Katadreuffe is an illegitimate child, raised in a Rotterdam slum, but lucky in the character of his mother, who is independent, self-respecting, and austere to the point of rejecting the repeated proposals of the boy's father to marry her, or simply to help her with money. The man in question is a force of nature, violent as a matter of policy, grasping, ruthless, and full of resource. Young Katadreuffe joins a firm of lawyers as a kind of superior office-boy, and is seized with the romance of business and the practice of law. He undertakes to educate himself, and enjoys the consideration of the senior members of the firm, but they make no allowances for him; handsome, intelligent, and severe, he is his mother's son, and no man may offer to help him. He is his father's son, too, and he means to prevail. At every stage of his progress, he encounters his father's secret opposition, and manages to overcome it. In one tremendous scene, Katadreuffe confronts his father in his place of business. The older man takes a large clasp-knife from his pocket and offers it to his outraged son, who drives the point of the weapon into the heavy desk that separates them.Besides being the anatomy of a successful man, who achieves status in his profession and the esteem of his colleagues, the portrait of Katadreuffe's character details those traits that are negative and sterile: the absence or the atrophy of a warm heart, the absence of love (though he has been loved), and the unrelenting will that in the last pages of the novel he recognizes as his kinship with the father he has abjured.