literary work. However, Gines, who before joining the bandit gang was a detective, and after the expulsion from it returned to his former craft, tracks him down. The young man falls into the same prison from which fled. In desperation, he said to the judges that he was not guilty, and his former master, Falkland, deliberately accused him of theft. For the first time Caleb announced that Falkland was a criminal and a murderer. But the judges are afraid that the poor man decided to blame the rich gentleman, and refuse to listen to the testimony of the young men. However, when neither Falkland nor Forster appears at Caleb Williams’s hearing of the case, the young man is set free.
Falkland, with the help of hired by him Gines, has long followed every step of Caleb and offers him a deal: the young man has to sign a paper with the reassurance that the Falkland is innocent of Tyrrel’s murder, and then Falkland will leave the boy alone. But Caleb, brought to despair by harassment of his former master, refuses indignantly not wanting to become an instrument of injustice. To the amazement of the young men, Falkland is not trying to hide him again behind the bars, and even offers money through his servant.
Caleb goes to Wales and lives in a small town, where he repairs watches and teaches mathematics. However, Falkland’s revenge catches up with him: suddenly and without explanation all the friends of Caleb turn away from him, and he remains unemployed.
Caleb leaves Wales for Holland, but Gines stalks him and says that Falkland will resort to extreme measures, if the young man tries to leave the UK. Caleb wanders around the country, nowhere finding refuge. Finally, he makes a decision: the world must learn about the terrible truth about the main culprit. The young man describes in detail the history of his misadventures, and comes to the city where Falkland lives. He appears in front of the judge, names himself and demands to bring an action against his former owner who has committed murder. The judge reluctantly agrees to conduct a private investigation in the presence of Falkland and several gentlemen.
Caleb delivers an impassioned speech in which he praises the nobility of Falkland, and reveals that Falkland is a killer, but he committed the crime in revenge for blindly transferred humiliation. Continuing to live for the ghost of lost honor, Falkland continued to do good and proved that deserves universal love and respect, and he, Caleb deserves only contempt for having involuntarily become the prosecutor of such a wonderful man who was forced to pursue his former servant.
Falkland is shocked. He admits that Caleb defeated in this unequal struggle, showing nobility, which he, Falkland, unfortunately, did not recognize before. Falkland complains that because of his excessive suspiciousness did not appreciate the young man. Falkland admits his guilt and dies in three days. Caleb is in despair: Falkland’s exposure did not bring him the desired deliverance from suffering. The young man considers himself a murderer of Falkland and is now tormented by remorse. Bitterly cursing the human society, Caleb in his notes says that it is "rotten and waterlogged soil, from which every noble escape, to nurture, to absorb the poison." Caleb finishes his notes expressing the hope that thanks to them the history of this noble soul will be fully understood.