Gorky's "Twenty-Six Men and a Girl" is a short story that realistically
portrays the dismal life of twenty-six men working in a sweatshop in Czarist
Russia in the late nineteenth century. The story was first published in
1899 in a collection entitled Creatures That Once Were Men. The
New York firm of J. F. Taylor and Company published an English-language
version of the story in 1902 in a collection entitled
One, and Other Stories from the Vagabond Series.
title in Russian translates literally as "Twenty-Six and One." Most translators,
however, render the English title as "Twenty-Six Men and a Girl."
Gorky based the story in part on his own experiences as a member of the
working class in such jobs as errand boy, shoemaker's helper, dishwasher,
night watchman, longshoreman, and baker. He knew well the hardships of
the common man, for he was the common man. After he educated himself
reading books, he began to write about the experiences of the poor and
downtrodden. "Twenty-Six Men and a Girl" was one of the stories that earned
him high praise as a writer and enough money to pursue his writing craft.
action takes place in a building in an unidentified locale in Czarist Russia
of the late nineteenth century. In the cellar of the building, twenty-six
men work from six in the morning until ten at night making krendels (sweet
pastries) and doughnut-shaped biscuits.
Narrator: One of twenty-six
men who make biscuits and pastries in a sweatshop bakery in the cellar
of a building. The narrator does not identify himself by name.
girl who visits the men early each morning to ask them for baked goods.
She works as a chambermaid in the same building.
Pavel: Baker in the
Co-Workers of the Narrator
and Pavel Makers of White Bread:
Four men who work in another bakery in the same building in which the twenty-six
biscuit-makers work. The white-bread makers receive better pay and better
food than the other men
well-dressed man who replaces a fired worker in the white-bread bakery.
Two girls who work in an embroidery shop in the building housing the two
bakeries. They are attracted to the soldier and fight over him.
of the bakeries and an embroidery shop. The twenty-six men describe him
as "a rogue, a rascal, a villain, a tyrant." He is the subject of frequent
discussions but is not an active character in the story.
narrator presents the story in first-person point of view as one of the
poorly paid, overworked men in the cellar bakery.
The tone of the story is
somber and gloomy--even when the men sing.
One of us sang,
and at first we listened in silence to his lonely song, which was drowned
and deafened underneath the heavy ceiling of the cellar, like the small
fire of a wood-pile in the steppe on a damp autumn night, when the gray
sky is hanging over the earth like a leaden roof. Then another joined the
singer, and now, two voices soar softly and mournfully over the suffocating
heat of our narrow ditch. And suddenly a few more voices take up the song--and
the song bubbles up like a wave, growing stronger, louder, as though moving
asunder the damp, heavy walls of our stony prison.
the twenty-six sing; loud voices, singing in unison, fill the workshop;
the song has no room there; it strikes against the stones of the walls,
it moans and weeps and reanimates the heart by a soft tickling pain, irritating
old wounds and rousing sorrow.
Summary Based on a 1902 Translation
by Dora B. Montefiore and Emily Jankowleff
6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, twenty six-men in a building in a Russian
town make pastries and biscuits in a damp cellar with a low ceiling blackened
with smoke. The proprietor of their shop has covered the windows of the
cellar on the outside with iron mesh to prevent the workers from giving
handouts to the poor and the unemployed. .......Some
of the cellar workers roll the dough, and others knead it with water. When
the dough is ready, the baker--a man named Pavel--shovels it onto the hot
bricks of an oven. All day long the oven blazes, and all day long the raw
dough goes in and comes out as brown biscuits or krendels (sweet yeast
breads or pastries that resemble pretzels). While preparing their products,
eighteen of the men sit at a long table—nine on one side and nine on the
other—while the other men occupy themselves in other ways. .......“We
had grown so tired of looking at one another that each of us knew all the
wrinkles on the faces of the others,” the narrator says. .......They
seldom speak. But sometimes they sing, their voices reverberating off the
stone walls. The songs remind them of the past, “irritating old wounds
and rousing sorrow.” .......At
the close of the workday, they collapse into bed. At 5 the next morning,
they arise to prepare for another day of kneading, rolling, and baking.
