Olenka Plemyannikova is a lonely spinster who is constantly in love with someone or other. She finds it difficult to live without loving someone; she turns pale, loses weight, and is unable to form opinions of her own. When the reader encounters her at the beginning of the story, she has been infatuated with her French teacher, loved her father dearly, and is now ready for marriage. She is young, healthy, and well liked by all, men and women, young and old.
Ivan Kukin, the manager of the local theater and amusement park, lives by Olenka and converses with her regularly. He constantly complains about the indifference of the ignorant public to good theater, the rain and poor weather that keep people from the outdoor amusement park, his financial worries, and life in general. Olenka feels sorry for the hapless Kukin and gradually falls in love with him. They marry, and Olenka begins to help him in his business affairs. Because she has no opinions of her own, she merely repeats whatever her husband says about the public’s relation to good theater and she faithfully echoes his other complaints. She states her feeling that the theater is the most important thing in the world and necessary for all people. Optimistic Olenka prospers in her new life and radiates health while her incurably pessimistic husband continues to complain.
During Lent, Kukin goes to Moscow to book acts for his summer repertoire at the theater. Olenka is beside herself without her husband; she is unable to sleep and compares herself to a hen in the henhouse without a rooster. Kukin dies unexpectedly in Moscow; Olenka returns from his funeral and enters a period of deep mourning, sobbing so loudly that her neighbors can hear her grief.
Three months later, Olenka walks home from church with Vasily Andreich Pustovalov, and a friendship blooms. At loose ends without someone to love, Olenka now fills a void in her life as the courtship progresses. Olenka and Pustovalov marry and the dutiful wife begins to assist her husband in his duties as manager of the local lumberyard. Her conversation is now filled with references to lumber, lumber prices, and the difficulties of managing the yard. Lumber now replaces the theater as the most important and necessary thing in the world. In fact, her previous opinions concerning the exalted nature of the theater are completely reversed, because her new husband, a very stolid businessperson, has no use for the theater and views it as a trivial amusement for people of no serious interests. When her husband is away on trips to buy lumber, Olenka becomes bored and restless; she cannot live without her husband, just as she was unable to be apart from her first husband, Kukin. Olenka and Pustovalov lead a very respectable and sedate life for six years, until Pustovalov dies suddenly after catching a cold. Once again Olenka plunges into deep mourning.
A military veterinarian, Vladimir Platonich Smirnin, has rented a room from Olenka, and soon the two become fast friends. Friends and neighbors become aware of the closeness of the relationship when Olenka begins to repeat the opinions of the veterinarian concerning animal health and veterinary inspections in the town for domestic animals. Marriage in this case is an impossibility, however, as the doctor has an estranged wife and child living elsewhere. When the veterinarian is transferred to a distant town, Olenka’s life is changed once again; although no death has occurred, she has been deprived of the source of her opinions. Her physical appearance worsens, she becomes listless, and even her house...
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begins to fall apart, reflecting a general degeneration. The author of the story makes it very clear, however, that her greatest loss is the inability to have opinions and consequently to have conversations with her neighbors.
A few years later the veterinarian, now a civilian, returns with his wife, with whom he has reconciled, and his child to settle down in the small provincial town. At Olenka’s invitation, the family moves into her house, and she herself moves into the small outbuilding that Smirnin formerly occupied. The wife soon leaves the family, Smirnin himself is often absent on business, and Olenka becomes the de facto mother of the child. She now springs into life, for she has discovered a new purpose, a new person to love. She begins to repeat the opinions of the ten-year-old student as if they were on the same level as those of the male adults whom she loved. She complains to neighbors about the amount of homework the students are receiving, the difficulties of the academic program in the classical high school that little Sasha is attending, and she sympathizes with the sleepy boy when he has to get up in the morning. Olenka’s demeanor changes and her old radiance and vivaciousness return. The story ends as Olenka lovingly listens to the boy talking in his sleep.