Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 863
Ganin, stuck in a dark elevator with Alfyorov, a boring, well-meaning fellow refugee, learns that Alfyorov’s wife, from whom he has been separated for some time, has finally managed to leave Russia and will be arriving in a few days. Ganin, who is thinking of leaving Berlin on the day of her arrival, is uninterested and is more concerned about how he can tell his mistress that he is no longer in love with her and is leaving the city, by himself.
The pension is occupied by a small group of Russian refugees of various occupations. Ganin, gloomily preoccupied by his problems, listens while Alfyorov chatters on about his wife at the communal lunch. Podtyagin, who wants to go to Paris, is cheered that the French have sent him an exit visa, but he complains that the German officials are making things difficult for him. Alfyorov sees the confusion as an example of German efficiency, as opposed to the inefficiency of Russia. Only Russian women are exempt from his scorn, and he suggests that Podtyagin write a poem praising them. Ganin, disgusted and unhappy, goes to his room and thinks of how briefly his love for Lyudmila Rubanski has lasted and of what a nuisance she has become for him.
At the cinema that night with Lyudmila and Klara, Ganin is depressed further by seeing himself as an extra in a film (he makes occasional money by acting in crowd scenes); he regards his image on the screen as a symbol of the transitory nature of human life. Later that night he learns that Alfyorov’s wife is, in fact, the first love of his life, but he says nothing to Alfyorov, who is offended by Ganin’s suddenly leaving the room after being shown a picture of her.
Upset by this revelation, Ganin wanders the streets through the night. The next morning, surprisingly full of energy and purpose, he tells Lyudmila that he loves someone else and is going away. He walks through the city, thinking of when he was fifteen years old and first met Mary, who is now Alfyorov’s wife. On returning to the pension, he slips into Alfyorov’s room, determined to find photographs of Mary. Klara catches him rifling through the desk and believes that he is looking for money. Ganin offers to explain but then does not. Klara is left mystified, pitying him. He almost tells Podtyagin of the exciting rediscovery of his old love, but the old man is so depressed and ill that Ganin desists. He thinks tenderly of that summer in which he first met Mary near his father’s country estate. For some time he was too shy to approach her and had to be satisfied with riding past her on his bicycle, but eventually they did meet, and their sweet affair began.
On Wednesday, Ganin receives a letter from Lyudmila but he refuses to read it. Podtyagin returns from another unsuccessful visit to the government offices, disillusioned and depressed. Ganin offers to accompany him the next time. Ganin listens to Alfyorov talk about his wife with new interest now that he knows the woman is Mary, and he wonders how she could have married such a silly man.
Ganin again turns to his memories of the affair with Mary and how happy they were together through the remaining weeks of that summer. In the middle of the night, Podtyagin comes to him suffering a mild heart attack, and Ganin manages to calm him. They decide not to go to the government offices until Friday.
Alfyorov, who wants to take over Ganin’s room when his wife arrives, disturbs Ganin by asking him for assurance that he will be gone by Saturday, but Ganin’s irritation turns into another memory of his time with Mary: how they carried on their affair over the next two years until they drifted apart in the summer of 1917.
On Friday, Ganin and Podtyagin go to the police offices and complete Podtyagin’s application, but they fail to make further progress, because the old man loses his passport. Returning to the pension, Podtyagin has a minor heart attack. He is now certain that he will never leave Berlin alive.
Ganin, packing to leave, rereads five letters that Mary wrote to him during the last stages of the war, urging him to come back to her. He, however, was obliged to leave Russia quickly, and has not seen or heard from her since. He is now determined to steal her from her husband. At a farewell party that night, Podtyagin has another, serious attack, and Alfyorov gets helplessly drunk. Ganin puts him to bed, says good-bye to the dying Podtyagin, and leaves a tearful Klara at the door. He has set Alfyorov’s alarm incorrectly to delay him and is on his way to meet Mary at the station. Watching a group of workmen erect a new building, he suddenly realizes that Mary is an ideal image of the past and that they have no future together. He takes a train from another station, determined to make his way to the south of France and the sea.
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