The only bright spot in their day is a sixteen-year-old girl named Tanya,
who works as a chambermaid in the same dwelling that houses the cellar
bakery. The building also houses an emboridery shop and another bakery
worked by four men who make white bread. Tanya visits the twenty-six biscuit-
and krendel-makers every morning and, holding out her apron, says, “Little
prisoners! Give me biscuits!” At the sound of her voice, all the prisoners
look to her cheerful blue eyes and smiling face. The narrator says that
she has "a thick, long braid of chestnut hair, falling across her shoulder.”
They all greet her, and the baker shovels biscuits into her apron. Before
she leaves, they always warn her not to let the boss catch her with the
the men speak coarsely about other women—as men are wont to do in their
own company—they never speak ill of Tanya. She is very beautiful. She is
the morning sun that brightens their day. .......“Like
all human beings," the narrator says, "we could not live without worshipping
something. We had nobody better than she, and none, except her, paid any
attention to us, the dwellers of the cellar.” .......The
men make sure she gets her biscuits every morning. And, occasionally, they
perform other chores for her, such as chopping wood. .......One
day, one man asks her to mend a shirt for him. But she refuses “with a
contemptuous sneer.” The other men laugh at their comrade, but they decide
never again to ask Tanya to do anything for them. However, they continue
to love her, for there is no one else to love. From time to time, someone
asks why they revere the girl. The others rebuke him for his question. .......In
the other bakery in the house, four men make white bread. They consider
themselves superior to the twenty-six biscuit men and laugh at them when
they encounter them in the yard. The biscuit men avoid these rivals under
orders from the proprietor, who is afraid the biscuit-makers will steal
loaves of bread. .......The
bakers of white bread are far better off than the biscuit men. The white-bread
men receive more pay and better meals, and they work in a cleaner, more
spacious shop conducive to good health. What is more, their work is easier.
On holidays, they visit the city park in their presentable clothes and
sturdy boots. But because the biscuit men wear rags and old shoes with
gaping fissures, the police refuse them entrance to the park. .......One
day, the proprietor fires a white-bread man for heavy drinking and hires
a handsome soldier with a curled mustache, a satin vest, an embroidered
waistcoat, and a watch dangling from a gold chain. Shortly thereafter,
the soldier visits the biscuit cellar and questions the men about the proprietor.
They tell him how villainous the man is. When he asks how many girls are
in the building, they tell him nine. He then asks whether they take advantage
of the girls. They laugh, and one of them says, “It is not for us . . .
.” The soldier assumes he knows what the man is trying to say. .......“Yes,
it is hard for you!” he says. “You haven't . . . the appearance.” .......The
soldier then holds himself up as an ideal specimen: strong, handsome, impeccably
dressed. He says women fawn over him. Sitting on a flour sack, he tells
them stories about how he handles women. After he leaves, the men all agree
that the soldier is a fine, friendly fellow who no doubt will attract the
embroidery girls. Thereafter, the embroidery girls ignore the biscuit men,
either “closing their lips insultingly” when they pass by or simply walking
straight on. Until then, the men had always admired the embroidery ladies.
And what of Tanya? The men all have varying opinions about how she is responding
to the soldier. They agree to stay alert about the situation and to warn
Tanya to be wary of him. .......In
the next month, the men often see the soldier with the embroidery girls.
When the soldier visits the men now and then, he never speaks of how he
is getting along with the girls. Meanwhile, Tanya comes every morning as
usual. When the men mention the soldier, she calls him a “goggle-eyed calf”
and other unusual names. These references lead the men to believe that
she has nothing to do with him. Heartened, they continue to regard her
with affection. However, they begin to look upon the soldier with contempt. .......One
day, the soldier visits the men while he is drunk and tells how two embroidery
girls, Lidka and Grushka, fought over him, scratching each other's faces. ......."How
lucky I am with women, eh?" he says. "It is very funny! Just a wink and
I have them!" .......At
the oven, the baker says there is one girl the soldier cannot conquer.
