Most of the novel is set during the time of the Risorgimento , specifically during the period when Giuseppe Garibaldi, the hero of Italian unification, swept through Sicily with his forces, known as The Thousand. The plot focuses upon the aristocratic Salina family, which is headed by the stoic Prince Fabrizio, a consummate womanizer who foresees the upcoming downfall of his family and the nobility in Italy as a whole but finds himself unable to change the course of history. As the novel opens in May 1860, Garibaldi's Redshirts have landed on the Sicilian coast and are pressing inland to overthrow the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
This chapter begins with a detailed description of the exquisitely decorated drawing room where the Salina family recites their daily rosary. Afterwards, the Prince wanders out into the garden, where the sickly, over-ripe smells of lush foliage threaten to overwhelm him with memories—specifically, of a dead Neapolitan soldier who, in his last moments, had clawed his way into the lemon grove and died there, guts spilled. Perturbed by these thoughts, the Prince takes refuge in watching his dog, Bendicò, joyfully dig up the garden, and in thoughts about the behavior of his wayward nephew, Prince Tancredi Falconeri.
At dinner, the Prince announces that he will drive his coach into Palermo. The adults at the table, including the Princess and the family's Jesuit chaplain, instantly know that the only reason he's leaving is to visit a brothel. As the Prince is driven in his carriage into the city, he passes Tancredi's villa, worrying again that Tancredi's fallen in with bad company—specifically, with the rebels fighting to overthrow the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The Prince's thoughts vacillate between anticipation and guilt, between disgust with his wife (who crosses herself whenever they make love) and admiration of her prudery. Two hours later, his thoughts run a similar course, with the addition of a kind of disgusted satisfaction with the prostitute and a satisfied disgust with his own body. When he arrives back home, he finds the Princess in bed, thinks affectionately of her, climbs into bed with her, and finds he can't sleep. "Towards dawn, however, the Princess had occasion to make the Sign of the Cross."
The following morning, the Prince's shaving is interrupted by the arrival of Tancredi. Tancredi reveals that his position in the Italian nationalist movement has risen. He adds that he will soon be joining Garibaldi in the mountains. The Prince suddenly imagines his beloved nephew dead in the garden with his guts trailing out like the Crown soldier, and tries to dissuade him from departing. Tancredi, however, insists that he is fighting for a very good reason. Later, as the Prince gets dressed, he realizes the practicality of Tancredi's words. As he ponders the coming upheavals, he realizes that his nephew is more aristocratically like-minded than he thought.
After breakfast, the Prince, accompanied by the playful Bendicò, goes into his office, which is lined with century-old paintings of the Salina family's estates. As he sits at his cluttered desk, the Prince recalls how much he dislikes both the room and the work it represents. This dislike intensifies during visits from his accountant and one of his tenants,both of whom are allied with the Redshirts. Both of them assure the Prince that the unification of Italy will be peaceful and will benefit everyone, including the nobility. The Prince allows himself to be reassured, certain that the class system will remain unchanged no matter what. The Prince's visit to the Salina chaplain, Father Pirrone, atop a tower where the men practice their joint hobby of astronomy, reinforces this belief.
At lunch, the Prince becomes aware that his family is worried about Tancredi's safety. As a result, the Prince makes an effort to appear simultaneously concerned and reassuring. When dessert is brought out, it's his favorite - a large, castle-shaped jelly. As dessert commences, the castle is essentially demolished before Don Paolo, the Prince's son and heir, gets a chance to have any.
That evening, the Prince receives a letter urging him to flee to safety from the revolution. In response, he simply laughs. Later, as the Salinas gather to say their rosary, the Prince reads in a newspaper of the approach of Garibaldi and his men. The Prince is disturbed, but reassures himself that Garibaldi will be reined in by his Piedmontese masters.
After a long journey by coach, the Prince, his faithful dog Bendicò, and the squabbling Salinas arrive at their estate at Donnafugata. Both the officials of the town and the common people greet the Salinas as gladly as always. Their numbers include the new mayor, Don Calogero Sedàra.
