Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534
An anonymous frame narrator tells how his housekeeper, Agrafena, introduces an old soldier named Astafy Ivanovitch into the household as a lodger. Astafy proves to be an affable companion, breaking the monotony and loneliness of the reclusive narrator’s existence by relating incidents from his past life.
One day, a stranger enters the apartment and asks for someone who does not live there. He leaves when told to do so but returns the following day and boldly steals a coat from the front hallway. This event incenses Astafy, who professes disgust with thievery. He mutters and exclaims over it repeatedly, commenting that a thief is the worst sort of vermin. The incident, however, reminds Astafy of a former acquaintance who was, in his opinion, an honest thief.
Astafy tells how he met this man, Emelyan Ilyitch, in a public house. Emelyan is a drunkard, habitually out of work and homeless. Nevertheless, his gentle nature arouses Astafy’s kindness, and soon Emelyan is following Astafy everywhere and even staying all night at Astafy’s lodgings. Astafy tries to get Emelyan to leave and seek employment but to no avail. Emelyan merely responds with tearful passivity, and Astafy is unable to turn him out. Astafy attempts to escape by moving to different quarters, but Emelyan finds him and moves in with him again. By this time, Astafy is himself quite impoverished but determines that perhaps Emelyan won’t be so much trouble after all and goes on sharing his food and drink with him. Emelyan, however, continues to drink excessively. At first, Astafy is dismayed and disgusted but then is inspired to reform his friend. Suddenly, Astafy feels he has a whole new purpose in life.
Although Emelyan listens meekly to Astafy’s exhortations to mend his ways, he responds only by talking of inconsequentialities. One day when Astafy gets particularly angry, Emelyan goes out all night and comes back to sleep on the freezing steps. Astafy becomes so enraged that Emelyan is frightened into stopping drinking for a time. Thinking his friend has finally turned over a new leaf, Astafy goes to a church service. On returning, he finds that a good pair of breeches is missing, and Emelyan is drunk. Obviously, Emelyan has sold them in order to buy liquor. Emelyan professes not to have touched the breeches, even pretending to look under the bed for them, but Astafy is deeply suspicious and angry.
Emelyan is overcome by guilt and runs off. Astafy, to his surprise, is worried and upset when his friend fails to return. Cursing himself for letting Emelyan leave, Astafy finally goes out to search for him. Finding him cold and ill from sleeping several nights on the street, Astafy realizes that he is no longer angry at his friend and takes him home. Astafy offers his friend food, but when he offers him a drink, Emelyan refuses. Emelyan’s nights of wandering in the cold combine with his acute shame for having stolen the breeches to cause him severe illness. As he slowly succumbs, Emelyan asks his benefactor to sell his coat when he dies. Just before dying, Emelyan remorsefully confesses to having stolen the breeches, and Astafy forgives him.