Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 934
It is a hot June evening in New York, and in front of an old brownstone walk-up apartment in a mean quarter of the city, residents are discussing the weather and the affairs of the day. Anna Maurrant and her lover, Sankey, a collector for the milk company, are the subjects of the gossip of a small group of residents. They are shocked at Anna’s behavior—after all, she has a grown daughter. One neighbor reports that Sankey was there twice this week while Anna’s husband and their daughter, Rose, were away.
The gossip ceases with the appearance of Anna and the arrival of her husband. Frank Maurrant is irritated that Rose is not yet at home and that her whereabouts are a mystery. He tells Anna that he will have to be out of town the next day; as a stagehand, he is working on a show that is opening outside New York. After the Maurrants leave, the janitor of the building quietly predicts that Frank will someday kill Sankey.
A short time later, Sam Kaplan appears. The arguments and trivial talk that pass among the occupants of the tenement bore him. A twenty-year-old college student, he is depressed over his current situation. He feels trapped by his environment, although Abe, his father, seems content with life in the tenement, reading his newspapers, criticizing the government, longing for a social revolution, and arguing politics with anyone interested. Sam will be happy to leave the tenement atmosphere at the first opportunity.
After the street clears, Rose finally arrives, escorted by Harry Easter, manager of the real estate office where she works. Easter wants to set Rose up in an apartment and take her away from her twenty-five-dollar-a-week job, but Rose refuses his offer. Easter is married, in the first place, and she is not really very fond of him. Besides, she realizes that there will be strings attached to his proposal. Easter leaves at the arrival of Frank, who lectures his daughter on her late hours. Frank, ironically enough, speaks up for family happiness, security, and proper behavior. Sam comes out and sympathizes with Rose, who knows of her mother’s situation. Sam feels that neither of them belongs in this sordid atmosphere. He is even more crushed when he tries unsuccessfully to defend Rose from an amorous taxi driver who passes by; the incident adds to his bitterness, which Rose tries in vain to allay. Rose leaves Sam sitting despondently on the curb.
Bustling tenement life goes on as usual the next morning. In the middle of the hubbub, Sam’s sister Shirley warns him to spend more time on his studies and less time with Rose. Later, she asks Rose to avoid Sam. Since he is going to be a lawyer, Shirley feels he should not be distracted from his studies. Rose pleads innocence to the charge of taking Sam’s mind from his work. They possibly are slightly drawn to each other, Rose does admit.
Sam’s entrance leads to another conversation with Rose concerning life and death. Although Rose, unlike Sam, admits there is joy to be found in life, certainly it is not to be found in their environment. They talk of running away; it is clear that Sam is interested in Rose romantically. Rose, however, is simply interested in getting away from her surroundings.
Although Frank leaves his wife with a less-than-subtle hint that he knows what is going on in his absence, soon after his departure Anna incautiously informs Sankey that no one is at home, Rose leaving for a funeral. After a few minutes, Frank reappears, dashes inside, and kills both his wife and her lover. He emerges, torn and bloody, and escapes. Rose arrives in time to see her mother being carried through the crowd on a stretcher.
Later that afternoon, the tabloids contain full accounts of the bloody murders. Everyone in the neighborhood is talking about the killings and speculating on the whereabouts of Frank, who is still at large. Rose, returning from a grim shopping trip, declines sincere offers of help from Easter and from others. She simply does not wish to feel obligated to anyone; she and her twelve-year-old brother will soon be leaving New York. For the present, they are moving away from the tenement immediately.
An excited crowd surges down the street, heralding the appearance of two police officers and a battered Frank, who tearfully cries that he was out of his head when he committed murder. He tried to be a good father, but this is just the way things turned out. Rose and Sam eventually find themselves alone in the street. Sam, renewing his plea that he and Rose go away together, speaks of their belonging to each other. Rose, however, feels that people should never belong to anyone. If her mother had not depended on someone else for what she should have had inside her, Rose says, the tragedy might have been averted.
She tenderly explains that loving and belonging are different emotions; a person should believe in himself or herself. She tells Sam that perhaps something will work out for them when they are older and wiser. After Sam goes into the house, a sympathetic Shirley appears to say good-bye before Rose leaves for what she hopes will be a new and better life. As she leaves, a shabby-looking couple spot the vacancy notice on the building and ring for the janitor. From the wreath on the door, they decide that someone died; it is probably the reason why the apartment is being vacated.