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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1166

In her drawing room, Natalya, a twenty-nine-year-old wife and mother, is talking confidentially to her good friend, Rakitin. She admits that her husband, Islayev, has one fault: He goes into things too enthusiastically. He is with his workmen constantly, and he himself demonstrates how they should do their work. Her...

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In her drawing room, Natalya, a twenty-nine-year-old wife and mother, is talking confidentially to her good friend, Rakitin. She admits that her husband, Islayev, has one fault: He goes into things too enthusiastically. He is with his workmen constantly, and he himself demonstrates how they should do their work. Her complaint ends, and she asks Rakitin to continue reading to her. She really has no interest in the book, but it is being discussed by her friends.

The book is read aloud in the big room, where a card game is in progress. Schaaf, the German tutor, has been winning until Lizaveta, companion to Islayev’s mother, makes a mistake; the German grumbles at her ineptness. The doctor, Shpigelsky, breezes in and, as is his wont, tells a long, pointless story. He had really come to talk privately with Natalya about a friend of his who wishes to marry Vera. Natalya, claiming that at seventeen Vera is too young, puts off a definite answer.

Kolya, Natalya’s little son, runs up, full of news about his tutor Belyayev’s doings. The energetic young tutor, who had been there nearly a month, is making a kite. Vera, also coming from play, tells how Belyayev can climb trees as nimbly as a squirrel. Islayev tries to induce Natalya and Rakitin to look over his new blowing machine, but only Rakitin is interested.

As the room gradually clears, Natalya has a chance to talk with Belyayev at some length. She compliments him on his good singing voice and asks about his family. She is touched to learn that his mother is dead and that he has a sister also named Natalya. In spite of her friendly attitude, Belyayev is nervous and persists in being formal and polite with her.

In the garden, Katya, the maid, is listening to the butler’s proposal. She has some trouble in fending him off, and the arrival of Schaaf makes matters a little more complicated. Schaaf archly sings a love song and tries to kiss her. She escapes by running into a raspberry patch. Vera and Belyayev call her out after Schaaf leaves. They are working on the kite and, as they work, they companionably share Katya’s raspberries. Belyayev tells Vera much of his past life, of his studies in Moscow, of his poverty. Vera describes her loneliness without friends her own age. Interrupted by the arrival of Natalya and Rakitin, they slip out of the garden.

Natalya professes to Rakitin her uneasiness about Vera; the girl is very young and probably should not be so much alone with Belyayev. Rakitin begins to suspect what is happening. Natalya has always been so frank and tender with him. Now she seems preoccupied and talks distractedly. She even accuses him of having a languid mind, and she no longer cares for his descriptions of nature. Rakitin seeks out Belyayev to get better acquainted with him. He is troubled when he discovers that the young tutor hides such an engaging manner underneath his gawky exterior. Although Belyayev thinks of Natalya only as an older woman and his employer, Rakitin senses a possible rival for Natalya’s affections.

Shpigelsky brings Bolshintsov, a neighbor forty years old, to the house and coaches him carefully on what he is to say. Bolshintsov is shy with women but, having decided to make an offer to Vera, he has enlisted the busybody doctor as an intermediary. If the match comes off, Shpigelsky is to get three horses as his reward.

When Natalya can no longer disguise her increasing coldness toward Rakitin, he accuses her of being attracted to Belyayev. Although she proclaims that she still loves Rakitin, she cannot deny the young tutor’s charms. Rakitin delicately hints that she owes her love to her husband and suggests that both he and Belyayev should leave the house.

With Vera, Natalya assumes a sisterly air and tells her of Bolshintsov’s proposal. She does not press the point too much after Vera laughs at the idea of marrying such a funny old man. Instead, with mature skill, she probes into her ward’s feelings and gets her to confess her love for Belyayev. Her suspicions confirmed, she is torn between her inclinations as a woman and her duty as wife and guardian. Sending for Belyayev, she warns him that Vera is quite immature and that it is easy for her to misinterpret friendship. When the young man finally understands that Vera is in love with him, he is amazed; he has no notions of love at all. He resigns his job and offers to leave the house immediately. Natalya, unable to bear his willingness to leave the house, asks him to defer his decision for a while.

Meanwhile, Shpigelsky is impressing Lizaveta by diagnosing the ills and attitudes of members of the family. He reminds her that she will not want to remain a companion all her life; hence, he would make her an offer of marriage. Lizaveta, adopting a coquettish manner, begins a coy reply, but the doctor keeps talking. He insists on telling her all his faults and the extent of his fortune and then states that he has proved to her he is a fine fellow because he has confessed his faults. Lizaveta promises to give him an answer the next day. To her surprise, Shpigelsky sings a peculiar song about a gray goat.

Vera tries to save the situation by telling Belyayev that she knows how Natalya had warned him of the girl’s love. Bitter over Natalya’s efforts to get her married off to Bolshintsov, she hopes that Belyayev will confess his love for her. The young man is unresponsive. Then, Vera assures him that Natalya herself is in love with him. When Natalya finds them, Vera is openly reproachful. She accuses her guardian of treating her as a child when she is a grown woman. Henceforth, they will be equals and probably rivals. She leaves in an emotional state. When they are alone, Natalya confirms that she is in love with Belyayev. Overwhelmed by her declaration, he can think only of leaving.

Islayev begins to suspect that all is not well in his household, for he knows that Rakitin has been much in his wife’s company. Being forthright, he asks Rakitin outright if he is in love with Natalya. Rakitin admits that he is, and he adds that he is leaving immediately. Islayev does not really want him to leave, but his departure does seem a good solution. Rakitin makes no mention of Natalya’s infatuation for Belyayev.

Vera tells Shpigelsky that she will accept Bolshintsov’s offer because she can no longer remain under the same roof with Natalya. Belyayev, not trusting himself to meet Natalya, sends a farewell note by Vera. To Islayev, it seems peculiar that so many people are leaving at once. Lizaveta also comments to Islayev’s mother that she, too, will be leaving one of these days.

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