Our protagonist, Joachim has had a tenuous relationship with his father since he was a child, culminating in the moment when Joachim while riding his pony cripples the animal and is immediately sent out of the house to begin life in the army. Being the youngest of the two Pasenow sons, a family that belonged to the landed gentry of Berlin in a time that still practiced primogeniture, Joachim was perhaps always destined to join the military, but his leaving the family estate should have been a moment of pride for the family, like his uncle he would be destined to make Major at an early age and bring to the family pride and glorious fame. Instead his father while barely looking at him, and in an icy tone says " It's high time that you were out of the house," and Joachim departs his family estate a failure, filled with insecurity and the dread of a precarious and unknown future, knowing now that his family has always despised and loathed him.
Despite his initial misgivings, Joachim is well suited for military life and finds the stringent regulations and dress code comforting. In a world on the brink of moral decline, where the buttresses of moral values, honor and duty have begun to crumble, the military is far more simplistic. Joachim finds in the dress code a second skin, one in which he feels more alive and confident than he's ever felt before. Here there is order amidst chaos.
His father visits Joachim in Berlin and as they walk through the crowded streets in the flaring glow of the gas-lamps, Herr Pasenow grumbles that the innovating policy of the founder of the Reich has certainly produced some curious fruits; the streets of Berlin are no worse than Paris; as he continues his monologue they find themselves at the front of a the Jager Casino and Herr Pasenow drags Joachim inside. While they sit in the dimly lit casino surrounded by prostitutes and degenerates, Herr Pasenow flirts lecherously with a Czech peasant woman, while Joachim persevorates about his friend Bertrand. Herr Pasenow, jokingly betroths his son to the woman, Ruzena, (or Rose in Czech) while pressing a fifty-mark note into her hand. As his jokes become more forward, Ruzena runs away, feigning insult and Joachim swallows his disgust and repugnance at his swine of a father.
Our protagonist is thus introduced. A man caught in the oscillations between insecurity and self-loathing. A man that feels naked without the order and regulation of his stiff military shirt, a shadow of a man sleepwalking between fate and destiny, between self actualization and the crippling expectation of a dying class system.
When we finally are introduced to the hitherto presumed apparition of Bertrand, despite his very obvious differences from Joachim, there is some sort of indescribable bond as if they occupied different sides of the same coin.
"So they smiled frankly at each other and their souls nodded to each other through the window of their eyes, just for an instant, like two neighbors who have never greeted each other and now happen to lean out of their windows at the same moment, pleased and embarrassed by this unforeseen and simultaneous greeting."
Bertrand is a complex Mephistophelean type; not interested in corrupting but rather serving the souls of those, like Faust, already in danger of being damned. For Joachim, his danger lies in his now romantic devotion to Ruzena and his inability to pursue his title and responsibility in the marriage to Elizabeth, the daughter of a neighboring Baron. While hesitant at first to pursue Ruzena, now he can not get her out of his mind. And as he stumbles though the banality of life, taking up his perfunctory caste-like seclusion, for one moment his persevorations turn from Bertrand to Ruzena. He must find her, and when he does it is as if she has been waiting for him. He tries to shroud himself from the reality that she is a prostitute and frames his desires in a somewhat more morally respectable light and invites her out for tea - but drinking tea is quickly exchanged for a kiss lasting "an hour and fourteen minutes" and before they know it the droshky is at her front door and their visit has come to an end. Ruzena, an expert accomplice to the desires of men, feigns modesty and hesitates to let Joachim up to her flat, but it is just a pretense, she's already been paid by his father and they "as if already dreaming ascend like sleepwalkers the dark stairs..."
"And with a jerk regaining his prescribed military bearing, he suddenly thought with relief that one could only love someone who belonged to an alien world. That was why he would never dare to love Elizabeth, and also why Ruzena had to be a Bohemian. Love meant to take refuge from one's own world in another's, and so in spite of his jealousy and shame he had left her in her world, so that her flight to him should be ever sweet and new."
