The character al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is the tyrannical head of his household, demanding total, unquestioning obedience from his wife, Amina, his sons, Yasin, Fahmy and Kamal, and his daughters, Khadija and Aisha. A fearsome and occasionally violent presence at home who insists on strict rules of Muslim piety and sobriety in the house—for example, his wife is hardly ever allowed to leave the house, to maintain the family's good name—al-Sayyid Ahmad permits himself officially forbidden pleasures, particularly music, drinking wine and conducting numerous extramarital affairs with women he meets at his grocery store, or with courtesans who entertain parties of men at their houses with music and dancing. Because of his insistence on his household authority, his wife and children are forbidden from questioning why he stays out late at night or comes home intoxicated.
Yasin, the eldest son, is al-Sayyid Ahmad's only child by his first marriage, to a woman whose subsequent marital affairs are the source of acute embarrassment to father and son. Yasin shares his father's good looks, and, unbeknownst to al-Sayyid Ahmad, Yasin also shares his tastes for music, women and alcohol, and spends as much time and money as he can afford on fine clothes, drink and prostitutes. Fahmy, Amina's elder son, is a serious and intelligent law student, who is heavily involved in the nationalist movement against the British occupation; he also pines for his neighbor, Maryam, but cannot bring himself to take any action. Khadija, the elder daughter, is sharp-tongued, opinionated, and jealous of her sister Aisha, who is considered to be the more beautiful and marriageable. Aisha, meanwhile, is more mellow and conciliatory, and tries to maintain peace. Kamal, the baby of the family, is a bright young boy who frightens his family by befriending the British soldiers who have set up an encampment across the street from the Abd al-Jawad house; he is also very close with his mother and his sisters, and is deeply dismayed when the prospect of marriage for the girls arises.
Major elements of the plot include al-Sayyid Ahmad's philandering, Yasin's cultivation of the same hobbies, Fahmy's refusal to cease his political activities despite his father's order, and the day-to-day stresses of living in the Abd al-Jawad house, in which the wife and children must delicately negotiate certain issues of sexual chastity and comportment that cannot be discussed openly. Through the novel, Yasin and Fahmy gradually become aware of the exact nature of their father's nighttime activities, largely because Yasin begins an affair with a young courtesan who works in the same house as al-Sayyid Ahmad's lover. After glimpsing his father playing the tambourine at a gathering in the house Yasin understands where his father goes at night, and is pleased to find that they have similar interests. Amina, meanwhile, has long ago guessed her husband's predilections, but represses her resentment and grief so intensely that she behaves almost willfully ignorant of the whole matter.
The family provides the novel with its structure, since the plot is concerned with the lives and interrelationships of its members. However, the story is not set in isolation; indeed, the characters themselves are important mediators between issues of local or wider scope. For example, the theme of 'authority' (particularly its establishment and subversion) is woven into both the maturation of the children of the al-Jawad family and the wider political circumstances which provide the novel with its temporal boundaries.
The novel's opening chapters focus upon the daily routine of the al-Jawad family. Amina, the mother of the family, greets the return of her husband, al-Sayyid Ahmad, from his late-night socialising. She rises once again at dawn to begin preparing food, assisted by her daughters Khadija and Aisha. Her sons join their father for breakfast. At this meal, as with any other dealing with the patriarch, strict etiquette is observed. Subsequent chapters proceed to explore the characters of family members, particularly their relationships with one another. The marriage of the children provides a key focus, as do challenges to the supreme authority of the family's patriarch.