Note to reader: Due to the dense nature of the play, each act has been subdivided into smaller sections. There are two subdivisions for Acts One and Four, and three for Acts Two and Three. At the beginning of each summary is an indication of the range of the play the summary that it covers.
The following summaries and analyses are based on Ronald Hingley's English translation of the play (1966), available from Oxford University Press.
The play begins in a room that is called the "nursery", even though, as we soon find out, it has been unoccupied by children for many years. It is dawn on a cold and frosty May morning, and the cherry trees are in bloom. Yermolay Lopakhin, a businessman, is eagerly awaiting the return of Ranevsky, the owner of the house and the surrounding estate, who, Lopakhin tells us, has been away for five years. Also waiting is Dunyasha, a maid on Ranevsky's estate. Lopakhin recounts a story of how Ranevsky was kind to him after his father had beaten him as a child, pausing as he remembers how Ranevsky referred to him as a "little peasant". Dunyasha worries and fusses with her appearance; Lopakhin tells her not to be so sensitive and to "remember her place".
They are soon joined by the clerk Simon Yephikodov, who drops flowers on the floor as he enters. He complains about the weather, about his squeaking shoes, and his unfortunate life. Lopakhin is rude to him, and Simon leaves. Afterwards, Dunyasha confesses to Lopakhin that Yepikhodov has proposed to her and that he is called "Simple Simon" by everyone else on the estate both for his strange talk and the frequent accidents that befall him.
Ranevsky then arrives from the train station. Everyone leaves the house to greet her. As she enters, she is accompanied by Anya, her daughter who has been with her in Paris since Easter, by Varya, her adopted twenty-four year-old daughter who has been managing her mother's estate and went to meet Ranevsky at the station, by Firs, her 87-year-old manservant who has also been to greet Ranevsky at the train station, and by Charlotte, Anya's governess. She is also greeted by Leonid Gayev, her brother, and Boris Simeonov-Pischik, another landowner. Dunyasha lets Anya know that Peter Trofimov, the tutor of Ranevsky's dead son Grisha, is staying in the bathhouse, and Anya reacts with surprised joy.
Varya enters, carrying the keys to the estate. Varya and Anya greet each other tearfully. Anya explains to Varya the depressing conditions that she found their mother in when she came to Paris, and the fact that, despite her poverty, her mother insists on spending money wherever she goes. Varya, in her turn, talks about her hopes of one day marrying Anya off to a rich man. Varya is expected to marry Lopakhin, but she reveals that he has not yet propsed, and she fears he never will. She says that if she only had enough money, she would leave the estate behind and join a convent. Anya explains, seemingly to no one but the audience, why her mother left for Paris: the death, six years previous, of Mr. Ranevsky, followed one month later by the drowning of the family's seven-year old son in the nearby river.