In the small town Kalinov on the banks of the Volga, Kudrjáš marvels at the beauty of the river. The maid Glaša fails to share his enthusiasm. The merchant Dikój insults his nephew Boris yet again, a young Moscow student. Kudrjáš learns that Boris has to pay his uncle the greatest respect in order to insure that he and his sister will receive their inheritance from their grandmother upon reaching maturity. Boris laments his lost youth. On top of that, he is in love with a married woman who has an angelic smile whenever she prays in church. Her name is Katya Kabanová. Kudrjáš warns Boris against this love. Katya, her husband Tichon, her mother-in-law (Kabanicha), and Varvara (Kabanicha’s foster daughter) are departing from mass with their servants Glaša, Grunja, and the bigoted Fekluša. Kabanicha orders her son to leave the city immediately to travel to the market in Kazan. As an obedient son, Tichon agrees. Kabanicha accuses Tichon of no longer loving his mother ever since his marriage to Katya. Katya is mocked by her mother-in-law when she declares the love that she feels not only for her son but also for Kabanicha herself, who is like a mother to her. Kabanicha cannot understand Katya, who does not feel bound to conventions. A serious quarrel breaks out among all three. Varvara accuses Tichon of having a weak character, for he does not protect his wife from the accusations of his mother and only thinks about drink.
Katya and Varvara hold a conversation. Katya dreams of her youth, when she lived without a care and free as a bird. Varvara is worried about Katya, for she knows that she is threatened with drifting into sin. Katya admits to her that she loves another man. She is fearful and no longer in control of herself. Tichon appears on the scene, ready to depart. Katya desperately holds on to him, begging him not to leave or to take her with him. She cannot bear the idea of being alone. Tichon is angry about the behavior of his wife, otherwise so in control. Katya tells him that calamity is impending. She asks him to make her promise to not speak with any strangers during his absence, to see nobody, and not even to dare to think of anyone else. Tichon does not understand her wish. Kabanicha exhorts him to leave. Without responding, he accepts the demands of his mother, who forces him to control Katya’s behavior during his absence. In an authoritarian tone, Kabanicha gives her instructions, which are dutifully followed by her son, whom she then orders to depart.
Kabanicha, Katya, Varvara and their servants have gathered at the table. Kabanicha accuses Katya of not suffering enough under the absence of her husband, whom she claims to love so much: she could at least pretend to miss him. Varvara decides to take a walk. She has taken the key to the garden gate from her foster mother. She explains to Katya that she could have Boris meet her there. Katya sees calamity looming on the horizon, and struggles with herself. When she hears the voice of Kabanicha, she startles, takes the key and quickly hides it. This act reminds her how strongly she desires to see Boris once again. Dikój and Kabanicha meet again. He wants her to take care of him, for she is the only one that can comfort his weak heart.
Kudrjáš waits for Varvara. He is nervous, for it is the first time that she is late for a rendezvous. Boris appears and explains to him that a young girl asked him to wait here. Kudrjáš reminds him of his warning to not fall foolishly in love with the married woman. Both men are disturbed by the presence of the other, when Varvara announces herself with the sign known only to Kudrjáš. She turns to Boris and urges him to be patient, before departing with Kudrjáš. Boris sees through the meeting of the two lovers. He, now excited, wonders what awaits him. Katya appears. Boris immediately admits to her his love, but Katya rejects him, fearful of the sin she is about to commit, which nevertheless seems unavoidable. She tries to resist, but the longing is stronger. She kisses him, and the two embrace passionately. They separate when Varvara promises them that Kudrjáš should call her when she should come back. Kudrjáš tells Varvara of the danger of organizing this rendezvous. What if Kabanicha notices the deception? Varvara recognizes her mistake and asks Kudrjáš to call the two back. Katya and Boris return, and Katya leaves on her own.
Several days later, Kudrjaš and Kuligin comment on the storm and their vision of hell, which they now seem to witness. Dikój appears, fearful of the storm. Convinced that the storm is a divine punishment, he argues with Kudrjaš, who is convinced that there is a scientific explanation. Varvara admits to Boris that Tichon has returned and that Katya is no longer herself. She is worried that Katya will admit the affair to her husband. Katya is aware that the storm announces the coming of her death, and feels the need to confess her guilt. When she names the lover, Boris leaves. Tichon is distraught, while the still cruel Kabanicha taunts him by saying that he could have foreseen this development. Tichon is in despair. He doesn’t know how to react, for he still loves Katya. Varvara und Kudrjaš see only one possibility of escaping Kabanicha’s influence: flight.
Katya is totally confused, and no longer entirely of this world. In desperation, she calls to Boris, who appears to her one more time. Her words make not sense. She begs that he take her with him, but immediately retracts. Boris has to leave; he is no longer in love with the woman with the angelic smile. Left alone, Katya goes down to the river, and the birds and flowers that are to cover her grave. She goes to her death, completing a deed that she long foresaw as without alternative. Tichon accuses Kabanicha of being responsible for Katya’s death. Kabanicha offers the others thanks for their sympathy.