(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 589 words.)