Protasov wants only to immerse himself in chemical experiments to perfect mankind. He’s oblivious to the advances of the half-crazed widow and his best friend’s pursuit of his wife, let alone the cholera epidemic and the starving mob.

His admiring circle, variously sceptical and lovesick, spar over culture and the cosmos. Only Liza feels the peasants’ suffering and senses their own privileged world is in jeopardy.