In 1913, Anthony Patch has accomplished very little besides graduating from Harvard. His grandfather, who raised him and who ensures Anthony’s place in high society, has pressured Anthony into working on a book – or rather, into saying that he is working on a book. Anthony spends far more time dreading the writing process than actually writing. Much of this dread takes place in the tub of his luxurious bathroom, which he considers the “pride” of his apartment. Having lost both his parents at a young age, Anthony worries about death and the dangers of the outside world. The bathroom is a safe haven to which he often retreats.
Anthony’s former Harvard classmate Dick Caramel introduces Anthony to his cousin, Gloria Gilbert. Gloria is a society girl, spending her evenings out on the town and using her beauty to convince men to pay her way. Anthony is fascinated by her seeming ability to get by on nothing but her looks. Although it seems that a movie producer, Joseph Bloeckman, might be wooing her, Anthony strikes up a relationship with Gloria and soon discovers that she, like him, worries about her fleeting youth. He becomes obsessed with her. After a failed attempt to stay away from her, Anthony finally gives in to his desire and proposes to Gloria. She accepts immediately, rebuffing Bloeckman.
Anthony begins to have second thoughts before he and Gloria even go through with the marriage. He realizes that his fixed income is already stretched thin financing his own extravagant lifestyle, and now he will need to fund Gloria’s social exploits as well. He will also have to share his apartment, which he has come to consider his sanctuary. He pushes aside the anxiety, convincing himself that everything will work out somehow. One day, he expects, he is bound to stumble into riches and success, regardless of his work ethic or budgeting capabilities. Like the alcohol or expensive clothing Anthony is always buying, Gloria is a thing he wants and therefore takes.
Anthony and Gloria begin to experience marital difficulties before even returning home from their honeymoon. Anthony’s anxiety over death results in his overly-cautious driving, which Gloria finds cowardly. Meanwhile, Gloria neglects the domestic duties Anthony expects of her. At moments, they happily discuss their future and the children they might have, but these moments quickly sour. Back in New York, they continue to be disgruntled with one another. When Gloria wants a house in the country, Anthony gives in to renting one not because he wants the house but because he wants Gloria to stop asking for it. Because he does not want to give up his beloved city apartment, the house rental pushes their finances to the precipice.
The couple’s reaction to their financial uncertainty is not to take on work to supplement Anthony’s fixed income, nor to downsize to one residence. Rather, they try to distract themselves from their predicament by throwing parties. The parties give the illusion that Anthony and Gloria are part of a thriving social network while in fact a rift is growing between the couple and their friends, many of whom are beginning to settle into careers. Everything comes crashing down when Anthony’s grandfather, a strong proponent of prohibition shows up unannounced at the country house during one of the parties. Disgusted by Anthony’s indulgence in alcohol, Adam Patch disinherits his grandson. When Adam Patch dies shortly thereafter, it is revealed that his secretary, Shuttleworth, has replaced Anthony as heir.
Anthony and Gloria cannot conceive of a more moderate lifestyle and are soon sustaining themselves on cashed-in bonds. The dynamic of their marriage is frenetic, moving quickly back and forth between commiseration and irritation with one another. When Anthony goes south to an army training camp, they both feel a sense of freedom from one another. Anthony has an affair with Dorothy Raycroft while on the army base. Almost immediately after beginning the affair, however, he can only think of Gloria. The war ends before Anthony can be deployed (though he may never have been deployed anyway due to his poor performance as a soldier), and he returns to Gloria with a passion that soon settles back into its old, unhappy patterns.
Gloria’s discovery that she has waited too long to become an actress and is too old to play a leading lady is a devastating blow. Combined with Anthony’s inability to hold a steady job or to get any short stories published for money, the sense of creeping age convinces Gloria that though she is only thirty years old, she has no future and may as well resign herself to dying. The only hope that sustains her and Anthony is that after enough appeals, perhaps their lawsuit to have Anthony’s inheritance reinstated will eventually succeed. One night, after Gloria has melodramatically suggested that they move to Europe for three years and then “just die,” Anthony begins naming people who might lend them more money. Bloeckman’s name comes up, and Gloria tells Anthony that they can’t borrow from Bloeckman because he set up the screen test at which she was told she looked too old to play a lead actress.
Later that evening, Anthony gets drunk and pretends to have forgotten his wallet because he does not have the money to pay his bill. Stumbling through the street, he runs into his estranged best friend, Maury Noble. When even Maury does not allow him to ask for a loan, Anthony becomes agitated and decides to confront Bloeckman. He finds him at an elite club and gets in a fistfight with him. Eventually, Bloeckman throws him out on the street. A passerby puts him in a cab, but he is also thrown out of the cab because he has no money. Anthony stumbles home and reflects that he does not even feel drunk anymore, simply frenzied.
Three weeks later, the final verdict of the lawsuit is to be announced. Gloria goes with Dick to hear it, but Anthony stays behind to await his salvation or total ruination. When the bell rings, he is astonished to see Dorothy, his mistress from the army training base. She has come to New York with the thought of seeing Anthony. Drunk as usual these days, Anthony becomes disoriented and riled up by Dorothy’s sudden appearance. He tries to throw a chair at her and instead collapses, passing out. When Gloria and Dick return home with the exciting news that they have won the lawsuit and no longer have to worry about destitution, Anthony is lying incommunicative on the bathroom floor, poring over his childhood stamp collection.
The final scene of the novel unfolds through the eyes of two onlookers who see Anthony alone on the dock of a ship. As they have heard it, Anthony’s mind and body deteriorated following the suicide of Shuttleworth when the inheritance money was revoked from him. Anthony gets the last line, an exclamation that after a long fight with an adversary he names only as “they,” he has finally been victorious.