The Prince reflects on Garibaldi's recent conquest of the island. The Expedition of the Thousand landed at Marsala, where Tancredi and other native Sicilians joined them. Garibaldi's march was finally completed with the Siege of Gaeta, where the final Bourbons were expelled and Garibaldi announced his dictatorship in the name of Victor Emmanuel II of the Kingdom of Sardinia. Upon his arrival, the citizens of Palermo rejoiced and, later, local leaders of the movement had called at the Salina palace. Although they treated the Prince with great respect, one of them insisted on flirting with his daughter Concetta.
After Mass, the Princess invites the officials to the traditional first night dinner and Don Calogero requests permission to bring his daughter Angelica.
As the Prince inspects his property and possessions, the manager lists everything that's been done to keep the estate in order, and then passes on some local news. Don Calogero, who was active in Garibaldi's invasion, has become a wealthy landowner and businessman. To the dismay of the Prince, Don Calogero is now almost as wealthy as the Salinas. The manager adds that Angelica, Don Calogero's daughter, has become quite full of herself as a result. The Prince realizes that he is somewhat resentful of Calogero's status.
The Prince's bath before dinner is interrupted by the arrival of Father Pirrone. Concetta has asked Father Pirrone to tell her father that she is in love with Tancredi and that she believes her feelings to be returned. The Prince ponders his fondness for Concetta, which is based in her apparent submissiveness and placidity. However, he thinks that Tancredi's ambitions may require more money than Concetta will bring as her dowry. Keeping his thoughts to himself, the Prince decrees that Father Pirrone is to tell Concetta that the Prince will discuss it with her later.
After a nap, the Prince goes out into the garden, where his contemplations of an erotic statue are interrupted by Tancredi's teasing about sex, comments which also apply to a small crop of beautifully ripe peaches in a nearby grove. The Prince uneasily changes the subject, and he and Tancredi gossip their way back to the house, where they join the rest of the family and the arriving dinner guests.
Soon after, Don Calogero arrives, and the Prince is relieved to see that he's dressed quite tastelessly. His relief ends abruptly when Angelica arrives - he finds her attractive enough to feel the stir of lust. At dinner, Angelica flirts openly with Tancredi—who, in his turn, finds himself attracted to both Angelica's beauty and her money. For her part, Concetta is enraged.
The following day, the Prince and his family uphold a centuries-old family tradition and visit a convent founded by a female ancestor. After returning from the convent, the Prince looks out his window at Donnafugata's town square and spies Tancredi, dressed in his, "seduction color," of Prussian blue. He is carrying a box of peaches from the palace's fruit grove and is seen to knock on the door of the Sedàras household.
This chapter begins with a lyrically written introduction to the silent, still, dim, early morning world at Donnafugata in which the Prince likes to walk with Bendicò. Narration then describes how Tancredi writes every week, but never to Concetta and always with comments that he would like the Prince to pass on to Angelica, who, in turn, visits every day, pretending to come to see the girls but in reality to learn news of Tancredi.
One particular day a letter arrives from Tancredi in which he asks the Prince to ask Angelica's father for her hand in marriage. He uses several arguments to convince the Prince to do so, among them being she will bring money into the family and guarantee that the family will continue to have status in the new kingdom of Italy. The Prince finds himself agreeing with many of Tancredi's points, and takes a little second-hand sensual pleasure in knowing that he'll soon be able to enjoy seeing Angelica more often. The next morning, the Prince, in the company of his usual morning companions, Don Ciccio (the organist) and Bendicò, takes his gun with him on his walk and shoots a rabbit. "The animal had died tortured by anxious hopes of salvation, imagining it could still escape when it was already caught, just like so many human beings."
Later, the Prince and Ciccio eat their picnic lunch and settle down for a nap. Instead of sleeping, however, the Prince finds himself contemplating the recent Plebiscite, a vote taken on the question of whether Sicily should politically join with the new Italian Kingdom. The Prince remembers how he couldn't decide which way to mark his ballot. Eventually he voted "yes," and then recalls the celebrations which greeted the result— a unanimous vote in favor.
