Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589
Maxim Gorky begins this first-person narrative with a description of a wretched working environment: a basement-level bakery where twenty-six men, “living machines,” as the narrator calls them, work long hours making pretzels. The room is cramped, airless, and stuffy. The huge oven that dominates the room stares pitilessly at the workers like a horrible monster. The workers themselves move and act like automatons, for their vital feelings have been crushed by their ceaseless toil. Only when they begin to sing do they feel a sense of lightness and gain a glimpse of freedom.
In addition to their singing, the twenty-six workers have one other source of consolation. Every morning, a sixteen-year-old seamstress named Tanya stops by the workshop to ask for pretzels. To these grim, coarse men, the cheerful girl seems a precious treasure, and her regular visits gradually make her a sacred being to them. As the narrator notes, all humans need something to worship; Tanya thus has become their idol. Although the men often make rude jokes about women, they never once consider viewing Tanya with anything other than the highest respect.
This situation, however, is not destined to last. A new man, a former soldier, is hired at the bakery next door, and this fellow turns out to be a dashing, bold figure who enjoys regaling the twenty-six pretzel makers with tales of his prowess with women. The pretzel makers find him an engaging individual, but his boasting touches a sensitive nerve. The head baker rashly suggests that not all women would fall prey to the boaster’s charms. This assertion pricks the dandy’s vanity, and he presses the baker to name the person who could resist his attentions. Angrily, the baker mutters Tanya’s name, and the dandy immediately announces that he will seduce the girl within two weeks.
The pretzel makers are highly agitated by the dandy’s challenge, and they become obsessed with the question of whether Tanya will indeed be able to spurn the man. Imperceptibly, this new element of curiosity and inquisitiveness creeps into their relationship with Tanya, and on the final day of the two-week period they understand for the first time how much they have put on the line through this foolish rivalry with the dandy. When Tanya makes her regular visit that morning, they greet her with silence, and after an awkward exchange of words, she runs out without her pretzels. Later, the dashing baker enters and instructs the workers to keep their eye on the cellar door across the yard from their building. Horrified, the men watch as Tanya and the baker go into the cellar. After an anxious interval, they see the baker emerge, followed a short time later by Tanya, with eyes shining in joy and happiness.
For the pretzel makers this is unbearable. They rush out of their building, surround Tanya, and begin to abuse her loudly with crude obscenities and insults. As they see it, she has let them down and betrayed them, and they will make her pay for this misdeed. However, after bearing their jeers with astonishment for a few moments, she suddenly flares up in anger herself. Proudly she begins to walk away, breaking through their circle as if they were not even present. Turning toward them, she calls them scum, and then, proud, erect, and beautiful, she leaves them behind forever. The workers must now return to their underground prison to work as before, but they have lost the one precious human element in their otherwise dreary world.