The narrator explains how he would visit his friend Savka at the Dubrovsk allotments. The two men would go on fishing trips, talk to each other, and roam "carefree about the countryside." The narrator describes Savka as tall, handsome and about twenty-five years old. He notes that Savka was incredibly strong but also unbelievably lazy, as he had declined to work a steady job in order to support his old mother. Instead, the young man lived "like a bird" on his plot of land and spent his time in "motionless contemplation" of the surrounding countryside. The narrator describes the air of "serene, innate, almost artistic passion for living about his whole figure."
One evening in May, the narrator and Savka rest on a rug after a hard day's fishing. As darkness falls, the two men discuss bird migration before Savka mentions that he has invited a woman to visit him that night. The narrator recognizes the woman as Agafya, a young peasant girl married to a railway signalman named Yakov. The narrator warns Savka that he will "come to a bad end" because of all his affairs, but the young man insists that he does not care and that he cannot help it if women throw themselves at him. After watching the last sunlight fall away, the two men eat their supper. Savka explains that "the women" bring all of his food because they "pity" him. His dog starts growling at the sound of someone splashing across the river, heralding Agafya's arrival. Savka derides the young woman's excuses that her husband sent her and explains that "the gentleman" knows why she has come; he then offers her some vodka. Just as the narrator decides he should go for a walk, a nightingale starts to sing. Savka darts up and disappears into the darkness in pursuit of the bird. The narrator notes that his friend was an excellent hunter but that he wasted his talent on "mere tricks" such as catching birds with his hands.
The narrator and Agafya are left alone together. The man agrees not to tell anyone about what she has done but asks Agafya if she is afraid Yakov will find out. The young woman replies that she always makes sure to get home before her husband. As time passes, Agafya grows concerned that the last train will arrive and that her husband will find out she is missing. However, even when she hears the sound of the train in the distance, Agafya cannot bring herself to leave. Savka returns and explains how he failed to catch the nightingale. The narrator goes for a walk to give Agafya and his friend time alone together and muses on the fascination Savka exerts over women. When he returns, the narrator finds Agafya "intoxicated with the vodka [and] Savka's contemptuous caresses." He reminds the girl that she should leave, and Agafya jumps to her feet. The narrator leaves to sit in a hollow in the riverbank, looks at the stars, and listens to Yakov calling for his wife. He hears laughter coming from the allotments and realizes that Agafya is trying to forget about her predicament by spending a few happy hours with Savka.
The narrator is awoken the next morning by his friend, and the two men watch Agafya cross the stream to return home. Savka states callously that the girl will "get it good and proper" for being unfaithful to her husband. The dismayed narrator sees Agafya stumble across the field towards Yakov. He describes his friend's face as being "contorted with distaste and pity, as happens with people who watch animals being tortured." Suddenly, however, Agafya straightens up and strides courageously toward her husband to "face the music."
This story was published in the New Times in 1886, to the delight of the great novelist Dmitry Grigorovich. David Magarshack notes that Grigorovich praised Chekhov for the authenticity of his fiction and that the Grigorovich wrote to Chekhov, "Only a true artist could have written a story like Agafya not in a single word or movement does one feel that the story has been "made up"—everything in it is true, everything in it is just as it could have happened in real life." Grigorovich went on to compare Chekhov to both Tolstoy and Turgenev. Certainly, the young author merited this praise: his story displays many features of a great tale. Words are used minimally but to the greatest effect, from which the author crafts rich yet laconic descriptions. Chekhov's wonderfully subtle descriptions evoke mood as well as setting, while his characters are all the more real for being deftly sketched. For example, readers immediately grasp Savka's adolescent, capricious personality in the lines, "He was precipitated into activity when the spirit moved him catching a dog by the tail, tearing a kerchief off a woman's head, or jumping across a wide crack in the ground." We see by Savka's language—he refers to the narrator as "Sir" and tells Agafya, "I was beginning to think you wasn't coming tonight"—that he is not a member of the gentry, although the young man displays a natural refinement stemming from his affinity with nature.
Similarly, Chekhov describes the beauties of landscape and the natural world in brief but fertile prose. We read, "All that was left of the sunset was a pale crimson shaft of light, and even that was beginning to be overspread with flecks of cloud, as burning coal might be with ashes." The graceful pacing of Chekhov's prose gives it the lyricism of poetry. It is as though we are listening to a piece of music, while its harmonies and rhythms also evoke the musicality of nature. Birds twitter, insects chirrup, and a nightingale sings in the evening stillness. Chekhov treats every aspect of his tale with this type of sensitivity. The author even brings the coarser elements of Savka's affair with Agafya to life, while respecting both characters' inherent humanity. We thus read that Savka "despised women" but see also that this stems from a great desire to be left alone. As Leonard Woolf wrote in the New Statesman in 1917, Chekhov was an "unflinching realist" who nevertheless "picked up with the extreme tips of his fingers a little piece of real life, and then with minute care and skill pinned it by means of words into a book." The author's ability to be simultaneously candid and delicate with prose is revealed in his account of Agafya's adultery with Savka. We see that the narrator returns from his walk to find that "Agafya, intoxicated with the vodka, Savka's contemptuous caresses, and the closeness of the night, lay on the ground beside him, her face pressed to his knee." Chekhov thus treats his characters with great tenderness but does not refrain from recording the seedy, tragic, or pathetic elements of their existence.
Although Chekhov uses these same literary skills elsewhere, Agafya stands out from his other stories in one important respect. In contrast to many other tales where the ending is understated, Agafya ends on a powerful note of achievement. The young woman initially takes a slow and tortuous route back to confront her husband, but then she strides toward him with determination. Undeniably, Chekhov confounds our expectations with this sudden twist. However, because of the author's subtle feel for the motives of his characters—clearly, Agafya recognizes that she has already jeopardized her marriage and thus approaches her husband with complete abandon—this conclusion rings true. Chekhov leaves us to surmise what will happen next.