In a provincial garrison town, the gentle, highly cultured Prozorov sisters long for the stimulation and excitement of Moscow, which they left eleven years before.
Olga is constantly exhausted by her unrewarding work as a schoolmistress; Masha, who at eighteen married a man she considered an intellectual giant, bitterly realizes that he is a dull pedagogue; and Irina dreams of a romantic future and rejects both the sincere love of Lieutenant Tuzenbach, an unattractive but kindly man, and the advances of Staff Captain Solony. To the garrison officers who form the sisters’ and their brother Andrey’s circle of friends is added Vershinin, a Lieutenant Colonel who has once lived in Moscow. He enchants them with his glowing vision of a cultural millennium. Masha is especially drawn to Vershinin, who, like herself, is unhappily married.
The Prozorovs and their friends recognize the frustration and uselessness of their lives, but hope in some vague future keeps their spirits high. The atmosphere changes when Andrey marries and brings ino the house a crude and grasping local girl, Natasha. The sisters’ immediate prospects of a return to Moscow are dashed. Irina tries to find relief in work, but her job in the telegraph office offers only tiresome routine. The sisters are virtually dispossessed of their home as Natsha inexorably moves toward assuming the role of mistress of the household. Andrey takes refuge in gambling and mortgages the house he and his sisters own jointly.
News that the garrison is to be transferred brings depressing prospects for the future, and Irina decides to escape into marriage with Tuzenbach, who resigns his army comission in the hope of finding more meaningful work. As Masha and Vershinin, who have become lovers, bid each other good-bye and the regiment prepares to leave,
Word comes thatTuzenbach has been killed by Solony in a duel over Irina. The sisters cling to one another for consolation, but as the band strikes up, the infectious gaiety of the music inspires them to hope that their suffering was meaningful and that there is a new life in store for them.