Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
This is perhaps the bleakest of O. Henry’s best-known stories. Although the basic ironic plot can be summarized in a sentence—a young man commits suicide in the same room where a young woman for whom he has vainly searched killed herself—it is the musty atmosphere of the room and the suggestion that every place bears the traces of the lives that have inhabited it that makes the story so compelling. It is a story of transience, of lives that move through a bleak, indifferent world, leaving only bits of themselves, which the young man uncovers as he searches through drawers and pokes into every corner and crevice of the room looking for something that remains of the woman he seeks. However, all that is left is an illusory sweet familiar smell, which melodramatically becomes the sweet smell of the gas he turns on in despair, as she did only one week previously. Although the fact that the young man ends up in the very same room in which his lost sweetheart took her life is one of the most extreme coincidences in all of O. Henry’s fiction, the power of the atmosphere of the story is so strong that readers are willing to accept it.
The story ends with two old Dickensian landladies prattling over their beer about the death of a young woman in the room the previous week, which the landlady has kept secret because she did not want to lose the young man’s rent. As the young man lies dead upstairs, the ending of the story, with its focus on the mendacity of the old women, reinforces the squalor of the room, further suggesting the unfeeling city that has no room for the romanticism of the two lovers.
Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
An ordinary young man moves among the proliferation of boardinghouses on the West Side, determinedly on the prowl for a vacant room. Again and again, he tries each of the clustered homes on the brownstone street. On his twelfth attempt, one Mrs. Purdy, an unwholesome appearing housekeeper, answers. She invites this prospective tenant into her home to inspect a recently vacated room. Happy after so many disappointments, the young man follows the woman into an ambience of foul and tainted air, a house reinforcing the hovering gloom he had experienced on the streets. Mrs. Purdy chatters constantly in praise of the furnished room that he is about to see, shrewdly emphasizing its positive attributes: a useful dresser, chairs and tables, plenty of closet space, and a convenient gas connection. She also stresses the class of her operation by telling the young man about the elegant tenants who had recently occupied this room. An upstanding husband and wife vaudeville team—Sprowls and Mooney—recently lodged there, and a framed wedding certificate over the dresser attests the house’s respectability. This is important, as Purdy’s house is situated alongside the theater district and most theater people, unreliable and unpredictable, come and go, even apparently stable ones. Thus, a vacant furnished room is luckily available at this moment in this eminently respectable boardinghouse. Swayed by the landlady’s persuasive presentation but exhibiting no great joy, the young man takes the room and carefully counts out his payment money.
As the satisfied Mrs. Purdy is about to leave, the young man haltingly asks a question, one he has apparently put forth many times in preceding days to other landladies: Has Mrs. Purdy ever rented a room to a Miss Eloise Vashner, a would-be singer looking for a stage career? Eloise is a slim, fair girl with a distinctive dark mole near her left eyebrow. The answer is a quiet but positive no. Mrs. Purdy leaves her guest alone in his furnished quarters to reflect on his strange surroundings and the fruitless, ceaseless, five-month search he has conducted to find his love, Eloise, who had been attracted by the call of glamorous Broadway and its dazzling opportunities. Following the footsteps of many another small-town woman intent on fame and fortune in the theater, she had vanished into the city’s “monstrous quicksand.” He must now be on her trail; there is an ineffable sense that she is...
(The entire section is 991 words.)