A small Russian town, sometime in the 1920’s. The young teacher Ván’a Kudrjás’ rhapsodizes over the afternoon view of the Volga, to the amusement of the literal-minded housekeeper of the adjoining Kabanov home. They see two men approaching — the overbearing merchant Dikoj and his nephew, Boris Grigorjevic’ . When the merchant discovers that Kabanicha, matriarch of the Kabanov family, is not at home, he stalks off, leaving Boris to explain to his friend Ván’a why he puts up with such abuse: his parents are dead, and in order to collect his inheritance, he must treat his uncle with respect. And he confesses that he is secretly in love with Kát’a, the young wife of Kabanicha’s son, Tichon. The two men depart as old Kabanicha and members of her household return from vespers. Kabanicha berates her son for his lack of attentiveness. He tries to please her. At a sharp reply from Kabanicha, he and his wife Kát’a try to tell the old woman they love and respect her. Tichon’s temper snaps at being told he spoils his wife. Tichon complains to Varvara, foster daughter of the family, who retorts he would rather drink and forget his troubles than stand up for Kát’a’s rights.
Kát’a tells Varvara how free and happy she felt as a child, constantly dreaming. Even now, she admits, she has dreamed of having a lover. Before she can say more about the man who attracts her, Tichon comes to say good-bye: he is leaving on a short trip to Kazan at his mother’s behest. Kát’a begs him not to go or else to take her along, but he refuses. When she asks him to make her swear to speak to no strangers during his absence, he wonders what is wrong with her. Kabanicha announces that it is time to leave, adding that Tichon must tell his wife how to behave while he is gone. Tichon dutifully repeats that Kát’a must treat Kabanicha like her own mother and always act with propriety. Then he bows to his mother, kisses her and Kát’a and hurries away.
Kabanicha criticizes Kát’a for not making an ordinary display of grief over Tichon’s absence. After she has left, Varvara shows Kát’a the key to the far part of the garden: she plans to meet her lover there and hints that Kát’a might want to do the same, giving the key suddenly to her. Kát’a hesitates but decides that fate has willed it: she is going to meet Boris. She steps outside. Kabanicha reenters with the drunken Dikoj, who says she is the only person he can talk to. He ended up on his knees, blubbering, asking Kabanicha for a servile sort of love. She primly tells him to get hold of himself and that he should come back later.
Waiting for Varvara, Ván’a amuses himself with a song about an independent-minded young girl like his sweetheart. To his surprise, Boris appears, having received a message to come there. Varvara arrives, cheerfully picking up Ván’a’s song, and they head down to the river. When Kát’a appears, Boris proclaims his love. She is hesitant at first, seeing only sin and ruin, but finally her pent-up feelings pour out, and she embraces him. They too go down to the river Volga. Ván’a and Varvara return, full of enjoyed love. As the rapturous voices of the second couple are heard, Ván’a and Varvara satisfied watch this wonderful night going on.
An approaching storm drives Ván’a and his friend, Kuligin, to a shelter, where they are joined by other strollers. When Dikoj appears, Ván’a tries to conciliate him by talking about a new invention, the lightning rod, but this only angers Dikoj, who insists storms are not electricity but God’s punishment. When the rain lets up, they all leave the shelter, and Ván’a runs into Boris and Varvara. The girl reports that Tichon is back, and Kát’a seems very upset. Kabanicha approaches with Tichon and Kát’a. She only seems frightened by the returning storm, but she confesses to Tichon in front of everyone that she dallied with Boris during her husband’s absence. Then she runs out into the tempest.
As evening approaches, Tichon looks frantically for Kát’a along the river bank. Varvara and Ván’a decide to escape to Moscow, where they can lead a life of their own. Kát’a appears, aware that her confession served only to dishonor her and humiliate Boris. Her life is a constant torment, and she longs to see her lover one last time. And he appears, surprised to her, and they embrace. He says he will leave to another town. Her mind wandering, she bids him farewell. As he walks off, she thinks how nature will renew itself over her grave, then throws herself into the river. Kuligin sees her jump and calls for help. Tichon rushes back, followed by Kabanicha, whom he blames for Kát’a’s self-destruction. Meanwhile, bystanders try to help. When Dikoj brings Kát’a’s body and lays it on the ground, Tichon flings himself down, sobbing. Coldly, Kabanicha thanks the bystanders for their assistance.