The novel, set before the French Revolution, depicts the coming of age of a nobleman named Bernard Mauprat. The story is narrated by the old Bernard in his country home many years later, as told to a nameless young male visitor. Bernard recounts how, raised by a violent gang of his feudal kinsmen after the death of his mother, he becomes a brutalized "enfant sauvage". When his cousin Edmée is held captive by Bernard's "family", he helps her escape, but elicits a promise of marriage from her by threatening rape. Thus begins the long courtship of Bernard and Edmée. The novel ends with a dramatic trial scene.