In the story’s four numbered sections are described the actions of two sets of characters, one from the upper class and one from the lower. Each set revolves around a character dying from consumption: Marya Dmitriyevna, attempting to flee the harsh Russian winter to reach the warm Italian climate in the hope of curing her illness, and Uncle Fyodor, lying in the last stages of his illness in the carriage drivers’ quarters at a post station. The two sets of characters intersect in sections 1 and 2 of the story, when the two carriages of the small upper-class entourage make a brief rest stop at the post station, where most of the lower-class characters work.
At the station, all the passengers except Marya disembark to eat; Vasily and Edward also have wine and further discuss what should be done about Marya, who in the doctor’s opinion will certainly not live to reach Italy. At the opening of section 2, the young driver of Marya’s carriage, Seryoga, enters the drivers’ quarters to ask for the dying Uncle Fyodor’s new boots as replacements for his own worn-out ones, which are woefully inadequate in the inclement weather. Fyodor assents, subject to Seryoga’s promise to provide a headstone for his grave.
After the carriages’ departure, the remainder of section 2 shifts to focus on the comfort Nastasya attempts to provide for Fyodor, who dies that night and appears in Nastasya’s dream. Section 3 focuses on the family of Marya gathered, along with a local priest, at a Moscow house, where she is bedridden, too ill to continue her futile flight. At the section’s conclusion, she dies, and at her wake an inattentive deacon reads psalms in a lonely vigil. Section 4 shifts back to the peasant group, recounting Nastasya’s chastisement of Seryoga for not fulfilling his promise to Fyodor and subsequently Seryoga’s dawn venture into the forest to begin to make good his word. The “death” of the tree (described in very human terms by the narrator) that Seryoga chops down to provide a cross on Fyodor’s as-yet-unmarked grave is the third death referred to in the story’s title.