The action of the novel is set in a provincial town in the early autumn. The events are described by the reporter, who is also a participant of the events described. His story begins with the story of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovenskii, the idealist of the forties, and of his complex platonic relationship with Varvara Petrovna Stavrogin - a provincial noble lady, whose patronage he enjoyed.
Around Verkhovenskii grouped a local liberal-minded youth. He is enough intelligent and shrewd. He was the teacher of many heroes of the novel. First beautiful, now he dropped, is playing cards, and indulges in champagne.
Arrival of Nicholas Stavrogin - a very "mysterious and novelistic" personality is awaited. He served in the elite Guards regiment, shot in a duel, and was demoted and then plunged into the wildest licentiousness. Four years ago in his hometown he caused general indignation: had pulled by the nose a venerable man Gaganov, had bitten the ear of the governor, publicly kissed another man's wife. In the end, everything was explained as the delirium tremens. Having recovered, Stavrogin went abroad.
His mother, Varvara Petrovna Stavrogin, a strong and domineering woman, is disturbed by attention of her son to her ward Daria Shatov and is interested in his marriage with her friend Lisa Tushino’s daughter, so she decides to marry Daria with Stepan Trofimovich. He in some horror, though not without excitement, is preparing to propose.
In the cathedral to Varvara Petrovna suddenly approaches Maria Timofeevna Lebyadkin and kisses her hand. Intrigued lady, who recently has received an anonymous letter in which it is reported that in her fate will play a major role some limping woman, invites her o her house, Lisa Tushino goes with them. There agitated Stepan Trofimovich is already waiting, as his engagement has been scheduled on this day. Soon Captain Lebyadkin arrived to get his sister and, in vague speeches, interspersed with verses of his own composition, referred to some terrible secret, and hinted at some of his rights.
Suddenly the arrival of Nicholas Stavrogin is announce, who had expected only in a month. First, there appears a bustling Peter Verkhovenskii, and after him already pale and romantically handsome Stavrogin. Varvara Petrovna questions her son, whether Marya Timofeevna is his lawful wife. Stavrogin silently kissed his mother's hand, and then picks up by the arm noble Lebjadkina and displays her.
Varvara Petrovna is delighted and when her son comes back, asks for his forgiveness. However, the unexpected happens: suddenly Shatov comes to Stavrogin and gives him a slap. Fearless Stavrogin in anger grabs him, but then he suddenly removes his hands behind his back. As it turned out, this is one more evidence of his enormous power, another test. Shatov goes smoothly. Lisa Tushino, obviously indifferent to the "Prince Harry", as Stavrogin is referred to, faints.
It takes eight days. Stavrogin accepts no one, and when his retreat ends to him immediately slips Peter Verkhovenskii. He expresses the willingness to do anything for Stavrogin and reports about a secret society, where they should appear together. Shortly after his visit Stavrogin goes to engineer Kirillov. He engineer, for whom Stavrogin means a lot, says that still professes his idea. Its essence - the need to get rid of God, which is none other than the "pain of the fear of death," and say willfulness, killing himself and thus becoming the man-god.
Then Stavrogin rises to living in the same house Shatov, and says that indeed some time ago in St. Petersburg he officially married Lebjadkina, as well as of his intention to announce soon it publicly. He generously warns Shatov that he was going to be killed. Shatov reveals his new idea of God-bearer people, under which the Russian people is considered, advises throw wealth and peasant work to achieve God. However, on another question, whether he believes in God himself, Shatov somewhat hesitantly replied that he believed in Orthodoxy, in Russia, and would believe in God.
