Mrs. Halm’s lodging house has launched a succession of marriages of her daughters with student lodgers. Two students and two daughters yet remain. The theological student Lind, early in Act One, reveals he has fallen in love with Anna Halm. The other, the rebellious poet Falk, while expressing scorn on all forms of conventional love, secretly loves Anna’s independent-minded sister, Svanhild. As the play opens, the Halm residence hosts a gathering of couples whose past, present and future attachments meet with social approval. Falk and Svanhild at first seem sparring, mutually hostile combatants, like Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedict but, after declaring his love for her, Falk enlists Svanhild as an ally and attacks the whole company for variously betraying the ideal of love. For this, in Act Two, he is banished from the gathering and, encouraged by Svanhild, determines on a lifetime’s rebellion against the deep-rooted falsehoods of society. In a rhapsodic ‘duet’ they affirm a love that rejects the world's compromises's and sustains itself in unyielding integrity.
In the third act Falk confronts and devastates (a) the form of love that is disfigured by concern for material gain and (b) the form of love that is bowed and crushed by the penurious struggle for existence; but neither Falk nor Svanhild are prepared for (c) - the ‘third tempter’, the pragmatic, wealthy merchant Guldstad who also wishes to marry Svanhild. By getting the lovers to admit how Time inevitably will erode and disfigure the image of their ideal love, Guldstad reveals a fatal dialectic within ideal love itself. Only by renouncing actual love altogether, he paradoxically proves, can they preserve it against the contamination of time and the world’s process. To maintain the integrity of their love, Falk and Svanhild now renounce their union as ardently as they earlier affirmed it. Svanhild will enter into a practical and loveless marriage with Guldstad; Falk will embark upon an uncompromising defense of idealism against conventional society - that now gathers to celebrate Svanhild’s capitulation and Falk’s exile.