In the first section of the story, the narrator introduces two Jewish women who are neighbors in a tenement. Hanneh Breineh, a self-centered and hyperemotional woman, calls out her window to the kind and somewhat philosophical Mrs. Pelz for help. Hanneh’s washer-boiler is broken, and she asks to borrow Mrs. Pelz’s.
Hanneh engages Mrs. Pelz in a dreary conversation, but as she is doing so, one of her six children falls from his high chair. The mother characteristically overreacts, rushing hysterically to her son, while the more sedate Mrs. Pelz offers up a superstitious solution for avoiding such future occurrences.
Mrs. Pelz also tries to comfort Hanneh with the thought that, although a burden now, six children will eventually provide much more income when they are old enough to work. Then, Hanneh will live off “the fat of the land.” Ignoring this prophecy, Hanneh continues to lament the particulars of her awful life. Suddenly realizing, however, that she is behind schedule, Hanneh rushes to the marketplace, returning later only to find one of her children missing. Desperately searching the local streets for her Benny, she is shadowed by a crowd of concerned residents. At the end of this search, while Hanneh is reviving from a fainting spell, a police officer appears with the frightened and tearful Benny. Hanneh’s earlier tormented concern quickly turns to anger and resentment. Instead of welcoming her son lovingly, Hanneh tells him to sit down and eat, and while eating to “choke.”
In the second section of the story, Mrs. Pelz returns to live in New York City, apparently after some time away. She is on her way to visit the widowed and wealthy Hanneh, who now resides in a brownstone with her daughter, Fanny. The brief absence of the servant on this day allows Hanneh the momentary pleasure of eating in the kitchen. She and Mrs. Pelz do so, in a manner reminiscent of their tenement days.
It is true that she is quite wealthy, Hanneh declares, but she then proclaims through tears how wealth has enslaved her. This once envious woman, now the very object of local envy, secretly longs for her poorer days....
(The entire section is 883 words.)