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 Mikhailo Rakitin as her devoted but resentful admirer, without ever letting their friendship develop into a love affair.
The arrival of a handsome 21-year-old student Aleksei Belyaev as tutor to her son Kolya ends her boredom. Natalia 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, she wrestles with hers for Aleksei while the youngsters draw closer. Misunderstandings arise and when Arkadi begins to have his suspicions both Rakitin and Belyaev are obliged to leave, while Natalia as a rustic chatelaine, again lapses into a state of boredom.