One day, while walking home from mass, Olenka strikes up a conversation with her neighbor Vassily Andreitch Pustovalov, who is dressed like an aristocrat even though he works as a lumber merchant. He tells her that when one loses a loved one, one must realize that it has been ordained by God and must accept the circumstances as such.
Olenka quickly falls for Pustovalov, thinking about him constantly and telling a friend about the high opinion she holds of him. After he comes over to Olenka's house briefly one day, she realizes that she has fallen deeply in love with him. They begin a quick courtship and marry soon after.
Just like she did with Kukin, Olenka quickly gets involved in her new husband's business. While Pustovalov is away on business, she takes over his accounting. As she has fallen in love with Pustovalov, so she has fallen in love with his trade. She talks about the timber industry constantly and grows to love the sound of all the lumber-related vocabulary she employs. At night, she dreams and has nightmares of giant piles of wood.
The narrator tells us that Olenka gives herself over completely to the ideas of her husband, whether it's an opinion on the weather or preferences for spending leisure time. When a friend tells Olenka that she deserves to amuse herself at a circus or a theater, Olenka snaps that she has no time for the theater, and doesn't even understand what the theater is good for.
They live in great material comfort, indulging in fine foods together and enjoying sumptuous, home-cooked meals every day. Olenka delcares that she wishes everyone were as well off as "Vassitchka and I." The only time she really seems anything other than blissful is when Pustovalov is away on business.
Sometimes, during these periods, she plays cards with a man named Smirnin, a veterinary surgeon in the army who is lodging in the house. She listens to his stories, and hears about his wife and son from whom he is estranged due to the wife's past deceits. Olenka takes on her husband's affect when talking to Smirnin, listening patiently yet advising the veterinarian to patch things up with his wife for the sake of the child.
When Pustovalov returns, Olenka tells him all about the veterinarian and they shake their heads over the situation, before praying and going to bed. All goes well with the couple for six years, until one day, Pustovalov falls ill after drinking hot tea too soon before going out into the cold, and, after a four-month illness, dies. Olenka, once again, is a widow.
The passage involving Pustovalov provides us a key for understanding the real narrative thrust of this story. Throughout, Chekhov drops subtle as to the type of person that Olenka truly is. We watch her quickly mold to her new husband's demeanor and interests, going so far as to tell a friend that she doesn't have any idea what good a theater provides, despite the fact that we had previously witnessed her fervently working to better Kukin's theater and agonizing over its lukewarm reception in the town.
Chekhov builds this abrupt personality shift by offering a binary of the artist versus the businessman. Kukin, while he runs the theater as a business, is largely concerned with the artistic merit of his theater and often complains about the low-quality entertainment that he thinks he'd have to offer in order to get more people in the door. And even though his business is successful enough, it isn't successful on his terms. Pustovalov, on the other hand, is a consummate businessman who is almost solely concerned with his timber business. He and Olenka lead an austere lifestyle and totally reject the frivolities of art and entertainment, hence Olenka brushing off the idea that she should go to the theater.
Via this polar shift, Chekhov is able to illustrate just to what extent "her husband's ideas were hers." We see Olenka as someone full of love but devoid of much actual personhood. Effectively, all of her characterization in the story comes by way of Chekhov's development of the men she builds her life around. It's at once an interesting way to develop this character, and potentially something Chekhov sees as an archetypal gender trait.
There are no other significant female characters in the story, and the ones that are presented are summed as an adoring woman on the street, an old lady that Olenka has tea with, and Smirnin's estranged wife. None of these women have anything resembling depth, much less personhood. They are barely characters at all. It's absolutely worth asking to what extent Chekhov's portrayal of the women in "The Darling" is savvy, economical storytelling, and to what extent Chekhov is espousing what he considers to be the true nature of women. This isn't to say that "The Darling" is an out-and-out work of misogyny, but rather, it's to ask what exactly the gender dynamics in this story are supposed to add up to.
With that said, Chekhov's feeling about peasants—the class of people to which he devoted much of his literary energy—was conflicted. In this book Between Religion and Rationality: Essays in Russian Literature and Culture, Joseph Frank talks about how Chekhov was both repulsed by the antics and tendencies of Russian peasants and sensitive to their humanity and struggles. Perhaps this tension is what made peasants such ripe literary material for Chekhov, and also helps explain his portrayal of women a bit. It may not entirely be that Chekhov has a blinkered view of an entire gender, but that he has the tendency in this story to distill his characters down to their defining, pitiful traits that will propel the story yet still lay bare their humanity.