As the story opens, Olga Ivanova has a patronizing love for her doctor husband, Dymov, a man she finds kind and good but also dull and uninspiring because he lacks her appreciation for the arts. He admits as much, saying that while he does not understand the artistic world, he also doesn't dismiss it.
Olga takes advantage of her husband's goodness and, when she can, runs away for a summer fling with an artist lover, Ryabovsky. But unlike her husband, Ryabovsky soon grows tired of her. Olga also discovers that he is seeing other women.
Olga, through most of the story, is a shallow person, a would-be artist who is more interested in celebrity and finding famous people to bring home than she is in art itself. She is frustrated because she can't find the genius she is seeking.
Olga changes, however, near the end of the story, when she learns that her husband has a probably fatal case of diphtheria. She hears other doctors speak of his genius and talent, and she realizes too late that she was living all along with the celebrity of true worth she was seeking and did not know it. She bitterly regrets the way she has treated him. As the text says,
The walls, the ceiling, the lamp, and the carpet on the floor, seemed to be winking at her sarcastically, as though they would say, "You were blind! you were blind!"
Olga is wiser at the end of the story because she comes to appreciate her husband's worth, but it is too late: her husband is dead.