Arkady Kirsanov has just graduated from the University of Petersburg and returns with a friend, Bazarov, to his father's modest estate in an outlying province of Russia. The father, Nikolai, gladly receives the two young men at his estate, called Marino, but Nikolai's brother, Pavel, soon becomes upset by the strange new philosophy called "nihilism" which the young men advocate.
Nikolai feels awkward with his son at home, partially because Arkady's views have dated his own beliefs, and partially because he has taken a servant, Fenichka, into his house to live with him and has already had a son by her.
The two young men remain at Marino for a short time, then decide to visit a relative of Arkady's in a neighboring province. There they observe the local gentry and meet Madame Odintsova, an elegant woman of independent means who invites them to spend a few days at her estate, Nikolskoe.
At Nikolskoe, they also meet Katya, Madame Odintsova's sister, who attracts Arkady. They remain for a short period and Bazarov is more and more drawn toward Madame Odintsova, until he finally announces that he loves her. She does not respond to his declaration, and soon after, Arkady and Bazarov leave for Bazarov's home.
At Bazarov's home, they are received enthusiastically by his parents. Bazarov is still disturbed by his rejection, and is difficult to get along with. He almost comes to blows with his friend Arkady. After a brief stay, they decide to return to Marino, and circle by to see Madame Odintsova, who receives them coolly. They leave almost immediately and return to Arkady's home.
Arkady remains for only a few days, and makes an excuse to leave in order to see Katya. Bazarov stays at Marino to do some scientific research, and tension between him and Pavel increases. Bazarov enjoys talking with Fenichka and playing with her child, and one day he gives her a quick, harmless kiss which is observed by Pavel. The older man feels it is his duty to defend his brother's honor, and he challenges Bazarov to a duel. Pavel is wounded slightly, and Bazarov must leave Marino. He stops for an hour or so at Madame Odintsova's, then continues on to his parents' home. Meanwhile, Arkady and Katya have fallen in love and have become engaged.
At home, Bazarov cannot keep his mind on his work and while performing an autopsy fails to take the proper precautions. He contracts typhus, and on his deathbed, sends for Madame Odintsova, who arrives in time to hear Bazarov tell her how beautiful she is.
Arkady marries Katya and takes over the management of his father's estate. His father marries Fenichka and is delighted to have his son home with him. Pavel leaves the country and lives the rest of his life as a "noble" in Dresden, Germany.