Elena Ivanovna Popova is a relatively young woman who lost her husband Nicolai Mihailovitch a year ago. Before his death Nicolai cheated on Popova multiple times and made no effort to hide his infidelity. She nevertheless believes it is her responsibility to mourn him as her one great love. Popova cannot imagine ever finding someone who captivates her soul as much as Nicolai did. Then Grigory Smirnov appears on her doorstep. Nicolai owed Grigory for a past purchase of oats, and he never settled the debt, so now the responsibility falls to Popova. She can pay the debt, but not right away. She asks Grigory to come back once she has had time to gather the money. He refuses to leave until she pays him. Grigory's stubbornness provides Popova with an outlet for all her buried frustration with her dead husband. She embraces the conflict, and when Grigory challenges her to a duel, she gladly accepts. Her fearlessness impresses Grigory to the point where he offers to marry her. Popova realizes that she can feel affection for someone besides Nicolai after all. Her fight with Grigory pushes her to recognize that she still has her whole life ahead of her. She does not have to sacrifice her future and personal identity to Nicolai's memory.
Grigory Stepanovitch Smirnov had his heart broken many times in his youth. This pain has led him to reject all women. He similarly rejects the idea that emotions are equally as important as logic when making practical decisions. He believes Popova does not want to pay him because she is emotionally-overwrought and is accustomed to men catering to her fragile feelings. She becomes in his eyes the exemplar of everything he despises about women. Smirnov is revealed to have his own emotional side as his conversation with Popova grows increasingly heated. She insults him, and he responds by challenging her to a duel. He believes that this line of action will force Popova to apologize. Popova throws all his presuppositions about women into disarray by accepting his challenge with gusto. She seems to be genuinely eager to shoot him in defense of her honor. Smirnov is smitten with her display of bravery and fortitude. He decides he will never be content again unless he can claim her as his wife.