Five travelers are in the second class train carriage, "in which five people already spent the night." Two new entrants arrive, a "bulky woman" in black silk mourning clothes (culturally conventional mourning clothes) and her thin, small, rather unimpressive mousy, though very solicitous, husband. If we can accept that of the original five none got off, then there are seven people in the "stuffy and smoky second-class train carriage," but only five of them become characters who speak and interact. In order of their speeches, these characters are:
- the "thin and weakly" husband looking "shy and uneasy," who is the spokesperson giving the backstory for the "bulky woman" in black.
- a man whose son has been at the front since "the first day of the war" having been wounded twice and sent back twice.
- a man having "two sons and three nephews at the front." He speaks of the nature of parental love: "Parental love is not like bread that can be broken to pieces and split amongst the children...."
- a "fat, red-faced man with bloodshot eyes" who serves as the instigator of the intense verbal debate: '"Nonsense,'" he cried. His son died a hero. He wears no mourning, continuing to wear a "light fawn coat."
- the "bulky woman" who has remained "bundled in a corner under her coat." She has an epiphany while listening and realizes that she had not risen "up to the same height of those" who had resigned themselves to the "departure of their sons ... even to their death."
She was listening "to the details ... about the way his son had fallen as a hero,...." She "had stumbled into a world she had never dreamt of ... unknown to her,...."
As they debate what type of parent suffers the worst--one with one son at war or one with more than one: "'I am not suffering half for each of them but double...'"--and consider how sons who are twenty and faced with adventure think of parents, several themes emerge. Some may seem more relevant to that time and place than they do today.
- Country and Sons: The duty sons owe to their countries to pursue wars and to provide defense.
- Parents and Sons: The "fat, red-faced man" asks which father there "wouldn't gladly take his son's place at the front if he could?"
- Grief and Civic Pride: The parental impulse of grief conflicts with the impulse of duty to their country: "Our children do not belong to us, they belong to the country..." clashes with "love of our Country is still great, of course, but stronger than it is the love of our children."
- Theory versus Truth: Each discusses their theory of duty and grief until the end, when they face the definitive truth: he "realized at last that his son was really dead—gone for ever—for ever. His face contracted, became horribly distorted, then ..., to the amazement of everyone, broke into harrowing, heart-breaking, uncontrollable sobs." The "fat, red-faced man" belied his "light fawn coat" with harrowing sobs of grief.
The conflict is intricately structured. The conflict begins with each passenger struggling with internal conflict caused by worry, dread and grief. The conflict becomes external as they begin debating how parents feel love for their sons who are at war: Is grief doubled if you have two sons? Does having only one son at war offer an option to end your own grief? How is grief increased when sons are wounded and wounded again and sent back each time? Does the anxiety of having a son about to ship out equal the grief and deep mourning over a son who has died?
To reiterate, the conflict begins as private internal conflict in each passenger. It erupts as external conflict between the passengers as they express their private conflicts and grief. It becomes internal again when the "bulky woman" asks the fateful question of the "fat, red-faced man": "'Then...is your son really dead?'" The culmination of events makes clear that questions debating duty to country, number of sons and nephews at war, the anticipation of shipping out, and heroism in death are drowned out when true grief becomes overwhelming.