Back in the present, the Prince contemplates what he believes to be the historical significance of the vote and also its deeper meaning. This leads him to ask Ciccio how he voted in the Plebiscite. At first reluctant, Don Ciccio finally admits that, as the son of a Bourbon royal game keeper, he could not bring himself to vote in favor of the revolution. Many others in Donnafugata voted the same way, but Don Calogero rigged the election and announced the results as unanimously in favor of the House of Savoy.
The Prince asks Don Ciccio what the people of Donnafugata really think of Don Calogero. Don Ciccio speaks at angry length of how many people despise Don Calogero in spite of, or perhaps because of, his embodiment of a harsh reality - that "every coin spent in the world must end in someone's pocket." Don Calogero, a peasant moneylender, eloped with Angelica's mother, who was the daughter of a penniless Salina tenant. Don Calogero's father-in-law vowed revenge, but his corpse was later found, shot twelve times in the back.
Although scandalized by Don Ciccio's stories, the Prince at last asks the question that's really on his mind—what is Angelica truly like? Ciccio speaks rapturously of her beauty, poise, and sophistication, and then speaks about how her parents' vulgarity seems to have not affected her. The Prince bristles, and informs Don Ciccio that from now on, because Angelica and Tancredi are to be married, the Serdàras must be spoken about with appropriate respect. Ciccio, who has believed that Tancredi was attempting to seduce Angelica in order to embarrass her father, is horrified. He bursts out that for Tancredi and Angelica to marry will cause the end of the good qualities of the Salina and Falconieri families. The Prince thinks to himself, however, that the marriage will not be the end, but the beginning. As the Prince and Don Ciccio return to Donnafugata, it impossible to tell which of them is Don Quixote and which is Sancho Panza.
The Prince takes his time dressing for his meeting with Don Calogero, and when he finally goes downstairs, he has a vision of the two of them as animals. Their conversation is, for the most part, polite, with both men making occasional slips into tactlessness but both ultimately making the truths of the situation quite apparent. For the Prince, that truth involves Tancredi's excellent lineage but extreme poverty, while for Calogero the truth involves his wealth, which is much greater than the Prince ever realized, and the fact that Don Calogero is in final negotiations to purchase the title of Baroness for his daughter. An agreement is reached that the marriage is to proceed.
As preparations for the wedding between Tancredi and Angelica progressed, the Prince and Calogero became more like each other - the Prince became more ruthless in his business dealings, while Calogero saw the value of good manners and better grooming. Calogero, narration suggests, began "that process of continual refining which in the course of three generations transforms innocent peasants into defenseless gentry."
Narration describes, in a tone that is at times enraptured and at other times pointedly cynical, Angelica's first visit to the Prince and his family following her betrothal to Tancredi. Dressed beautifully, she makes her entrance with perfect timing, and immediately endears herself to the Prince. Only Bendicò, growling in a corner, seems unhappy to see her. Finally, narration also describes how Angelica, as she's listening, coolly considers the financial and sexual prosperity that awaits them, and comments that, within a few years of the marriage, Angelica will become one of the great political kingmakers of the Italian Kingdom.
A week later, the family's quiet evening is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Tancredi, who has brought a friend with him (Count Carlo). Tancredi and the Count, in their full dress uniforms, fascinate the Prince's daughters and puzzle the Prince, who says he thought they were still fighting for Garibaldi. Tancredi and the Count react with disgust, saying there was no way they could stay with such a rough outfit when positions with the new king's army were available. Tancredi then produces the ring he has purchased for Angelica. A moment later, Angelica rushes in, having been informed by a note that Tancredi is back. The lovers embrace; sensuality fills the air.
Love and sensuality fill the subsequent days at Donnafugata. The Count dreamily, and ineffectually, pursues Concetta, while Concetta's younger sisters (Carolina and Caterina) dream romantically of Tancredi and the Count, and Tancredi and Angelica spend their time exploring the palace's many rooms, each of which contains some representation of a leopard, the family insignia. Narration describes how, on several occasions, Tancredi and Angelica are tempted to give in to their mutual sensual desire, but never do... and how this idyllic time of romantic, intimate gaming between them was a happy prelude to the miserable, unsuccessful marriage that followed.
