Alfonso Nitti, a shy young intellectual with literary aspirations, leaves his home in the country where his mother lives to go to Trieste - though the city is not named - and work in a white collar job, as a copy clerk in Maller's bank. One day, he is invited to the house of his boss and of his daughter Annetta, who knows Macario, a young man with whom Alfonso is friends. Annetta, like Alfonso, is interested in literature, and holds a weekly soiree to which several suitors are invited. Alfonso joins this, and he and Annetta begin to co-author a novel. Alfonso accepts this project out of self-interest, having no respect for Anneta's literary abilities, but ingratiatingly allows her to control the project so that they can be together, in the hope of winning her hand. He soon convinces himself that he loves her, but realises that at the same time he despises her. Eventually he seduces Annetta but then, on the verge of marrying her he flees on the advice of Francesca, her father's mistress, who warns him that the marriage would be a failure. She predicts that while he is away Annetta will forget him and marry a rival. By chance, while he is away he is delayed by the prolonged illness of his dying mother, and Francesca's prediction proves correct. Meanwhile Annetta has confessed to her father that Alfonso compromised her, and although Alfonso is relieved at not having to keep his promise to Annetta, on his return to the bank he is treated with hostility by his employer. He decides to live a life of contemplation, away from passions. But after discovering that Annetta is engaged to his acquaintance Macario, whom he dislikes, he nevertheless feels jealous. He makes a last-ditch bid to speak to Annetta but is rejected. He attempts to assuage his conscience by giving a dowry to his landlady's daughter so that she can marry respectably, but following a demotion at the bank he accidentally insults Frederico, Annetta's brother, and is obliged to accept a duel. Before this can take place he decides to kill himself, with feelings of calm and relief at ending his maladjusted existence.