Olga Plemyannikov sits on the steps of her house musing in the heat of the day. The theater owner Mr. Kukin, who lives in a wing of Olga's house, worries that the coming rain will drive away more of his customers. As the days pass Kukin grows pessimistic about the fact that he is ruined. A "deep and genuine feeling" arises in Olga, and she falls in love with her fretful neighbor. The narrator describes how Olga has always been in love with someone—starting with her father as a young child—and that she inspires mutual affection from most of the people she meets. Even Olga's female friends will exclaim in the middle of conversation "Oh, you darling!" as a way of conveying their fondness for her.
Olga's father dies, bequeathing his daughter their large townhouse, and she marries Kukin. Although the couple are happy, the narrator notes that "it never stopped raining," which meant that an "expression of despair" never left Kukin's face. As his wife, Olga helps Kukin in the box office, keeps his accounts, and manages his business. She adopts his attitudes, shares his complaints, and worries about the size of their audiences. Although Olga and her husband live well, Kukin grows increasingly thin in concern over their livelihood. Kukin leaves to hire actors in Moscow, and Olga is woken one night by a loud hammering "boom! boom! boom!" on her gate. A messenger delivers a telegram informing her of Kukin's death.
Although devastated by this event, Olga spends only three months in mourning before befriending Vasily Pustovalov, the merchant of a local timber yard. The narrator notes simply that Olga "liked him very much." After a courtship lasting only a few days, during which time an old woman visits Olga and convinces her of Vasily's allure, the friends marry. Soon enough, Olga is working in her husband's office and regaling her friends with tales of timber prices as though she had worked in the business for years. She dismisses the theater as being "nonsense," becomes somber and religious-minded, and shares every opinion that Vasily holds. She even encourages her new friend, an army veterinarian named Smirnin, to forgive his adulterous wife and mend their marriage for the good of his son. The Pustovalovs enjoy a comfortable, well-fed life for six years until Vasily catches a cold in the timber yard and dies after a prolonged illness.
Olga retreats into virtual isolation, with only her cat and visits from Smirnin to occupy her. She adopts all of Smirnin's ideas and embarrasses him by parroting his opinions regarding animal diseases. Olga and Smirnin soon become lovers. Unfortunately, Smirnin is posted to a camp near Siberia and has to leave his partner "absolutely alone." The lonely widow grows thinner and frets that she no longer "knows what to talk about." Years later, Smirnin reappears and informs Olga that he has reunited with his wife and young son. Olga suggests that the family move into her home, and Olga can live in the attached cottage. The aging widow immediately falls in love with Smirnin's nine-year-old son, Sasha, who moves in with her after his mother leaves to stay with her sister. Olga enjoys taking him to school and helping him with homework, but the boy feels smothered by his "auntie's" love. Olga's moods fluctuate between joyfulness at her new lifestyle and fear that Sasha's mother will send for the little boy. The story ends on a cryptic note as Sasha cries out in his sleep at night "I'll give you on! Get out! Don't hit me!"
It is appropriate that this humorous and poignant story has a pitiable yet ludicrous protagonist. While Olga is endearingly sweet and unaffected, readers cannot help but be irritated by her inability to form opinions. We see that she loves the theater when she is married to Kukin but detests it when with Pustovalov; she also switches from taking an exuberant interest in life's distractions to somberly reflecting on its frivolities in accordance with her husbands' views. Consequently, we have to decide whether to pity Olga for her lack of autonomy or laugh at her ignorance. She lacks independence of mind as well as spirit and floats adrift in a sea of male opinions, ideas, and beliefs. We are left to wonder at the sheer unoriginality of a woman who, when married to a timber merchant, concludes, "the most important and necessary thing in life was timber." Essentially, Chekhov seems to use his protagonist to emblematize female disempowerment (it is deeply ironic that the anti-feminist author Tolstoy admired Olga, whom he felt personified the ideal of female selflessness.)
On this point, readers see how the characters' use of the endearment "darling" patronizes and even demeans Olga. We sense that society is collectively patting the protagonist on the back for subordinating to the male intellect. But Chekhov does more than merely condemn his heroine as anti-feminist. Looking closely at the text we see that the author's treatment of his protagonist is far more complex. Chekhov first cultivates our sympathy toward his protagonist by noting that Olga felt a "deep and genuine feeling" toward her first husband; he then shows how she suffers through a string of bereavements. Olga thus emerges as a flawed yet gentle woman whose life has been blighted by disappointment. Even the sense of fulfillment she gains looking after Sasha is spurious because the child does not love her in return. We see that while Olga is prepared to die for the little boy, Sasha asks his "auntie" not to walk him into school because he is secretly ashamed of her. As a result, readers feel both sympathy and exasperation toward the protagonist. Because she has loved and lost so many times, one is tempted to forgive her for being unintelligent.