The setting is the Islaev country estate in the 1840s. Natalya Petrovna, a headstrong 29-year-old, is married to Arkadi Islaev, a rich landowner seven years her senior. Bored with life, she welcomes the attentions of Mikhail Rakitin as her devoted but resentful admirer, without ever letting their friendship develop into a love affair.
The arrival of the handsome 21-year-old student Aleksei Belyaev as tutor to her son Kolya ends her boredom. Natalya falls in love with Aleksei, but so does her ward Vera, the Islaevs' 17-year-old foster daughter. To rid herself of her rival, Natalya proposes that Vera should marry a rich old neighbour, but the rivalry remains unresolved.
Rakitin struggles with his love for Natalya, and she wrestles with hers for Aleksei, while Vera and Aleksei draw closer. Misunderstandings arise, and when Arkadi begins to have his suspicions, both Rakitin and Aleksei are obliged to leave. As other members of the household drift off to their own worlds, Natalya's life returns to a state of boredom.