The story concerns mainly Ethan Allen Hawley, a former member of Long Island's aristocratic class. Ethan's late father lost the family fortune, and thus Ethan works as a grocery store clerk. His wife Mary and their children resent their mediocre social and economic status, and do not value the honesty and integrity that Ethan struggles to maintain amidst a corrupt society. These external factors and his own psychological turmoil lead Ethan to try to overcome his inherent integrity in order to reclaim his former status and wealth.
Ethan's decision to gain wealth and power is influenced by criticisms and advice from people he knows. His acquaintance Margie urges him to accept bribes; the bank manager (whose ancestors Ethan blames for his family's misfortunes) urges him to be more ruthless. Ethan's friend Joey, a bank teller, even gives Ethan a lesson on how to rob a bank and get away with it.
On discovering that the current store owner, Italian immigrant Alfio Marullo, may be an illegal immigrant, Ethan makes an anonymous tip to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. After Marullo is taken into custody, he transfers ownership of the store to Ethan through the actions of the very government agent that caught him. Marullo gives Ethan the store because he believes Ethan is honest and deserving. Ethan also considers, plans, and mentally rehearses a bank robbery, failing to perform it only because of external circumstances. Eventually, he manages to become powerful in the town by taking possession of a strip of land needed by local businessmen to build an airport; he gets the land from Danny Taylor, the town drunkard and Ethan's childhood best friend, by a will made by Danny and slipped under the door of the store. The will was drawn without any spoken agreement some time after Ethan gave Danny money for the purpose of sending Danny to receive treatment for alcoholism. Danny assures him that drunks are liars and that he will just drink the money away, and this is indeed confirmed when Danny is found dead with empty bottles of whiskey and sleeping pills.
In this manner, Ethan becomes able to control the covert dealings of the corrupt town businessmen and politicians, but he is confident that he will not be corrupted. He considers that while he had to kill enemy soldiers in the war, he was never a murderer thereafter.
Ethan learns that his son won a nationwide essay contest by plagiarizing classic American authors and orators, but when Ethan confronts him, the son denies having any guilty feelings, maintaining that everyone cheats and lies. Perhaps after seeing his own moral decay in his son's actions, and experiencing the guilt of Marullo's deportation and the death of Danny, Ethan resolves to commit suicide. His daughter, intuitively understanding his intent, slips a family talisman into his pocket during a long embrace. When Ethan decides to commit the act, he reaches into his pocket to find razorblades and instead finds the talisman. As the tide comes into the alcove in which he has sequestered himself, he struggles to get out in order to return the talisman to his daughter.