By Maxim Gorky (1868-1936)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
Type of Work and Publication Year
.......Maxim 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 Twenty-six and One, and Other Stories from the Vagabond Series.
.......Maxim 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.
.......The 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.
.......The 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.Plot Summary
Based on a 1902 Translation by Dora B. Montefiore and Emily Jankowleff.......From 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 biscuits.
.......Although 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 away.
.......The men return to work. Thereafter, Tanya never again stops for the morning biscuits...
.......The 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.
.......The 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 Working Class
.......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 says,
[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........When 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.
.......Tanya 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.
.......The 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?"
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
.......Faith 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.
.......In 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."