Act I Following the death of his wife, Pyotr Leontievich, a school-teacher in a provincial town, is left with three children on his hands: a grown-up daughter, Anna (Anyuta), and two little boys, Petya and Andryusha. Grieving for the untimely passing away of his spouse, Pyotr Leontievich takes increasingly to the vodka bottle.
Modest Aleeyevich, a middle—aged official, asks for Anna’s hand in marriage. Anna accepts his proposal in the hope her marriage will save her family from poverty and herself from a life of undiluted tedium and semistarvation. Anna breaks up with her sweetheart, a poor student, and goes to live with Modest Alexeyevich. She realizes only too soon that her marriage will bring her no benefits: her husband, who is close-fisted and cold-hearted, with a practical, pragmatic outlook, has no intention of helping his wife`s relatives.
Act II At a ball given to celebrate the Christmas holiday, Anna`s youth, intelligence and beauty win the hearts of all the men present. Artynov, a rich landowner, army officers and finally even His Excellency compete for the attentions and sympathy of Modest Alexeyevich`s young wife. They are ready to do anything in order to please Anna.
Anna is quite swept off her feet by her rapid ascent to fame. The attentions and love bestowed on her by the upper crust of society in a provincial town cause her to forget everything: her hateful, boring, dull-witted, as he now seems to her, husband, her drunkard father, her wretched, half-starving brothers, her former sweetheart.
Modest Alexeyevich, who immediately realizes that he stands to gain from his wife`s popularity, encourages her love affairs. His career and position in society come first for Modest Alexeyevich. Very soon he is awarded the order of St. Anne and he waits impatiently for new favours from his wife`s suitors. Pyotr Leontievich is declared bankrupt. His few remaining belongings are confiscated and, on a frosty New Year`s Eve, he and his children are turned out into the street.