Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1192
The cellar resembles a cave, with only one small window to illuminate its dank recesses. In a corner, thin boards partition off the room of Vaska, the young thief. In the kitchen live Kvashnya, a vendor of meat pies, the decrepit Baron, and the streetwalker Nastya. All around the room are bunks occupied by other lodgers.
Nastya, her head bent down, is absorbed in reading a novel titled Fatal Love. The Baron, who lives largely on Nastya’s earnings, seizes the book and reads its title aloud. Then he bangs Nastya over the head with it and calls her a lovesick fool. Satine raises himself painfully from his bunk at the noise. His memory is vague, but he knows he took a beating the night before, and the others tell him he had been caught cheating at cards. The Actor stirs in his bed on top of the stove. He predicts that some day Satine will be beaten to death.
The Actor reminds the Baron to sweep the floor. The landlady is strict and makes them clean every day. The Baron loudly announces that he has to go shopping; he and Kvashnya leave to make the day’s purchases.
The Actor climbs down from his bunk and declares that the doctor has told him he has an organism poisoned by alcohol, and sweeping the floor would be bad for his health. Anna coughs loudly in her bunk. She is dying of consumption—there is no hope for her. Her husband, Kleshtch, is busy at his bench, where he fits old keys and locks. Anna sits up and calls to Kleshtch, offering him the dumplings that Kvashnya has left for her in the pot. Kleshtch agrees that there is no use feeding a dying woman, and so with a clear conscience he eats the dumplings.
The Actor helps Anna down from her high bed and out into the drafty hall. The sick woman is wrapped in rags. As they go through the door, the landlord, Kostilyoff, enters, nearly knocking them down. Kostilyoff looks around the dirty cellar and glances several times at Kleshtch, working at his bench. Loudly, the landlord says that the locksmith occupies too much room for two rubles a month and that henceforth the rent will be two and one-half rubles. Then Kostilyoff edges toward Vaska’s room and inquires furtively if his wife has been in. Kostilyoff has good reason to suspect that his wife, Vassilisa, is sleeping with Vaska.
At last, Kostilyoff gets up the courage to call out to Vaska. The thief comes out of his room and denounces the landlord for not paying his debts, saying that Kostilyoff still owes seven rubles for a watch he had bought. Ordering Kostilyoff to produce the money immediately, Vaska sends him roughly out of the room.
The others admire Vaska for his courage and urge him to kill Kostilyoff and marry Vassilisa; then he could be landlord. Vaska thinks the idea over for a time but decides that he is too softhearted to be a landlord. Besides, he is thinking of discarding Vassilisa for her sister, Natasha. Satine asks Vaska for twenty kopecks, which the thief is glad to give; he is afraid Satine will want a ruble next.
Natasha comes in with the tramp Luka. She puts him in the kitchen to sleep with the three already there. Luka, a merry fellow, begins to sing, but he stops when all the others object. The whole group sits silent when Vassilisa comes in, sees the dirty floor, and gives orders for an immediate sweeping. She looks over the new arrival, Luka, and asks to see his passport. Because he has none, he is more readily accepted by the others. Miedviedeff, who is a policeman and Vassilisa’s uncle, enters the cellar to check up on the lodging. He begins to question Luka, but when the tramp calls him sergeant, Miedviedeff leaves him alone.
That night, Anna lies in her bunk while a noisy, quarrelsome card game goes on. Luka talks gently to the consumptive woman, and Kleshtch comes from time to time to look at her. Luka remarks that her death will be hard on her husband, but Anna accuses Kleshtch of causing her death. She says that she looks forward to the rest and peace she has never known. Luka assures her she will be at peace after her death.
The card players become louder and Satine is accused of cheating. Luka quiets the riotous players; they all respect him even though they think him a liar. He tells Vaska that he will be able to reform in Siberia, and he assures the Actor that at a sanatorium he could be cured of alcoholism. Vassilisa comes in, and when the others leave, she offers Vaska three hundred rubles if he will kill Kostilyoff and set her free. That would leave Vaska free to marry Natasha, who at the moment is recovering from a beating given to her by her jealous sister. Vaska is about to refuse when Kostilyoff enters in search of his wife. He is extremely suspicious, but Vaska pushes him out of the cellar.
A noise on top of the stove reveals that Luka has overheard everything. He is not greatly disturbed and warns Vaska not to have anything to do with the vicious Vassilisa. Walking over to Anna’s bunk, Luka sees that she is dead. They find Kleshtch at the saloon, and he comes to look at the body of his dead wife. The others tell him that he will have to remove the body, because in time dead people smell. Kleshtch agrees to take Anna’s body outside. The Actor begins to cavort in joy, talking excitedly. He has made up his mind to go to the sanatorium for his health. Luka has told him that he can even be cured at state expense.
In the backyard that night, as Natasha is telling romantic stories to the crowd, Kostilyoff comes out and gruffly orders her in to work. As she goes in, Vassilisa pours boiling water on Natasha’s feet. Vaska attempts to rescue her and knocks Kostilyoff down, and in the ensuing brawl Kostilyoff is killed. As the others slink away, Vassilisa immediately accuses Vaska of murder. Natasha thinks that Vaska has murdered Kostilyoff for the sake of Vassilisa. Natasha is almost in delirium as she wanders about accusing Vaska of murder and calling for revenge.
In the excitement, Luka wanders off, and he is never seen again. Vaska escapes a police search. Natasha goes to the hospital. In the lodging, things go on much as they had before. Satine cheats at cards, and the Baron tries to convince the others of his former affluence. They all agree that Luka was a kind old man but a great liar.
During a bitter quarrel with Nastya, the Baron steps out in the yard. Satine and the others strike up a bawdy song, but they break off when the Baron hurries back to announce that the Actor has hanged himself. Satine says he thinks the suicide was too bad—it broke up the song.