The plot of this story is very simple - at least on the surface. Davidov, described only as a census-taker visits an elderly ex-salesman, Rosen, in a drab room. Davidov is interested to learn of the details of Rosen's relationship with a woman called Eva, the widow of Axel, a Polish grocer whom Rosen knew. Eva struggled to keep the business afloat and Rosen, out of pity, and also because he fell in love with her, offered to help her and her little daughters in many ways. Being proud, she refused. Rosen even offered her a platonic marriage so he could provide her with material security, but this too was emphatically rejected. Finally, Rosen, old, alone, and ill, made over all his earthly possessions to her in his will, and stuck his head in the gas oven. This is the bit of the story that Davidov, apparently, already knows. Suddenly, after Rosen has finished telling his story, Eva appears outside of Rosen's window. She reaches out to him imploringly but he swears at her and tells her to get lost.
The themes of the story include the social struggle of small businessmen and women in a large city, and more particularly, the struggle of Jewish immigrants to establish themselves in America in the mid-twentieth century. This aspect of the tale is greatly enhanced by the use of the Yiddish idiom in the dialogue between Rosen and Davidov. There is also the theme of pride, as represented in Eva, and pity, as embodied by Rosen, and the clash of the two. This leads to some measure of irony. Rosen is desperate to help, but Eva does not want it; then, at the end, when she appears remorseful and reaches out to him in her turn, he repudiates her.
Characterisation: the only two characters to appear in person, Davidov and Rosen, both appear rather drab and shabby. Rosen is world-weary, and Davidov is dry and taciturn.
The tone of the work is very spare, rather bleak and with elements of bitter comedy. The incongruous relationship between Eva and Rosen is rather funny but also depressing. Both of them could have had better lives if they'd genuinely connected with one another, but they failed to.
Imagery: There is significant funereal and death imagery connected with Axel's failing grocery store in a 'dead neighbourhood'. Rosen urges Axel to give the store up 'before everybody is a skeleton', and later entreats Eva to do the same:
Believe me, I know from such stores. After thirty-five years' experience I know a graveyard when I smell it.
The store, then, is likened explicitly to a graveyard, symbolising the death of its owner's dreams and hopes, as well as helping to cause his literal death.
Death also looms large at the end of the story when it seems, from Rosen's words, that he committed suicide. This is an unexpected twist; it now appears that Rosen was dead all along and that Davidov is some kind of angel sent to record the details surrounding his suicide. At the same time, it is not explicitly stated that he did succeed in killing himself. Thus, the story uses ambiguity, allowing for more than one interpretation of events.