This very poignant story concerns the loss of innocence and misery of Vanka, a nine-year-old boy whose whole world has been taken from him. He had experienced life as a fatherless child, but he had lived with a loving mother and his beloved grandfather in a small Russian village, surrounded by warmth and affection. Now, however, with the death of his mother, Vanka has been ripped from his home on the estate of a wealthy family and sent to Moscow to be apprenticed to a shoemaker who beats and starves him. The setting of the story is Christmas Eve in the master's shop. Surrounded by darkness, alone and filled with dread that he might be caught, Vanka writes a letter to his grandfather begging to be taken home.
Throughout the story, Vanka's memories of home contrast sharply with his present surroundings. At home on this Christmas Eve, his grandfather, a nightwatchman for the estate owners, would be jolly, teasing one of the maids or the cook. The village, as he recalled it, would be beautiful:
It was a dark night, but the whole village with its white roofs, the smoke rising from the chimneys, the trees, silver with rime, the snow-drifts, could be seen distinctly. The sky was sprinkled with gaily twinkling stars, and the Milky Way stood out as clearly as if newly scrubbed for the holiday and polished with snow....
Vanka's sighs at the memory, as he kneels in the light of a candle at the cobbler's bench to write his letter. The contrast is strong. Another vivid contrast concerns Vanka's memory of decorating the tree on the estate while he lived there:
Grandfather would drag the tree to the big house, and they would start decorating it. . . . Miss Olga Ignatyevna, Vanka's favorite, was the busiest of all. While Pelageva, Vanka's mother, was alive and in service at the big house, Olga Ignatyevna used to give Vanka sweets, and amuse herself by teaching him to read, write and count to a hundred, and even to dance the quadrille.
On this Christmas Eve, however, Vanka is alone, surrounded by fear and misery. The others have gone to church, while he writes his letter seeking salvation of another kind.
In Vanka's suffering Chekhov's theme emerges: Children often suffer through no fault of their own, the powerless victims of social forces and adult cruelty. Vanka's attempt to change his fate by writing a letter to his grandfather shows that hope still lives in his heart and there is yet more innocence in him that will be crushed.