Makar Dievushkin, an impoverished government clerk, lives in an alcove in a rooming-house kitchen. Even though his accommodations are unpleasant, he consoles himself that he can see from his window the windows of Barbara Dobroselova, an unhappy young woman whom he supports in her shabby rooms across the street. Makar and Barbara carry on a written correspondence; occasionally, they walk together when Barbara feels well. Makar, poor but honorable, maintains the gravest dignity in his relationship and in his correspondence with Barbara. In their poverty and loneliness, each has warm sympathy and understanding for the other.
Among the boarders in the house where Makar lives is a public relations man of literary pretensions whose style Makar greatly admires. Makar also knows a former government clerk, Gorshkov, and his family of four. Gorshkov lost his job through a legal suit and is deeply in debt to the homely, shrewish landlady. Across the street, Barbara’s cousin Sasha appears for the purpose of resolving a difference that has long existed between the cousins. Sasha questions Barbara’s acceptance of Makar’s charity.
Meanwhile, Makar sends gifts to Barbara and becomes poorer with each passing day. He pawns his uniform and, in his poverty, becomes the butt of jokes. Barbara, protesting somewhat weakly his sacrifices for her, sends him, in return, her life story, which she has written. The story reveals that Barbara is the daughter of the steward of a prince in the province of Tula. Her family moved to St. Petersburg when she was twelve years old. She did not like the city, and she detested the boarding school she attended. When Barbara was fourteen years old, her father died, leaving Barbara and her consumptive mother debt-ridden. Creditors took all of their possessions, and Barbara and her mother moved to the house of a distant relative, Anna Thedorovna, whose source of income was a mystery to them. There Barbara, with her orphan cousin Sasha, was tutored by a sick young student, Pokrovski, who was intelligent but irritable. The young girls teased Pokrovski remorselessly. Barbara, however, soon regretted her behavior and vowed to redeem herself in his eyes.
Pokrovski was visited from time to time by his father, a wizened, obsequious little man who worshiped his son. The old man was inquisitive and talkative, so Pokrovski limited the number of his visits to two a week. Old Pokrovski would do anything for his son. Barbara outgrew the tutoring, but she still had not redeemed herself with Pokrovski. Bent upon reading widely, she sneaked into his room and accidentally upset his bookshelf. Pokrovski entered, and while he and Barbara were replacing the books, they realized that they were in love.
As Pokrovski’s birthday approached, Barbara joined forces...
(The entire section is 1143 words.)