On a snow-covered road in New England, retired Classics professor Coleman Silk and his much younger girl friend, Faunia Farley, are killed when their car is forced off the road into a frozen lake by an oncoming red pickup truck. Coleman’s close friend, writer Nathan Zuckerman, stunned by the unexpected deaths, sets about examining Coleman’s life: As a Jew from a poor background, Coleman attends prestigious Yale and Oxford graduate universities before becoming the Dean of Faculty at small Athena College in Massachusetts. Over the next thirty-five years, Coleman, a dedicated progressive, reforms the conservative college, first invigorating the stale academic program, then appointing the school’s first female and African-American professors. In 1998, nearly two years before his death, and a month into the new term, during a class lecture Coleman grows irritated when he calls upon two students who are continually absent. Frustrated, Coleman asks the class why the students are never in attendance and wryly questions whether they exist or are “spooks.” Shortly thereafter, the students, both African American, lodge a complaint against Coleman for making a racially insulting remark. Called before a board led by Professor Delphine Roux, an outraged Coleman denies that he knew the students’ race, refuses to apologize and resigns in a furor. At home, Coleman angrily tells his wife Iris about the meeting and his resignation. Equally livid, Iris supports her husband’s decision, only to be overcome by a sudden brain aneurysm that causes her death. Six months later, Coleman seeks out Nathan, who has taken refuge in a lone cabin in the country where he is attempting to return to writing after surviving prostate cancer and a divorce. Coleman asks Nathan to write about the hypocrisy of the academic establishment that caused Iris’ death, but as the men become friends, Nathan encourages Coleman to tell his own story. Coleman spends a year working on the project, only to confess to Nathan that his attempts have failed. While packing the private effects he has been using for his memoir, Coleman ignores Nathan's urging to continue writing and pauses over a photograph of beautiful blonde Steena Paulsson, his great love when an undergraduate student at New York University. Coleman then confides in Nathan that he has begun an affair with a thirty-four-year-old woman, Faunia, a cleaning woman at the local post office and the college. Delighted by Faunia’s frank sexual interest and made confident through the use of a sex stimulant drug, Coleman continues the affair, ignoring the disapproval by his friends and Athena’s faculty. Although guarded and uncomfortable with Coleman’s reputation and status in the town, Faunia finally confides in him that she came from a wealthy background that was shattered by her parents’ divorce. Faunia relates that after being sexually abused by her stepfather, she ran away from home and succeeded as best as she could on her own. One evening at Faunia’s room on the dairy farm where she also works, Coleman and Faunia are interrupted by the arrival of Lester Farley, Faunia’s ex-husband, who drives a red pickup truck. Les, a Vietnam veteran who served two tours of duty, has spent several stretches in a veteran’s rehabilitation program under psychiatric care and believes that Faunia used this to take away their two children. Coleman is surprised to learn these details of Faunia’s past, but does not judge her. Despite Coleman’s understanding, Faunia continues to feel uncomfortable about their social differences and suggests they stop seeing each other, but Coleman refuses. Another evening, Les again harasses Faunia and Coleman at night and, after contacting the police, Faunia demands that Les leave her alone. Les insults Coleman and then angrily accuses Faunia of murdering their children. Later after the police have escorted Les away, Faunia confesses to Coleman that she remains racked with guilt by the deaths of both her children in an accidental fire. Soon after, Coleman receives an anonymous note accusing him of taking advantage of a helpless, abused woman. Certain the note has come from an Athena faculty member, Coleman takes it to his lawyer, Nelson Primus, and requests advice. Incensed when both Nelson and later Nathan advise him to give up Faunia, Coleman recalls a pivotal event from his youth in the 1940s: As a successful boxer in high school, Coleman is surprised when his coach, Doc Chizner, assures him that he can win an athletic scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. Although very fair-skinned, Coleman is African American and asks Doc how he could be accepted. Doc guarantees that if Coleman refrains from identifying himself as black, the scholarship board will assume that he is Jewish, like Doc. At home, Coleman dines with his family, his father, former optometrist Clarence, his mother, Dorothy, a nurse, younger sister Ernestine and older brother Walter, on leave from the army. Clarence has learned of Coleman’s boxing success and despite the news of a scholarship, coldly disapproves and insists that Coleman enroll in Howard University, a noted black school. That evening, Clarence, who now works as a waiter on a train dining car, collapses and dies of a heart attack. Shortly after, Dorothy consoles Coleman but is baffled by her son’s insistent refusal to attend Howard as Clarence wished. When Coleman explains that he does not want to live defined by his race, but rather by his individual talents, Dorothy remains dismayed and perplexed. Coleman then enlists in the navy, identifying himself for the first time as white. Later, at NYU, Coleman and Steena have become seriously involved, although Coleman has not confessed his true race. Confident of her love for him, Coleman invites Steena to go home to meet Dorothy and, elated by the implications, she accepts. Although stunned upon seeing Dorothy, Steena remains outwardly unruffled during the visit, but on the train ride home breaks down and acknowledges to Coleman that she cannot continue their relationship. Deeply hurt, Coleman takes his anger out by becoming a professional boxer known as “Silky” Silk and is especially brutal to black opponents. In the present, Nathan again entreats Coleman to stop seeing Faunia as her continued association with Les could prove dangerous. Instead, Coleman convinces Faunia to stay overnight at his home for the first time. The next morning, however, when Coleman makes breakfast for her, Faunia unexpectedly bursts into anger over his unassuming kindness and denounces him for his safe, comfortable life in which he has never suffered. Faunia flees from the house, but after spending most of the day reflecting on her past, returns and offers Coleman an apology. Coleman then admits he has something to tell her that no one else knows. That afternoon, Coleman and Faunia go for a drive and are forced off the road to their deaths by Les. Nathan later learns that an inquiry by the VA psychiatric board concludes that Les is delusional, but cannot establish that he was responsible for the accident. Coleman’s sister Ernestine attends his funeral and Nathan approaches her, believing she is the wife of an Athena faculty member. Ernestine explains her identity and, surprised but fascinated, Nathan asks for more details of Coleman’s past: After graduating from NYU, Coleman visits Dorothy bearing a photograph of Iris, a young Jewish woman he has been dating, whom he intends to marry. When Dorothy remarks that he has not brought Iris to meet her, Coleman uncomfortably admits that he has told Iris that his parents are dead. Realizing that Coleman means never to reveal his identity to Iris and intends to cut himself off entirely from his family and roots, Dorothy sadly berates her son and, with a broken heart, bids him farewell. Later that evening, Walter visits Coleman and orders him never to see Dorothy again. In the present, Ernestine relates that she was the only family member to keep in touch with Coleman throughout the years, but never understood why he felt it necessary to lie his entire life. Ernestine and Nathan wonder if Coleman ever revealed his past to anyone. After the publication of Nathan’s book on Coleman’s controversial life, Nathan seeks out Les to let him know that he holds Les responsible for Coleman and Faunia’s death. Les responds that no one else will ever really know the truth.