The story revolves around Elena, a girl with a hypochondriacal mother and an idle father, a retired guards lieutenant with a mistress. On the eve of the Crimean War, Elena is pursued by a free-spirited sculptor (Shubin) and a serious-minded student (Berzyenev). But when Berzyenev's revolutionary Bulgarian friend, Insarov, meets Elena, they fall in love. In secretly marrying Insarov Elena disappoints her mother and enrages her father, who had hoped to marry her to a dull, self-satisfied functionary, Kurnatovski. Insarov nearly dies from pneumonia and only partly recovers. On the outbreak of war Insarov tries to return with Elena to Bulgaria, but tragically dies in Venice. Elena takes Insarov's body to the Balkans for burial and then vanishes.