The first book, entitled A Sort of Introduction , is an introduction to the protagonist, a 32-year-old mathematician named Ulrich who is in search of a sense of life and reality but fails to find it. His ambivalence towards morals and indifference to life has brought him to the state of being "a man without qualities", depending on the outer world to form his character. A kind of keenly analytical passivity is his most typical attitude.
Musil said that it was not particularly difficult to describe Ulrich in his main features. Ulrich himself only knows he is strangely indifferent to all his qualities. Lack of any profound essence and ambiguity as a general attitude to life are his principal characteristics.
Meanwhile, we meet a murderer and rapist, Moosbrugger, who is condemned for his murder of a prostitute. Other protagonists are Ulrich's nymphomaniac mistress, Bonadea, and his friend Walter's neurotic wife, Clarisse, whose refusal to go along with commonplace existence leads to Walter's insanity.
In the second book, Pseudoreality Prevails , Ulrich joins the so-called "Collateral Campaign" or "Parallel Campaign", frantic preparations for a celebration in honor of 70 years of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph's reign. That same year, 1918, the German Emperor Wilhelm II would be ruler of his country for 30 years. This coincidence stirs the Austrian patriots into a fury of action to demonstrate Austria's political, cultural, and philosophical supremacy via a feast which will capture the minds of the Austrian Emperor's subjects and people of the world forever. On that account, many bright ideas and visions are discussed (e.g., The Austrian Year 1918, The World Year 1918, The Austrian Peace Year 1918 or The Austrian World Peace Year 1918).
A couple of people take part in the organization team or catch the eye of Ulrich. Ermelinda Tuzzi, called Diotima, is Ulrich's cousin as well as the wife of a civil servant; she tries to become a Viennese muse of philosophy, inspiring whoever crosses her path; she miraculously attracts both Ulrich and Arnheim, a Prussian business magnate and prosaic writer whose character is based on the figure of Walter Rathenau. The nobleman in charge of the Campaign, the old conservative Count Leinsdorf, is incapable of deciding or even of not-deciding. General Stumm von Bordwehr of the Imperial and Royal Army, is unpopular for his attempts in this generally mystical atmosphere to make things systematic and German businessman Paul Arnheim is an admirer of Diotima's combination of beauty and spirit, without feeling the need to marry her.
While most of the participants (Diotima most feverishly) try to associate the reign of Franz Joseph I with vague ideas of humanity, progress, tradition, and happiness, the followers of Realpolitik see a chance to exploit the situation: Stumm von Bordwehr wishes to get the Austrian army income raised and Arnheim plans to buy oil fields in an eastern province of Austria. Musil's great irony and satire is that what was planned as a celebration of peace and imperial cohesion in fact turns out as a path toward war, imperial collapse, and national chauvinism. The novel provides an analysis of all the political and cultural processes that contributed to the outbreak of World War I.
The last volume, entitled Into the Millennium (The Criminals) , is about Ulrich's sister Agathe (who enters the novel at the end of the second book). They experience a mystically incestuous stirring upon meeting after their father's death. They see themselves as soulmates, or, as the book says, "Siamese twins".
As it was published, the novel ends in a large section of drafts, notes, false-starts and forays written by Musil as he tried to work out the proper ending for his book. In the German edition, there is even a CD-ROM available that holds thousands of pages of alternative versions and drafts.