Arnolphe, a wealthy fifty-two year old man, returns home after a ten-day absence. He recently renamed himself “Monsieur de la Souche” (after a tree stump on his estate). His friend Chrysalde has a few opposing opinions to share with him, his thoughts on his new name being only one of them. He also warns him about the faultiness of his longtime plan of confining his ward, Agnès, to a convent to “be raised in ignorance of life” that someday she may be his innocent and dutiful wife. Arnolphe pays him no heed. Now that Agnès is of marrying age, he moves her into his house and plans to soon wed her.
Horace, the son of Arnolphe’s dear friend, Oronte, arrives at Arnolphe’s house and confesses he has fallen in love with a beautiful girl. She has told him of how her master, Monsieur de la Souche, keeps her hidden away from the world. Not knowing about Arnolphe’s new name, Horace confides to him his plan to steal away Agnès. Thus begins the game of scheming by each man to hold onto Agnès despite unexpected challenges.
Arnolphe anxiously confronts Agnès about her contact with Horace. A misunderstanding arises where Angès believes Arnolphe has given her permission to marry Horace, while Arnolphe believes she has agreed to marry him. When he realizes what has happened, he forbids her from seeing Horace again and quickly sends for a notary to prepare the marriage contract.
Horace returns and again tries to see Agnès, who rebuffs him (at her master’s command) and even throws a stone at him. She has, however, tied a note to it in which she confesses her love for him. Horace unwittingly confides his distress to Arnolphe about his attempts to “rescue” her. Arnolphe realizes that his innocent Agnès is more quick-witted and imaginative that he has given her credit for, and, despite her seeming betrayals, he loves her all the more. He, however, decides to call off the wedding for now and sends the notary away.
Horace once again confides in Arnolphe about a plan to be with Agnès. After Horace leaves, Arnolphe orders his servants at whatever the cost to deter the young man when he returns that very night to steal away his love.
Nothing seems to stop Arnolphe or Horace from trying to hold onto sweet Agnès. Who will win her hand? Will marriage plans come to fruition? This classic farce reveals that perhaps youth and innocence are no assurance of plans for marital bliss, no matter how much effort is involved.