In simple language, this compact narrative presents the correspondingly uncomplicated and short life of Alyosha, from his early years with his family in a village to his death at age twenty-one from an accident while working in town. The plot can be divided into three phases, in each of which the protagonist is abused in some way. The first phase shows Alyosha’s life from early childhood through his eighteenth year, as the spindly lad grows up with his peasant family in a village. Despite his build, he is hardworking and is abusively overtaxed with farm chores by his mother and father, leaving him little if any time for school, which Alyosha has found difficult from the beginning. Because of his cheerfulness (derived from good-heartedness, the narrator implies), Alyosha uncomplainingly bears his labors, his parents’ habitual, overly severe chastisement, and the mockery from other youths about his homeliness and clumsiness. The latter occasions his nickname, when after accidentally breaking a pot filled with milk Alyosha is not only beaten by his mother but also tauntingly dubbed "the Pot" by his peers, whose childhood cruelty complements that of the adults.
In the second phase of the plot, Alyosha is apprenticed by his father to a town merchant, replacing Alyosha’s brother, who has been drafted into the army. Despite initial doubts and insults about Alyosha’s physical capacity for labor, the merchant, along with the rest of the household, quickly falls into the pattern of Alyosha’s parents, assigning the ever-cheerful and obedient youth an unending series of toils. Once again, Alyosha is incessantly criticized and taken for granted, never thanked, and shown kindness only by the young cook, who, though working Alyosha like the rest of the household, makes an effort to see that he is properly fed and clothed.
In the third phase of the plot, Alyosha discovers for the first time a relationship not based on family or necessity but on love.
Though his clumsy marriage proposal is accepted by the cook, Ustinya, who returns his feeling, the couple is thwarted by the callous self-interest of those around them. The merchant and his wife object to the marriage, fearing a lessening of productivity in their servants. When their complaint is made to Alyosha’s father, who has only been interested in collecting the entirety of his son’s wages and has even reproved his son for the expense of a new pair of boots (the old ones, hand-me-downs from his brother, were literally worn out in Alyosha’s ceaseless labors), the father forbids the marriage. Always obedient, Alyosha agrees, though both he and Ustinya are grieved, and for the first time in his life, Alyosha’s smiling gives way to weeping when he answers affirmatively the question put to him by the merchant’s wife about whether he will mind his father.
The narrative states that Alyosha’s life returns to what it had been, but the reader knows that Alyosha suffers the added injury of losing his loved one in addition to his regular maltreatment by family and employers. Only a short time later, Alyosha falls from the rooftop of the merchant’s store, where he has climbed to clear off snow, as ordered by the merchant’s clerk. At the conclusion of the story, Alyosha’s simple piety is demonstrated when on the third day of his incapacitation Alyosha thanks Ustinya for her kindness, vindicates the thwarting of their marriage (since his fatal injury would have ended it anyway), prays wordlessly with the priest who has been summoned, and then dies peacefully.