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. His father, Nikolai, gladly receives the two young men at his estate, called Maryino, but Nikolai's brother, Pavel, soon becomes upset by the strange new philosophy called 'nihilism' which the young men, especially Bazarov advocate.
Nikolai, initially delighted to have his son return home, slowly begins to feel uneasy, and a certain awkwardness in his regard, as it emerges that Arkady's views, much influenced by Bazarov, are radical and make his own beliefs feel dated. Nikolai has always tried to stay as current as possible, by doing things such as visiting his son at school so the two can stay as close as they are, but this in Nikolai's eyes has failed. To complicate this, the father has taken a servant, Fenechka, into his house to live with him and has already had a son by her. Arkady however is not troubled by the relationship: to the contrary, he openly celebrates the acquisition of a younger brother.
The two young men stay over at Maryino for some weeks, then decide to visit a relative of Arkady's in a neighboring province. There, they observe the local gentry and meet Madame Anna Sergevna Odintsova, an elegant woman of independent means, who cuts a seductively different figure from the pretentious or humdrum types of her surrounding provincial society of gentry. Both are attracted to her, and she, intrigued by Bazarov's singular manner, invites them to spend a few days at her estate, Nikolskoe. While Bazarov at first feels nothing for Anna, Arkady fall head over heels in love with her.