In a kaleidoscopic, circus-like world, tiny clownish Littlechap is born. He goes through school, finds work as a tea-boy, and struggles to make his way in life. One day, while traveling on the bus, he falls in love with Evie, his boss’s daughter. When they discover Evie is pregnant, Littlechap and Evie get married. Saddled with the responsibilities of a family, Littlechap manages to get a job in his father-in-law's factory.
Littlechap moves up the business ladder, becoming the manager of his office, and he and his wife have another daughter. Still, Littlechap longs for a son. Despite his career success, he grows increasingly dissatisfied with his life, and he pursues several different women in his business travels—Russian official Anya, German domestic Ilse, and American cabaret singer Ginnie—in a futile quest for satisfaction.
Over time, Littlechap becomes rich and successful, and is elected to public office. But life still seems to have moved too quickly for him, and he remains unsatisfied. In his old age, Littlechap looks back on his life in a fleeting parade of memories, and he realizes that what he always had—the love of his wife— was more than enough to sustain him. Sadly, Evie dies before Littlechap can make amends.
Littlechap begins writing his memoirs, and finally comes to terms with his own selfishness. At the moment of his death, he watches his daughter Jane give birth to a son. When the boy nearly dies, Littlechap intervenes, and allows Death to take him instead. Littlechap mimes his own birth, and the life cycle begins once again.