That same night Stavrogin goes to Lebjadkin and on the way meets a runaway convict Fedka, who is sent to him by Peter Verkhovenskii. He expressed his readiness to fulfill any will master for the fee, but Stavrogin drives him away. O Lebjadkin he reported that he was going to announce his marriage with Maria Timofeevna, whom he married "... after a drunken dinner, for a bet on the wine ...". Maria Timofeevna meets Stavrogin with a tale of a sinister dream. He asks her if she is ready to go with him to Switzerland and live there in seclusion for the rest of the life. Perturbed cripple (Maria Timofeevna is a lame woman) shouts that Stavrogin is not the prince but an impostor. Accompanied by her squeals and laughter enraged Stavrogin retires. On the way back he throws Fedka money.
The next day takes place a duel between Stavrogin and local nobleman Artemia Gaganov causing him for insulting his father. Boiling with anger Gaganov shoots three times and misses. Stavrogin also declares that does not want to kill anybody, and defiantly fires into the air three times. The story picks Stavrogin up strongly in the eyes of society.
Meanwhile, in the city there have been noticed frivolous mood and susceptibility to all sorts of sacrilegious amusements: mockery of the bride and groom, the desecration of icons, etc. The province is restless, fires rage, generating rumors of arson, in different places are calling for rebellion proclamation, somewhere cholera is raging, a lieutenant, unable to endure the reprimand commander, attacks him and bites his shoulder, and before they have chopped up two icons and lit candles in the church in front of works of Vogt, Buchner and Moleschott. In this atmosphere the holiday in favor of governesses is being prepared by the wife of the governor.
Varvara Petrovna, insulted by too obvious desire of Stepan Trofimovich to marry and his too frank letter to his son Peter complaining that they want him to marry "in the sins of others", assigns a pension, but at the same time announces about breaking up.
Junior Verkhovenskii at this time developed a storm of activity. He is admitted to the house of the governor and enjoys the patronage of his wife Yulia Mikhailovna. She believes that he is associated with the revolutionary movement, and wants to reveal with his help the government conspiracy. At the meeting with governor Verkhovenskii skillfully gives him a few names in particular Shatov and Kirillov, but asks him for six days to uncover the whole organization. Then he runs to Kirillov and Shatov, informing them of the meeting and asking them to be present, and then goes to Stavrogin, who had just visited Mauritius Nikolaevich, a fiance of Lisa Tushino, with the suggestion that Nikolai Vsevolodovich should married her because she though she hates him, but at the same time she loves him. Stavrogin confesses that this cannot happen, because he is already married. Together with Verkhovenskii they go to a secret meeting.
The meeting appears gloomy Shigalev with his program "the final solution of the question." Its essence is in the division of humanity into two unequal parts, of which one-tenth gets free and unlimited right over the other nine-tenths turned into a herd. Then Verkhovenskii asks a provocative question, whether participants would have informed of the meeting, if they found out about the impending political murder. Shatov rises suddenly and, calling Verkhovenskii scoundrel and a spy, leaves the meeting. This is necessary to Peter Stepanovich, who had already outlined Shatov as the victim to seal the blood of a formed revolutionary group of "five." Verkhovenskii leaves with Kirillov and Stavrogin and in the heat reveals his crazy ideas. His goal is to put a big confusion.
Events are growing like a snowball. Officials come to Stepan Trofimovich and pick up the papers. Workers from factories send an asylum to the governor that causes in the last great rage taking it for a riot. Stepan Trofimovich falls under the hot hand of the mayor. Immediately after this confusion occurs in the governor's house, which is caused by Stavrogin’s announcement that Lebyadkina is his wife.
There comes a long-awaited day of the festival. The highlight of the program is a reading of a famous writer Karmazinov his farewell "Merci", and then diatribe of Stepan Trofimovich. He passionately defends Raphael and Shakespeare from nihilists. His is booed and proudly removes from the scene. It becomes known that Lisa Tushino in daylight suddenly moved from her carriage, leaving Mauritius alone, into the Stavrogin’s carriage and drove off to his estate. Highlight of the second part of the festival is "quadrille of literature," ugly, grotesque allegorical action. The governor and his wife are beside themselves with indignation. Here is reported that the district is burning, allegedly set on fire by spies, later became known about murder of Captain Lebyadkin, his sister and the maid. Governor goes to the fire, where the log falls on him.
