The Adolescent takes place in St. Petersburg and as with many of Dostoevsky’s novels, the first portion serves largely as an introduction to the characters as in-depth portraitures are drawn. Our narrator is Arkady Makarovich Dolgoruky, the illegitimate son of Versilov, a landowner, and Sofya Andreevna, his serf. While he is 21 years old, we immediately see signs of his adolescence through his writing and actions. Arkady continually reinforces his position through his actions, such as always correcting those who ask if he is Prince Dolgoruky by telling them his true background, that he is the illegitimate son of a serf. Arkady seems content with his ideals, which, he claims, are all he needs though he unwittingly continually undermines himself.
In part one we see various people swirling in and out of Arkady’s life as the characters are created. Dostoevsky devotes much of part one to enriching the character’s personalities while the story gradually develops into the soap opera which plays out in parts two and three. The first real action in the book involves Arkady discussing his ideas with his friend Vasin. He wishes to finish school, become independent, “shrink into his shell,” and become completely free. These ideals of Arkady resurface throughout the novel. We also learn that Versilov is friends with the Akhmakov family, the head of which provides lodging and work for Arkady, until it is discovered he wishes to marry their young girl. Katerina Akhmakov, the matriarch of the family, violently opposes the marriage of her stepdaughter but the drama and interrelationships begin.
Arkady also talks with his friend Kraft, a nihilist and atheist whom he has idolized for years. Kraft kills himself early in the novel but plays an important role in the story by providing Arkady with a letter written by Katerina to Andronikov. This “document” details Katerina’s concerns over her father’s mental stability and questions his financial decisions. Were this to get into the wrong hands, Katerina could be forced into poverty by being excluded from her father’s will. Arkady sews the letter into his coat pocket and tells no one his secret.
Through Vasin, Arkady learns that Versilov indeed has become involved with Lydia Akhmakov, Katerina’s stepdaughter. The girl has a child after a liaison with Prince Sokolsky but the relationship is ended before the birth of the child. Lydia now loves Versilov who consents to marry here though this is a great sacrifice for him. However, Lydia and her child die just two weeks after its birth, perhaps by poisoning.
Though abandoned by Versilov as a child, Arkady seeks to reconnect with his father throughout part one. Arkady’s emotions towards his father wax and wane dramatically from love and a feeling that he is completely understood, to confusion and frustration. Arkady is thrilled just to be taken seriously by his father, but switches to anger and fury moments later. These emotions consume much of his thoughts. We also learn that Versilov has profited through Arkady’s stay with the prince, bringing his motives and declarations increasingly into doubt.
After Arkady moves into a new apartment, Olya, the daughter of his neighbor Darya Onisimovna, commits suicide. We learn a merchant raped her and it is alluded that she is sent to a brothel where she is rejected and deeply humiliated. After this incident Versilov comes to support the two women out of the purported goodness of his heart. Olya thinks he is concealing ulterior motives, a hunch which is only confirmed through innocent conversation with Arkady. This results in her suicide. Part one concludes with Arkady glimpsing his sister in the house of the prince and their somewhat awkward encounter immediately afterwards. The thoughts and ideals of the characters depicted within part one lay the foundation for the action and drama of parts two and three.