Ivan Zhukov, known by the diminutive “Vanka,” is an unhappy orphan who has been apprenticed for three months to the shoemaker Alyakhin in Moscow. On Christmas Eve, while his master and mistress and the senior apprentices are all at church, Vanka sits down to write a pleading letter to “Grandad” Konstantin Makarich in the nearby village where Vanka lived before being sent to the city. Vanka’s mother, Pelageya, had been in service at a country estate, where his life had been idyllic as he roamed freely with Grandad, “one-eyed Yegor,” and other servants. After his mother’s death three months earlier, Vanka had first been dispatched to the back kitchen with Grandad and from there to the shoemaker. His homesickness and misery emerge heartbreakingly as he writes his letter.
As Vanka writes, he muses on his grandfather. The old man—about sixty-five—is night watchman on the estate. Vanka imagines him at his usual diversions: hanging around the kitchen, dozing, and joking with the cook and the kitchen maids before going out to walk all night around the premises shaking his rattle. Vanka knows that Grandad’s dogs Kashtanka and Eel will be with him. Kashtanka is too old for mischief, but the wily Eel—long, black, and weasel-like—is sly and treacherous, snapping at unsuspecting feet or stealing chickens. For these depredations, Eel is beaten severely, but his behavior is unchanged.
Vanka’s most cherished memory is of going with Grandad to chop down a fir tree for the master’s Christmas. The old man would preface the felling with a chuckle, a few moments with his pipe, and a pinch of snuff. When a hare bounded by, he would shout his outrage at the “stub-tailed devil.”
Vanka’s letter reveals how his child’s world on the estate, warmed by the love of his mother and the affection of Miss Olga Ignatyevna from the big house, has been replaced by a nightmare of exhaustion and loneliness. He recalls being beaten because he fell asleep while rocking the master’s baby. Whenever the older apprentices have forced him to steal cucumbers and he has been caught, he has received more beatings. His rations are meager. He gets bread in the morning, gruel at noon, and bread again in the evening. He enjoys no tea or cabbage and must sleep in the hallway, where the crying baby keeps him awake.
His song of suffering completed, the young servant turns his letter into a plea for salvation, begging his Grandad to take him away. He vows to pray for Grandad, to do the steward’s job of cleaning boots, to replace Fedya as the shepherd-boy, and to protect Grandad. Moscow is a big town, Vanka laments, with many fine houses and horses, but no sheep. Its customs are unfamiliar. He cannot sing in church, and when he goes in the butcher’s shop no one even knows where the game was shot. Vanka is lost in an alien land.
The letter ends with Vanka’s final cry for Grandad to take him home to the village with the familiar animals and servants. He folds the letter, puts it in an envelope, and writes on it “grandad,” adding on reflection “konstantin makarich in the village.” An hour after he runs to the letter box, he is asleep, “lulled by rosy hopes.” He dreams of a stove, with Grandad sitting on its ledge reading his letter to the kitchen help. As the grandfather reads, the sly Eel paces back and forth in the kitchen, wagging his tail and watching for his chance.