His post-justification for keeping his mistress is evidence that he is steeped in insecurity, unable to rationalize a world where love triumphs over class he creates a neat and tidy box with clear definitions on what love is and isn't. When suddenly his brother dies leaving him heir to his family's estate he shoulders the burden of his imminent and respectable union with Elizabeth. But while Ruzena is the fulfillment of all his repressed desires, Elizabeth, whom he has known since she was only a few weeks old must in his view be protected from all the baseness and depravity of the world. He can only picture her surrounded by white, as if on a bier, with him forever taking on the role of protector, watching as she sleeps so that no unwholesome thought or desire would penetrate itself into her sacrosanct and forever chaste slumber.
"That was where Elizabeth hovered on a silver cloud, intangible her effluent, dissolving face, and he felt it as an agonizing impropriety that her father and mother had kissed her when the meal had ended."
Bertrand plays devils advocate for both Joachim and Elizabeth's internal turmoil; he becomes a foil for their secret desires while providing an audible voice for their inner demons. To Joachim he offers the liberal interpretation of things, preying on Joachim's aversion for the conventional:
"Bertrand went on: We take it quite as a matter of course that two men, both of them honorable - for your brother would not have fought with a man who was not honorable - should of a morning stand and shoot at each other. And the fact that we put up with such a thing, and that they do it, shows how completely imprisoned we all are in conventional feeling. But feelings are inert, and that's why they're so cruel. The world is ruled by the inertia of feeling.
The inertia of feeling! Joachim was struck by the phrase: was not he himself full of inertia, was it not a criminal inertia that had prevented him from summoning enough imagination to provide Ruzena with money in spite of her objection and to take her out of the casino?"
To Elizabeth Bertrand offers passion and romance, preying on her aversion to the obscenely practical and as every woman secretly desires, woos her. Joachim has known her for her entire life, their marriage is a practical conclusion to a passionless narrative. When Bertrand and Elizabeth are alone for a moment, Joachim taking care of another lame horse he has ridden poorly and ineffectually, Bertrand wastes no time in his quick and decisive offensive strike, immediately telling Elizabeth that she is renowned for her great beauty, a compliment that while perhaps distasteful coming from the wrong lover, is not unappreciated. Elizabeth has lived her entire life in the protected solitude of two devoting parents, she longs for adventure and the unknown, and Bertrand offers her a chance at actual unmitigated romance.
Bertrand plays to Elizabeth's intelligence as well as her beauty, something of course which would have escaped Joachim in his half-hearted courtship preferring to envision his intended as a virginal Madonna. But for once in her life Elizabeth can be a living, breathing passionate woman without reprimand. Bertrand tells her "To court a woman means to offer oneself to her as the living biped that one is, and that's indecent. And it's quite possible, indeed quite probable, that's why you hate any kind of courting." Whether or not this is true, Elizabeth is flattered by Bertrand's attention.
Finally Joachim makes up his mind to ask for Elizabeth's hand in marriage. He must protect Elizabeth from Bertrand, and so he quickly puts his affairs in order and after asking her father for her hand takes his leave without bothering to bestow the same compliment on Elizabeth. Elizabeth of course immediately goes to Bertrand to see what she should do, and Bertrand as always offers only the most complicated and oblique advice:
"Love needs some degree of cleverness, not to say wisdom. You must allow me to be somewhat dubious of his love for you. I warned you once already..." But as he continues to play Devil's advocate to her wavering emotions, pausing only to work on the theatrical suit of his own he finally reveals his hand, of course his love for her is undeniable, but would she condescend to love him? A simple hard-working profiteering businessman from the wrong class? He, like Peter, offers himself up three times, asserting his unspeakable longing for her again and again, something they both know the practical marriage with Joachim will never amount to. The honesty, the humanity that they can share is less than a mirage if she chooses Joachim. But Bertrand won't take her as a wife, only a mistress and at last he plays his trick to far. Her propriety has been bred into her for generations, and while Joachim is allowed certain allowances, Elizabeth can not risk all that she has for a life of uncertainty. In a passage that would make Ayn Rand proud, she finally works up the gumption to take her leave of Bertrand:
"Goodbye, I'm going to get married...perhaps we are both committing the worst crime against ourselves...goodbye."
Both Elizabeth and Joachim have faced the devil's temptations and have emerged victorious to a life of awkward banal matrimony and conjugal misery.