The soldier asks which one, but the baker stops talking and goes back to
work, using his shovel to put formed biscuit dough into the oven and take
finished biscuits out. The soldier approaches him and, saying the baker
insulted him, demands to know which girl the baker was talking about. .......“Do
you know Tanya?” the baker says. .......The
soldier says she would be “easy enough.” She will yield within a month,
he says. When the baker calls him a boaster, the soldier says, “Two weeks,
that's all.” His remark enrages
the baker, who threatens the soldier with a shovel. .......“Very
well, then!” the soldiers says. He leaves. .......The
men think the baker, Pavel, wrongfully whetted the soldier's appetite.
On the other hand, they are curious to see what happens. In time, they
learn from the white-bread men that the soldier is wooing Tanya. This news
intensifies the curiosity of the biscuit men. So preoccupied do they become
with what will happen next that they do their work without complaint even
after the proprietor increases their work load. .......One
morning, when Tanya comes in for biscuits, the curiosity of the men reaches
a peak; they simply look at her in silence. She wonders what is wrong,
then asks them to give her the biscuits quickly. .......“There's
plenty of time,” the baker says. .......She
turns and goes back out. .......The
baker says, "It is done, it seems! . . . The soldier! . . . Rascal! . .
. Scoundrel!" .......Someone
else says, “perhaps not yet.” .......At
noon, while the men are eating, the soldier enters and tells the men to
go into the hall and look through the cleft in the wall to see “a soldier's
boldness.” They do as he says. It is raining. There is mud on the ground
and snow on the roofs. Soon, the men see the soldier enter the yard, then
Tanya. She is smiling and radiating joy. The men then run into the yard,
surround her, and heap obscenities upon her. The joy leaves her face. Her
lips tremble. When they continue to abuse her verbally, she regains her
composure and says, “Miserable prisoners!” Then she calmly and confidently
walks out of the circle of men. Taken aback by her demeanor, they do nothing
to stop her. Without turning around, she calls them “rabble” and walks
men return to work. Thereafter, Tanya never again stops for the morning
main conflict is between the twenty-six men and their jobs.
Day in and day out,
amid flour-dust and mud and thick, bad-odored suffocating heat, we rolled
out the dough and made biscuits, wetting them with our sweat, and we hated
our work with keen hatred. . . . Sitting by a long table, one opposite
the other--nine opposite nine--we mechanically moved our hands, and fingers
during the long hours, and became so accustomed to our work that we no
longer ever followed the motions of our hands. And we had grown so tired
of looking at one another that each of us knew all the wrinkles on the
faces of the others.
The men also despise the white-bread
makers for their superior attitude and the proprietor for treating them
inhumanely. At first, the men like the soldier. But their opinion of him
changes for the worse after he boasts that he can seduce Tanya. As for
her, the men think she is the one person in the world who cares enough
to visit them, the one person who can never be corrupted. But in the end,
they come into conflict with her, too.
climax occurs when the twenty-six men see Tanya in the yard eagerly walking
toward the soldier. Her smile and the joy in her eyes tell them that the
soldier made good on his boast. Their image of her as a sweet, innocent
girl is destroyed.
The Dismal Plight of the
theme of Gorky's story is the dismal life of the working class in Czarist
Russia of the late nineteenth century. To develop his theme, Gorky narrows
his focus to twenty-six biscuit-makers on the job from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
every day. Theirs is a monotonous, repetitious job in which they become
machines that turn dough into baked goods. Their workplace is a cellar,
a “box of stone under the low, heavy ceiling, covered with smoke-black
and spider-webs.” Next to their work table is a huge oven. The narrator
[It] looked like
the deformed head of a fairy-tale monster. It looked as though it thrust
itself out from underneath the floor, opened its wide mouth full of fire,
and breathed on us with heat and stared at our endless work through the
two black air-holes above the forehead. These two cavities were like eyes--pitiless
and impassible eyes of a monster: they stared at us with the same dark
gaze, as though they had grown tired of looking at slaves, and expecting
nothing human from them, despised them with the cold contempt of wisdom.
the men's workday ends, time remains for only one activity: sleep. They
arise at five the next morning to prepare for work as virtual prisoners
of their employer and their economic system. Their pay is so poor that
they cannot afford decent clothes or shoes. They have no freedom. The police
won't even let them visit the local park because of their shoddy appearance.
