The story opens with Olenka, the daughter of the retired collegiate assessor, sitting at the back door steps of her house and listening to Kukin, manager of an open-air theatre, complaining about the weather and his life in general. This situation keeps repeating for three evenings. Olenka listens seriously, in silence. Eventually she falls in love with Kukin and after her father's death they get married.
Olenka and Kukin lead a comfortable happy life. Olenka starts to work at Tivoli, Kukin's theatre and listens to what Kukin has to say about it. Soon, she adopts all his opinions and starts shareng them with her friends and other people she meets, becoming preoccupied with the theatre. One day Kukin has to leave for Moscow. Olenka is counting down the days until his return, however, Kukin writes that he will be detained. One sleepless evening Olenka receives an unfortunate telegram saying her husband suddenly died.
After several months of mourning Olenka meets another man. Vasily Pustovalov is a manager of a lumber-yard and it does not take Olenka too long until she fall in love with him. Soon after, the wedding follows. Olenka and Vasily live happily together spending most of their time in the lumber yard. In time of his absence Olenka takes over Vasily's duties and eventually his opinions. The lumber becomes the only thing she thinks about. On one winter day, Vasily goes to the lumber yard without a hat and takes sick. After four months he dies and Olenka is left a widow again.
In six months after Vasily's death, Olenka starts to go out finally, and also finds herself a new man. Vladimir Platonych is a veterinary surgeon who lodged in the wing of her house during Olenka's marriage to Vasily. She spends a lot of time listening to Vladimir and repeats his words and opinions to people she meets. This relationship does not result into marriage, because Vladimir has a wife, who he left behind. Soon enough Vladimir leaves Olenka too, with his regiment being transferred.
With no man in her life Olenka's existence looses meaning. She has no one to tell her what to think and holds no opinions. Furthermore, her best years are due, and her beauty fades away. People no longer call her 'darling'. Olenka age's and 'gets homely', her soul becomes dreary and bitter.
One day in July, Smirnov returns with his wife, who he had reconciled with, and his son Sasha. Olenka is glad to see them and insists they move into her house and she resides in the lodge. After some time Smirnov's wife leaves for Kharkov to live with her sister for good, leaving her husband and her son behind. Smirnov spends most of his time at work and Olenka feels Sasha is abandoned by his parents. She decides to make up for that and makes Sasha the new centre of her life. In the evening she prepares for the lessons with him and everywhere she talks about the studying and the gymnasium. Through Sasha, Olenka's existence finds new meaning, however, he feels rather smothered by all the love and care she gives him. This is expressed in the last words of the story when Sasha exclaims from sleep: “I’ll give it to you! Get away! Shut up!”