A government representative (Chevalley di Monterzuolo) arrives and tells the Prince that because of his aristocratic background and social influence, the government wants him to sit as an appointed (as opposed to elected) member of the Senate. At first, the Prince is quite silent, leading Chevalley to attempt to flatter him into accepting the offer (see "Quotes", p. 163) - an attempt that doesn't work. The Prince explains at increasingly intense, often poetic length, why he, like other Sicilians, has no interest in being involved in government.
The following morning, the Prince accompanies Chevalley to the station. As they walk through the streets of early morning Donnafugata, both of them overwhelmed by the squalor and despair surrounding them, both men think the situation has got to change, but where Chevalley believes it will, the Prince is convinced it won't.
Father Pirrone visits his home village. Much has changed since the arrival of the Garibaldini. The land, which was previously owned by a Benedictine monastery, has been seized and sold to a peasant moneylender. Many of the villagers complain to Father Pirrone about their new landlord.
During a conversation with a childhood friend, Father Pirrone enters a lengthy speech explaining why the Prince and other aristocrats don't really have any reaction one way or the other to the events of the revolution. - They "live in a world of their own ... all they live by has been handled by others". He concludes by saying that the feelings and attitudes that give rise to class consciousness never truly die.
The next day, Pirrone finds his sister Sarina in tears in the kitchen, and gets her to admit that her daughter Angelina (whom Pirrone mentally compares to the beautiful Angelica and finds wanting) has been impregnated outside of wedlock. The father, she confesses furiously, is the girl's first cousin, Santino, the son of Pirrone and Sarina's paternal uncle. Father Pirrone ponders the long-standing family feud between Pirrone's father and his uncle. After saying Mass, he goes to visit his uncle and manipulates both him and Santino into accepting what he proposes as the terms of marriage. Back home, Father Pirrone persuades Angelina's grudging father into agreeing to the terms of marriage by sacrificing his own inheritance. Santino and his father arrive; the marriage is contracted, and the young people are happy. Later, while travelling back to the Salina Palace, Father Pirrone is certain that Santino and his father planned Angelina's seduction so they could get their hands on property they believed was rightfully theirs, and also realizes that the nobility and the peasants are, at least on one level, far more similar than he once thought.
The Salinas prepare to attend a ball, one of the most important of the Palermo social season. The Prince is both excited and concerned about the evening to come. It will be the first time Angelica and her beauty are to be presented to the public. However, he remains concerned that Don Calogero will make a complete fool of both himself and the Salinas. When Angelica (looking beautiful) and Don Calogero (looking acceptable) arrive shortly after, Angelica, thanks to detailed training in etiquette given to her by Tancredi, makes a huge social success. The Prince, after being satisfied that Angelica has been accepted, wanders through the rooms of the Palazzo Ponteleone where the ball is being held, becoming increasingly gloomy at the callowness of the young men, the boredom in the older men, and the silliness of the girls. The Prince notices Tancredi and Angelica dancing happily together, oblivious to the other's desperation, ambition, and greed. As he watches, the Prince comes to realize and accept, if only for a moment, that whatever happiness the lovers feel is to be celebrated, no matter what.
Angelica asks the Prince to dance with her. Flattered, he agrees to a waltz. They are a successful couple and dance well, with the Prince's memory flashing back to the days of his youth "when, in that very same ballroom he had danced with the Princess before he knew disappointment, boredom, and the rest." As the dance finishes, he realizes the other dancers have stopped and are watching them, his "leonine air" preventing the onlookers from bursting into applause. Angelica asks him to eat with her and Tancredi, and for a flattered moment almost says yes, but then again remembers his youth, recalls how embarrassing it would have been for him to have an old relative eating with him and a lover, and politely excuses himself.
The ball goes on until six in the morning. The Prince decides to walk home, alone with his thoughts.
For years, the Prince has felt that he is dying, "as if the vital fluid ... life itself in fact and perhaps even the will to go on living, were ebbing out of him ... as grains of sand cluster and then line up one by one, unhurried, unceasing, before the narrow neck of an hourglass." A last minute visit to a doctor has tired him so much that it is decided that he should not go back to the villa outside Palermo, but shall stay in a hotel inside the city itself. As he settles into the hotel, the Prince contemplates the fates of several of his family members—Tancredi's political success in the new Kingdom of Italy, the deaths of Father Pirrone from old age, of Princess Maria from diabetes, and of Paolo after being thrown by a horse. He also recalls the maturation and dignity of Concetta—who, he realizes, is the true heir of what was noble and enduring of the Salina family. He dismisses Paolo's son and biological heir, Fabrizietto as dissolute, shallow, and aimless.
