Antoine Laurentz, a French teacher at a college in the provinces, has led a withdrawn existence in his little old house ever since his wife's death in an accident. One day he is visited by the impoverished-looking Louis Lambert and his 13-year-old daughter Nora. Antoine had allowed Louis, who is unemployed because of alcohol problems, to live in his wife's former surgery, but is now having to sell it because of financial problems. The distraught Louis begs Antoine not to make him live out in the streets, but Antoine sends the two of them away. Outside the house Louis shoots himself in front of his daughter -- who will now have to spend the rest of her life in a state orphanage. Antoine feels deeply responsible for this tragic turn of events. He wants to be Nora's guardian, and offers her a secure, middle-class existence.