Meanwhile Stavrogin and Lisa Tushino together meet morning. Lisa is going to leave and tries in every way to hurt Stavrogin, who, on the contrary, is in a sentimental mood so uncharacteristic for him. He asks why Lisa came to him, and why it was "so much happiness." He invites her to go with him, what she perceives with a mock, although in a moment, her eyes suddenly light up. Indirectly in their conversation pops up a theme of murder. At this moment there appears the ubiquitous Peter Verkhovenskii. He tells Stavrogin the details of the murder and fire in the district. Stavrogin says to Lisa that he did not kill, and was against it, but he knew of the impending murder and did not stop. In the hysteria she leaves Stavrogin's house, near which devoted Mauritius Nikolaevich was waiting for her. They go to the scene of the murder and meet on the way Stepan Trofimovich running, in his words, "out of delirium, feverish sleep … search for Russia". In the crowd near the conflagration Lisa is recognized as "Stavrogin", as has already swept the hearing that Stavrogin started the case, to get rid of his wife and take another. Someone from the crowd beats her, she falls. Lisa is carried yet alive, but unconscious.
Peter Verkhovenskii continues to strive. He gathers the “five” and declares that accusation is being prepared. Informer - Shatov, should imperative be removed. After some doubt they agree that common cause is the most important. Verkhovenskii accompanied with Liputin goes to Kirillov, to remind of the agreement, according to which he should before committing suicide in accordance with his idea, to take on someone else's blood. In Kirillov’s kitchen Fedka is eating and drinking. In anger Verkhovenskii grabs a gun: how dared he to disobey and to appear here? Fedka suddenly hits Verkhovenskii, and he falls unconscious, Fedka runs. Liputin, as a witness of this scene states to Verkhovenskii that Fedka has drunk vodka for the last time. In the morning it becomes known that Fedka has been found with his head smashed in seven miles from the city. Liputin, who was about to run, has now no doubt about the secret power of Peter Verkhovenskii and stays.
By that evening to Shatov arrives his wife Mary, who has left him after two weeks of marriage. She is pregnant and asks for a temporary shelter. A little later a young little officer Erkel comes to report of tomorrow's meeting. At night, his wife goes into labor. He is running for the midwife and then helps her. He is happy and denotes a new working life to his wife and the child. Exhausted Shatov falls asleep and wakes up in the late dark. For him comes Erkel, together they go to the Stavrogin park. There are already waiting Verkhovenskii, Virginskii, Liputin, Lyamshin, Tolkachenko and Shigalev, who suddenly categorically refuses to take part in the murder, because it is contrary to its program.
Shatov is attacked. Verkhovenskii shot from a revolver at close range killing him. Two large stone are tied to the body, which is thrown into a pond. Verkhovenskii hurries to Kirillov. Kirillov, though angry, but agrees to perform his promise – he writes under the dictation the note and takes the blame for the murder of Shatov, and then shoots himself. Verkhovenskii collects things and goes to St. Petersburg, and from there abroad.
Going into his last pilgrimage, Stepan Trofimovich dies in a peasant hut on the hands of a rushed to him Varvara Petrovna. Before his death, a random fellow traveler, whom he tells of his entire life, reads him the Gospel, and he compares the possessed, from whom Christ cast out demons entered into the pigs, with Russia. This passage from the Gospel is taken by he reporter as one of the epigraphs to the novel.
All participants of the crime, except Verkhovenskii soon are arrested. Daria Shatov received a letter of confession from Stavrogin. He calls Daria with him to Switzerland, where he bought a small house in the canton of Uri, to settle there permanently. Daria gives the letter to read to Varvara Petrovna, but then both learn that Stavrogin suddenly appeared in his estate. They are in a hurry to go and find a "citizen of the canton of Uri" hung up on the mezzanine level.