As the Prince receives the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, he considers the joys (sensual, spiritual, political and animal - in particular, the loving and playful Bendicò) and the sorrows (political, sexual, and familial) he's experienced, concluding that out of the seventy-three years he's been alive, he has only fully lived three of them. In his last moments, as his family gathered round, he sees a young woman appear - beautiful, exquisitely dressed, sensitive,and smiling lovingly. Narration describes her in terms identical to those in which it describes a beautiful woman glimpsed at the train station on the way back to Palermo—in other words, death was present in his life even then. As the woman helps him to his feet, he sees her face, and to him she appears "lovelier than she ever had when glimpsed in stellar space."
This chapter begins with a reference to "the old Salina ladies," three elderly sisters whose right to have private masses in their home is being investigated by representatives of the Archdiocese of Palermo. That investigation is being undertaken because the ladies have certain relics in their home that, according to rumor, may not be authentic. Eventually, narration reveals the ladies are the three daughters of the Prince—the authoritarian Concetta, the blunt-spoken Carolina, and the paralyzed Caterina. As the priests enter the chapel, they are surprised to see a sensuously painted "Madonna" hanging behind the altar, and walls lined with relics.
After the priests depart, Concetta retires to her bedroom, where she keeps several locked boxes of decaying mementos of her past, including the skin of her father's dog Bendicò, which had been made into a rug and which is now completely moth-eaten. There, because she is the most pragmatic of the three sisters, she foresees what is about to happen—the confiscation of the relics and the painting, the re-consecration of the chapel, the inevitable spreading of stories ofthe Salinas' humiliation, and the equally inevitable destruction of what's left of the family's reputation and prestige. Her thoughts are interrupted by a footman announcing the arrival of Princess Angelica Falconeri.
The well-preserved Angelica, widowed after Tancredi's death a few years before, meets Concetta in the sitting room. She chattily tells Concetta of her plans for celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Garibaldi invasion. Angelica also promises to use her influence with the Cardinal to keep the family's embarrassment from going public.
In addition, Angelica informs Concetta that an old friend is coming to call. Senator Tassoni is a veteran of Garibaldi's Redshirts, a close friend and confidant of Tancredi, and former illicit lover of Angelica. Tassoni is shown in, and after speaking flatteringly of how well Tancredi spoke of her, confesses to Concetta that one night Tancredi tearfully confessed to him that he had once told a lie to her, namely the story about the Redshirts' raid on a convent. Tassoni adds that Tancredi had carried the guilt of offending her with him all his life.
After Tassoni and Angelica depart, the horrified Concetta sees Tancredi in a radically different light. What she had once believed was a vulgar attempt to seduce Angelica was really a momentary lapse of judgment. Tancredi loved only her and never ceased to regret marrying Angelica. She also realizes that Tancredi's attempt to enter the convent was in reality a subtle marriage proposal directed to her. After fifty years, Concetta is at last stripped of the comfort of blaming her father and cousin for her own mistakes.
The following day, the Cardinal inspects the palace chapel and orders the sisters to replace the painting behind the altar, stating that it does not depict the Blessed Virgin but a woman reading a letter from her lover. He leaves behind a priestly antiquarian to examine the relics and determine which are genuine. A few hours later the priest emerges with a basket full of forged relics and the news that only the few which remain are genuine.
Meanwhile, Concetta returns to her room, and contemplates her possessions there with new perspective. Even the few relics which she once cherished are now only reminders of a life unfulfilled. She also realizes that an unpleasant smell is coming from what remains of the Bendicò rug, and orders it thrown out. "During the flight from the window, its form recomposed itself for an instant; in the air there seemed to be dancing a quadruped with long whiskers, its right foreleg raised in imprecation. Then all found peace in a heap of livid dust."