In 1859, 44-year-old Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov is the owner of a modest Russian country estate. He waits at an inn for his son, Arkady, a recent graduate of Petersburg University, to arrive. When Arkady’s carriage arrives, he is accompanied by his “great friend” and mentor, whom Arkady introduces to Nikolai as Yevgeny Vassilyich Bazarov, a medical student. Nikolai is overjoyed to see his son, but during the journey home to Maryino, the family estate, he is conscious of a growing divide between them. When Nikolai mentions that his lover, Fenichka, has begun living in the house, he is deeply embarrassed, but Arkady reassures him, feeling proud of “his own more emancipated outlook.”
When Fenichka doesn’t appear at the breakfast table the next morning, Arkady rushes to introduce himself to her, but he compounds the awkwardness when he discovers that Fenichka and his father have an infant son, Mitya. When Pavel, Nikolai’s sophisticated brother, joins the table, Arkady explains to his baffled father and uncle that Bazarov is a nihilist—someone who “looks at everything critically” and takes no principle for granted. When Bazarov appears, Pavel interrogates him about his rejection of all authorities, an exchange that leaves both men feeling hostile.
Over the coming weeks, Bazarov stays at Maryino, working on scientific experiments and befriending many of the servants, although he disdains Nikolai’s and Pavel’s backwater lifestyle and old-fashioned liberalism. Bazarov and Arkady often have philosophical arguments, too. Bazarov convinces Arkady to challenge Nikolai’s love of poetry and Pushkin by encouraging him to read scientific works instead. When Arkady does, Nikolai feels hurt, musing to Pavel that he’d hoped for a closer relationship with Arkady, but that, despite his efforts to keep up with the times, they seem to have drifted too far apart. Pavel continues to pick fights with Bazarov, provoked by his repudiation of principles and institutions.
Arkady and Bazarov take a trip to the provincial town to visit Kolyazin, a politician and relative of Arkady’s. They also see Sitnikov, Bazarov’s shrill sycophant, and Madame Kukshin, an eccentric noblewoman who studies chemistry. Later, at the governor’s ball in Kolyazin’s honor, Arkady becomes infatuated with Madame Anna Odintsov, a clever young widow. Though Bazarov scoffs that “free-thinking women are monstrosities,” he, too, is charmed by Anna and suggests that they go to visit her estate, Nikolskoye.
When Arkady and Bazarov visit Nikolskoye, Arkady soon finds himself dismissed to chat with Anna’s shy sister, Katya, while Anna and Bazarov debate about art and human nature. During their weeks at Nikolskoye, Arkady and Bazarov drift apart as Bazarov and Anna spend more time together, and Arkady imagines himself to be pining for Anna even as he enjoys spending time in nature with Katya. Bazarov feels maddened by his growing attraction to Anna, thinking romance foolish and resisting her attempts to get to know him more intimately. One day, he fiercely embraces her, but she breaks away. When he apologizes, Anna says they have simply misunderstood one another. But when Sitnikov makes an awkward, uninvited visit, Arkady and a brooding Bazarov leave the estate for a visit to Bazarov’s parents.
Bazarov’s parents, Vassily and Arina (a retired army doctor and his wife), are overjoyed to see Bazarov for the first time in three years and welcome the pair with warm country hospitality. Vassily is undeterred by Bazarov’s criticisms of his outdated medical knowledge, confiding in Arkady that he “worships” his only son. However, Bazarov is depressed about Anna and bored by country life, so they leave again within three days, leaving his parents stunned and grieving.
Back at Maryino, Bazarov immerses himself in scientific experiments again, while Arkady finds himself bored with Bazarov and restless to return to Nikolskoye. After 10 days, he hurries off to Nikolskoye on the pretext of showing Anna some old letters that her mother had once sent to Arkady’s mother. When he arrives at the estate, he’s surprised how delighted he feels when he first spots Katya.
In Arkady’s absence, Bazarov befriends Fenichka, who likes his down-to-earth air and his advice on caring for Mitya. One day in the garden, he surprises Fenichka with a fervent kiss and resists her attempt to push him away. Pavel comes out of the bushes, having seen everything. Later that day, Pavel challenges Bazarov to a duel, and Bazarov agrees. It dawns on him that Pavel isn’t fighting him on Nikolai’s behalf, but that he’s in love with Fenichka himself.
The next morning, they meet in a distant copse at dawn. Though they agree on the absurdity of what they’re about to do, Pavel won’t be deterred. Soon they’re advancing toward each other with their pistols; Pavel shoots and misses, and Bazarov shoots without aiming and hits Pavel in the thigh. Bazarov immediately shifts into doctoring mode and determines the wound isn’t serious, but Pavel must stay in bed for a week. Bazarov leaves Maryino the next morning, thinking, “These damned little gentry!” Privately, Pavel begs Fenichka to always love Nikolai, and he later makes Nikolai promise to marry Fenichka, no matter what the world thinks.
At Nikolskoye, Arkady’s and Katya’s friendship deepens. On his way to his parents’, Bazarov stops by to tell Arkady what happened between him and Pavel. He adds that he and Arkady seem to have tired of one another and had better say goodbye. He later talks to Anna, and they agree that there are no hard feelings between them, and that love is “an imaginary feeling” anyway. The next day, Arkady stammers a proposal to Katya, and she happily accepts. Arkady and Bazarov bid each other farewell, Bazarov saying that Arkady isn’t made for a lonely, nihilist existence, being “a good little liberal gentleman.” Arkady is tearful, but he’s quickly absorbed in his love for Katya.
At his parents’, Bazarov isn’t like himself—he seems restless and sad, and he even seeks out his father’s company. Eventually he begins helping his father with the peasants’ medical complaints. One day he conducts an autopsy of a typhus victim and cuts himself. Within a few days, Bazarov is gravely ill with typhus himself. He sends for Anna. She arrives with her own doctor, who confirms that there’s no hope for Bazarov’s recovery. Bazarov spends his last lucid moments telling Anna how lovely she is. He dies the next day.
Six months later, Nikolai is giving a farewell dinner for Pavel, who’s about to leave for Moscow on business. Last week, Nikolai and Fenichka got married, and so did Arkady and Katya. Everyone feels a little awkward and sad, but mostly happy.
Some time later, Arkady and Katya have a baby son named Nikolai. Arkady develops a passion for farming and improving Maryino, and Nikolai travels around promoting land reforms in support of the peasants. Pavel moves to Dresden, living a generous but melancholy life among Russian and English society circles. And in a remote graveyard, Vassily and Arina can often be seen weeping over Bazarov’s grave, tending it with flowers that bespeak “life which has no end.”