The only bright spot in their otherwise cheerless day is a pretty, smiling
sixteen-year-old named Tanya, a chambermaid in their building. She comes
to them early in the morning and, holding her apron out, says, “Little
prisoners! Give me biscuits!” After they oblige her, she leaves. .......The
men regard her as an innocent, pristine little creature—their shining star.
In place of the sun, she gives them morning light that keeps them going
through the day. Of all the people who work in the building—in the embroidery
shop, in the other bakery—she is the only one who visits them daily, the
only one who treats them kindly. And then comes the day when her behavior
shatters their idealized image of her. In the end, they realize they have
nothing left but the cellar, the biscuits, the monotony—ad infinitum.
uses her charm and beauty to dupe the twenty-six men into believing that
she is their special friend. In reality, she just wants the biscuits. Perhaps
she uses the biscuits not only to supplement her food supply but also to
gain advantages with the girls in the embroidery shop. The first hint that
she is not who she seems comes in the following passage: “But when one
of us asked her to mend his only shirt, she declined, with a contemptuous
sneer.” Later, the soldier apparently uses her in the same way to get what
he wants—or she uses him.
behavior and the business owner's ill treatment of the biscuit-makers mirrors
the exploitation taking place in Russian society in general. The upper
and middle classes make profits and maintain their lifestyles on the backs
of the lower classes, the downtrodden. There are no unions, no minimum-wage
laws. Exploiting the lowest of the low—peasant farmhands, servants, factory
workers—goes unpunished in Czarist Russia.
biscuit-makers appear to be morally upright. But their gloomy environment
and lack of any entertainment besides singing leaves them hungry for diversion.
They get it when their baker, Pavel, bets the soldier that he cannot seduce
Tanya. The soldier takes up the challenge, saying he will have his way
with her within two weeks. The narrator and the other men know that Pavel
was wrong to challenge the soldier. Nevertheless, whether the soldier will
succeed in corrupting the girl becomes an interesting diversion for them.
The narrator says, "We felt that the soldier was touched to the quick and
that a danger was threatening Tanya. We felt this, and at the same time
we were seized with a burning, pleasant curiosity--what will happen? Will
she resist the soldier?"
time passes, their curiosity deepens.
We were very desirous
of testing the strength of our godling; we persistently proved to one another
that our godling was a strong godling, and that Tanya would come out the
victor in this combat. Then, finally, it appeared to us that we did not
provoke the soldier enough, that he might forget about the dispute, and
that we ought to irritate his self-love the more. Since that day we began
to live a particular, intensely nervous life--a life we had never lived
before. We argued with one another all day long, as if we had grown wiser.
We spoke more and better. It seemed to us that we were playing a game with
the devil, with Tanya as the stake on our side.
Destruction of an Ideal
in the beautiful Tanya as a friend and a shining star to brighten their
day helps sustain the twenty-six men through their difficult days in the
cellar bakery. But Tanya's rendezvous in the yard with the soldier destroys
that faith. This outcome leaves the reader wondering whether the men will
find a new ideal to sustain them or whether they will sink ever more deeply
into a morass of desperation.
some ways, the workers are their own worst enemies. For example, when Tanya's
behavior hints that she looks down upon them, their attitude toward her
remains the same. Note the following passage: "When one of us asked her
to mend his only shirt, she declined, with a contemptuous sneer. We laughed
heartily at the queer fellow, and never again asked her for anything. We
loved her; all is said in this."
they have no plans to attempt to improve their lot but instead accept it,
complaining about their working conditions only among themselves.
Questions and Writing Topics
If you were one of the cellar
workers, what action would you take to improve your life?
The story is set in the late
1890s. Who was the Russian czar at that time? Was he an able or inept ruler?
How did his rule end?
Write an essay explaining how
Gorky's early life prepared him to write about the poor and the downtrodden.
Use library and Internet research to support your thesis.
When one of the cellar workers
asks Tanya to mend his shirt, she sneers at him with contempt. Why doesn't
her behavior cause the men to turn against her?