In 1913, Anthony Patch is twenty-five years old. Anthony believes he is a superior person: He has a Harvard education and a trust fund large enough for him to live off its interest. He has an elegant apartment in New York City and wears perfect clothes. Anthony’s parents died in his childhood, and he is the grandson and only surviving direct heir of the extremely wealthy Adam J. Patch.
Adam J. Patch, after making millions on Wall Street, is now a famous moral reformer. He disapproves of Anthony’s lack of initiative or purpose. But to Anthony, idleness is the logical response to the meaninglessness of life. Anthony sees all the latest plays, belongs to fancy clubs, and exchanges idle talk, always over drinks, with his Harvard classmates Maury Noble and Richard Caramel.
Richard introduces Anthony to his beautiful cousin, Gloria Gilbert, a vain, party-mad society girl with scandals in her past. Gloria brings a movie producer, Joseph Bloeckman, and her girlfriends Muriel and Rachael into Anthony’s social circle. Richard, who is working on a novel, cultivates Bloeckman as a useful contact. Anthony recognizes Bloeckman as a rival suitor of Gloria.
Anthony asks Gloria out. She leads him on but also keeps seeing Bloeckman and other men. Anthony becomes ever more obsessed with Gloria. He sees her as a kindred spirit, determined to live only for pleasure. Anthony tries to stay away from her but cannot. When Anthony asks Gloria to marry him and tells her he loves her, she replies that she’s glad.
Gloria and Anthony have a lavish wedding at Anthony’s grandfather’s mansion, followed by a honeymoon in California, flitting from party to party. When they get back to New York, they rent a house in the country and entertain their friends for long weekends. Anthony and Gloria spend too much money, but they expect to be wealthy when Anthony’s grandfather dies.
When war breaks out in Europe, Adam J. Patch calls his grandson to account for his idleness and suggests that he become a war correspondent. However, Anthony and Gloria prefer to keep hosting their perpetual party. Their finances get worse as their friends’ incomes improve. Richard’s novel becomes a success, and Maury lands a respectable job. Joseph Bloeckman’s films become more popular. Yet Anthony still has no plan.
The next year, Gloria and Anthony can’t afford a California trip. Because of the war, rents skyrocket, and they have to move to a smaller apartment, farther uptown in New York. They drink more and more and keep going out to clubs, shows, and dances. Anthony too often foots the bill for the dinners and drinks of others. He now dips into his capital to meet his expenses, which reduces their income.
One day while drunk, Anthony and Gloria sign the lease for the house in the country by mistake, so they are forced to spend another summer away from the city. During one especially drunken party, just as Gloria begins dancing wildly, Anthony’s grandfather appears at the door. He takes a long look at the revelry and then asks Shuttleworth, his secretary, to escort him home. Anthony and Gloria realize they are in serious trouble. Anthony tries to see his grandfather to apologize, but Shuttleworth won’t let him. His grandfather won’t even answer Anthony’s letters.
Soon, Anthony’s grandfather dies, and Anthony learns he has been left out of his will. Anthony and Gloria file a lawsuit to invalidate the will on the grounds of Shuttleworth’s undue influence on Anthony’s grandfather. By this point, Anthony and Gloria regularly quarrel bitterly over money. To resolve their arguments, they dream about winning the lawsuit—and they drink. Gloria’s friend Muriel tells them of the rumors that Anthony caused his grandfather’s death.
When the United States enters World War I, Anthony is turned down for officers’ training and then drafted into the army. Anthony spends the next several months at army camps in the South. For the first time in his life, he mixes with men from the lower classes. Anthony begins an affair with nineteen-year-old Dot Raycroft. One night, Anthony misses curfew because of seeing Dot and is sentenced to a month’s confinement. After his confinement ends, he gets influenza. Soon after his recovery, Anthony’s regiment is ordered to New York. The war ends just as Anthony gets back home.
Anthony’s army service leaves Gloria alone in New York City. She tracks the progress of their lawsuit and drinks in self-pity. Encouraged by her friend Rachael, she goes out with men, but she stays faithful to Anthony. After the war ends, Gloria and Anthony have a brief second romance, but their harmony is soon shattered by poverty and drinking. Without telling Anthony, Gloria calls Bloeckman, who arranges for her to have an audition and screen test. When the director decides she is too old for the part, Gloria weeps for the loss of her youth and beauty.
Gloria and Anthony move even farther uptown and lose even more of their income. Anthony descends into alcoholism. Gloria sinks so low that she cooks and does housework. The bank informs Anthony that they’ve closed his account. Anthony spends a drunken night trying to borrow grocery money. Maury, his former best friend, snubs him. Joseph Bloeckman beats him up and has him thrown out into the street.
Then, just as Anthony reaches the depth of his humiliation, the lawsuit over Adam J. Patch’s fortune is resolved in Anthony’s favor. Gloria and her cousin Richard are at court for the verdict. Anthony intends to join them but is delayed because Dot appears at his door. Dot has heard about the lawsuit and tells Anthony that she loves him. Anthony screams at Dot and tries to attack her with a chair. When Gloria and Richard come home with the news that Anthony is now worth $30 million, they find him sitting on the floor playing with his stamp collection.
Some months later, Anthony and Gloria are aboard a luxury liner. The other passengers gossip about Anthony’s mental breakdown and Gloria’s Russian sable coat. Anthony sits in his wheelchair, looking out at the ocean, and feels proud of himself for having endured so much and for sticking to his principles.