The story opens with Olenka sitting at the back doorstep of her house as rain clouds roll in. She's listening to Kukin, the owner of the open-air theatre the Tivoli, complain about how the weather is ruining his business. Olenka listens, growing more affectionate for Kukin the more he prattles on. She falls in love with Kukin and they marry after her father's death.
Olenka and Kukin lead a comfortable happy life. Olenka starts to work at the Tivoli, soon adopting all of Kukin's opinions and becoming preoccupied with the theatre. Kukin eventually leaves to Moscow to recruit a troupe for his theater, and Olenka anxiously awaits his return. But she receives a telegram that Kukin has been detained and, shortly after, another one stating that he has died.
While mourning, Olenka meets Vasily Pustovalov, a lumber merchant. It does not take Olenka long to fall in love with him and promptly marry him. Olenka and Pustovalov live happily together, spending their time either preoccupied with the lumber business or enjoying a materially-comfortable home life. Olenka absorbs all of her husband's ideas about business and religion, and becomes totally obsessed with lumber. On one winter day, Pustolatov goes to the lumber yard too soon after drinking hot tea, promptly falling ill. After four months of fighting off the sickness, Pustovalov dies, leaving Olenka alone yet again.
Olenka is much more reclusive after Pustovalov's death, and mourns in solitude for six months. She slowly builds a rapport with Smirnin, a military veterinary surgeon who is lodging in her house, and can be seen drinking tea with him as he reads her the news. Like with all the previous men in her life, Olenka begins to grow fascinated with Smirnin's work and absorbs all manner of his opinions. Yet their relationship cannot blossom since Smirnin is married to a woman he's estranged from, and together they have a young son. Soon enough, Smirnin is transferred by the military.
With no man in her life, Olenka sinks into a deep depression and finds herself in an odd predicament. With no one around her spouting ideas and opinions, she finds that she has none whatsoever. Even about the smallest objects or the weather, she is totally blank. She finds herself attracting less attention around town, and only growing more isolated.
One day, Smirnin returns to the town with his wife, who he has reconciled with, and his son, Sasha. He tells Olenka they need a place to live and Olenka welcomes them to lodge in her house. After some time Smirnin's wife leaves for Kharkov to live with her sister for good, and Smirnin himself grows occupied with the town's nightlife and social happenings. Olenka decides to take a more active role in Sasha's upbringing with the boys' parents having practically abandoned him, and Olenka develops a maternal relationship with the boy.
In an ironic inversion of her relationship with the other men in her life, Olenka starts to absorb all of Sasha's opinions and ideas about his school, but this time her obsession resembles that of a doting mother. Nonetheless, as many small boys do, Sasha starts to feel suffocated by the attention. The story ends with him crying out a protest against Olenka's closeness and constant attention in his sleep.