At the opening of Act I, it is a cloudy autumn day on a Russian country estate. In the garden, the old nurse Marina stands at the samovar and offers Doctor Astrov something to eat, but he refuses. He complains about the difficulty of his job. Telegin, an impoverished local landowner, sits with them. Voynitsky, known as Vanya, comes out of the house and joins them. He is almost fifty and is weary and irritable. He complains about his brother-in-law, Serebryakov (the widower of Vanya’s deceased sister), Serebryakov’s young second wife, Helen, and about how their visit has turned the place upside down.
Serebryakov, Helen, and Serebryakov’s daughter, Sonya, join them for a moment. After they depart, Vanya sighs about Helen’s beauty and then complains about how he has toiled his whole life on this estate for the professor and it has come to naught. After Vanya’s sister’s death, he and Sonya worked here so the professor could continue his studies and his writings, but Vanya has come to see that work as foolish and irrelevant. When Astrov suggests that Vanya is jealous, Vanya laughs that he obviously is, especially as the old, gout-and-rheumatism-ridden man seems to attract beautiful women.
Helen ventures outside and tells Astrov his services are not needed for her husband. Mrs. Voynitsky, Vanya’s mother and Sonya’s grandmother, tells them about a new pamphlet written by a friend in Kharkov. When Vanya sneers that all they do is read pamphlets, she becomes distressed and claims he hates her. Vanya merely says he is old, tired, and frustrated.
A laborer arrives and tells Astrov he is wanted at the factory; the doctor bitterly departs, but not before they all discuss how he is very interested in forestry work. Sonya speaks up cheerfully about how Astrov is trying to save the old forest from destruction because forests make people happier. Astrov speaks of how Russians have torn down the forests and destroyed the wildlife: they no longer create, but rather destroy.
After Sonya walks Astrov out, Vanya tries to seduce Helen, but she pushes him away. She muses about how Sonya clearly seems to love the doctor but he does not love her back. Helen sighs that she is simply bored and life is too much for her.
In Act II, Serebryakov complains to Helen of how he is old and no one respects him. His querulous behavior only annoys Helen, who begs him to stop it. Serebryakov ignores her and bemoans how his life of scholarship seems to be nothing now.
Sonya joins them and tells them Serebryakov must see Astrov now; she wants her father to stop behaving like a child. The elderly nurse Marina comforts Serebryakov and leads him out.
Helen tells Vanya, who entered the room, that her husband wearies her. Vanya can only lament that everything is over for him and his life was wasted on trivial things. Helen is annoyed and moves to leave, but he bars her way. She accuses him of being drunk, and he admits to it.
After Helen sweeps out of the room, Vanya ruminates on what a fool he was not to fall in love with her when she was younger; he once admired the professor, but now he does not.
When Astrov returns, he mocks Vanya for having feelings for Helen, but Vanya will not admit it. Astrov leaves to get a drink; Sonya pulls him aside and makes him promise to stop drinking and stop getting her uncle drunk. He agrees. They continue to talk for a moment. He comments that Helen is beautiful but idle and useless. This country life makes people like that, and he despises it; he has been beaten down and sees no light at the end for himself. The peasants are all the same, and educated people are ridiculous. He only likes forests.
Sonya compliments him and tries to cheer him up. As he prepares to leave, she asks how he might feel if he were to out that a friend of hers has feelings for him, and he drolly says he cannot love anyone. After he leaves, Sonya feels a surge of happiness though she is not sure why.
In Act III, Sonya confesses to Helen that she loves Astrov, and Helen suggests that she say something to see if the doctor loves Sonya too. Sonya gives her permission for Helen to do this. Astrov and Helen meet to ostensibly look at his forestry maps. He discourses volubly on the patterns of deforestation until he sees that Helen is uninterested.
Helen insists she is interested but says they should talk about something else. She point-blank asks if he likes Sonya, and he says no. He then moves in to seduce Helen, but she wants none of it. As he tries to kiss her, Vanya enters the room with flowers.
Helen is horrified by the situation and begs Vanya to tell her husband that they must leave today.
A moment later, Serebryakov and the others enter and Serebryakov announces that he has an idea to sell the estate because he and Helen need to afford a place in the city. This announcement angers Vanya tremendously, and he begins to complain violently about how Serebryakov is a fraud, is uninspired, is thankless, and how he, Vanya, has labored for Serebryakov his whole life and for no reason. He insists this is Sonya’s estate. He runs out of the room.
Serebryakov is startled by Vanya’s outburst. He insists he cannot stay here anymore. Sonya implores him to talk to her uncle and he agrees. He departs, and those in the room hear a gunshot, then another.
Helen and Vanya struggle over a revolver as Vanya screeches that he missed the professor. Cursing, he sinks into a chair.
In Act IV, Telegin and Marina discuss Serebryakov and Helen’s planned departure for that day, then exit the room. Vanya and Astrov come in. Astrov mocks Vanya for his behavior and asks him to return what he stole. Vanya maintains that he is innocent of theft. Astrov laments how this parochial existence crushes people: it is stultifying and useless.
When Sonya enters Astrov tells her to tell her uncle to return the bottle of morphia he stole. Sonya turns to her uncle and tearfully asks him for the bottle. He complies. She takes him to make up with her father.
Helen enters to tell Astrov goodbye. He tries to seduce her again in a rather lackluster fashion; she kisses him and bids him farewell.
Everyone bids goodbye to Serebryakov and Helen, who leave the estate. Sonya and Vanya return to work. Marina suggests Astrov stay for dinner; he refuses and says he must be off. Astrov leaves, and even though Sonya knows he did not love her, she is sad. Vanya, though, claims he is extremely depressed.
With both in tears, Sonya comforts her uncle. She tells him that life may be difficult for them now, but the afterlife will be full of peace, love, and rest.