The action takes place in the late 19th century.
Very Short Summary
An old man, Luke, came into the dormitory where the outcasts of society lived.
The old man had his own philosophy: he respected anyone, whether he was a thief, a beggar, or a prostitute.
Luke began to encourage the outcasts, to awaken hope in them. He told the alcoholic that there was a hospital that treated people like him. He advised the thief to start an honest new life in Siberia, and he made it easier for the dying woman to leave life.
But Luka's advice was of no use. The thief accidentally killed the greedy owner of the dormitory and ruined the woman he loved. After the murder, Luca disappeared as suddenly as he appeared. Realizing that his dreams would not come true, the alcoholic hanged himself, and the other residents of the dormitory went on with their lives as before.
Detailed Retelling by Acts
The titles of the acts are conditional.
Act 1: The Appearance of Old Luke
Spring morning. A room with a vaulted ceiling in the basement. There were bunks along the walls. The right corner was boarded up with plywood. The left corner was occupied by a Russian stove. Next to it was the door to the kitchen, and on the other side of it was a bed, partitioned off by a dirty curtain.
In the middle of the room stood a big table, unpainted and dirty. There was a samovar on it, and a dumpling-table vendor was clattering about, talking about her suitor.
Having lived with a tyrant husband, the merchant did not want to marry again. Nearby, the mite was working at the workbench, his gravely ill wife was lying on a bed behind a curtain.
Ticks was rude to his dying wife, believing that he ended up in the slum because of her. From the furnace the Actor got off.
While helping his wife, Klesch, out into the fresh air, the Actor ran into Kostylev, who was looking for his young wife, Vasilisa.
Kostylyov appreciated the Actor's kind attitude toward the dying woman, but refused to forgive him half of his debt.
Is the kindness of heart equal to money? Kindness is above all goods. And your debt to me is such a debt!
Vasilisa was the mistress of Ashes, who lived in a fenced-off corner, but Kostylev could not catch them together and was afraid of the thief.
Ashes is fed up with Vasilisa, and he has been hitting on her sister Natasha, but she rejects him.
Ashes had been stealing since he was a child, never working. The mite, on the other hand, considered people who did not work to be scum, "without honor, without conscience." According to Ash, beggars have no need for honor and conscience, but "those who have power and strength need them.
Natasha led Luke into the shelter, and he said hello and that he respected the man, even if he was a thief: "No flea is bad: all are black, all jump..." Luka began to sweep the dirty floor.
After him, Vasilisa appeared. She had heard a rumor that Ashes wanted to leave her because of Natasha. The thief was not in the dormitory, and Vasilisa left, even more angry.
Vasilisa and Natasha's uncle, the policeman who was courting the dumpling vendor, showed up. Luka brought the barely alive wife of Ticks into the room. At this time, in the hallway, Vasilisa began beating Natasha. Everyone except Luka and the seriously ill rushed to separate them.
Mite's wife liked the soft and affectionate Luka. The Wanderer, laughing, said: "There's a lot of mewl, that's why he's soft..."
Act 2. Luke awakens hope in beggars
Evening. Luke sits by the bedside of a dying woman who complains that her husband has beaten and abused her, she has starved all her life and walked around in rags. Luke consoled the poor woman by promising her rest after death.
Having cheated, the pauper Baron won at cards and offered the Actor and Luca to drink away the winnings. The old man refused.
The Actor, because of his constant drinking, had forgotten his favorite poems, which he was going to read to Luca. The old man offers the Actor treatment in a free hospital for drunkards, and the Actor only has to stay sober for a few days. At first the Actor liked the idea of starting life over, but then he called Luca a crank and left.
The Tick's wife called Luca. The Ticks wanted to talk to his wife, but she didn't care about him anymore. No one else cared about the dying woman, only Bubnov was glad that she would no longer cough at night.
Ash asked the policeman if Vasilisa had beaten her sister badly. He replied that family matters were none of the thief's business, and threatened to arrest him. Then Pepel promised to turn over the Kostylevs, who were buying up stolen goods from him. The policeman retreated.
Luka began to convince Ash that it was possible to start a new, honest life in Siberia. Ashes declared that the old man was lying, Luka replied that not everyone needs the truth, for many it is fatal.
To Ash's question whether there is a God, Luke replied, "If you believe, there is; if you don't believe, there is not... What you believe, there is." Ashes had almost guessed who Louka was, but then Vasilisa summoned the thief to talk. Ash admitted that he had never loved Vasilisa, and she offered him money and Natasha as a wife if he would kill her husband. Luca overheard the conversation.
Kostylyov caught his wife with Ashes and caused a scandal. Ashes attacked Kostylev, but Luka advised the thief not to listen to Vasilisa, but to take Natasha and leave.
The Nibbler's wife died. Luka and Ashes went to inform the Ticks of her death. Natasha and the drunken Actor, who was seriously going to be cured of his drunkenness and return to the stage, entered the room. He finally remembered his favorite poem, a poem by Beranger.
The pincher drank all his money and could not bury his wife. The residents of the shelter promised to collect whoever could, and quietly went to bed: the presence of a dead body did not bother them.
Dead men cannot hear! The dead do not feel ... Shout ... revie ... the dead do not hear!
Act 3. Talking about truth and human dignity
The wasteland between the dark log wall of the courtyard building and the gray wall of the dormitory. In the depths of the wasteland, covering half the sky, rose a red-brick fire-wall. Natasha, Luka, Baron, Nastya, and Ticks were sitting in the wasteland.
Bubnov looked out the window of the dormitory. Nastya was talking about a handsome student in love with her. The Baron quarrelled with her again, saying that the story was taken from a tabloid novel. Luca took Nastya away, affectionately comforting her. Natasha confessed that she was waiting for a special man who would save her from her sister and Kostylev.
The baron left to make peace with Nastya. Luka came back. Natasha asked why the old man was so kind. "One has to be kind, girl... be kind to a man in time... it is good to be kind," answered Luka, and told her how two runaway convicts had broken into the dacha where he served as keeper in search of food. Luka made them flog each other with a rod, and then lived with them at the dacha all winter. "A man can teach good things," Luca concluded.
Bubnov said that he could not lie and preferred to tell the truth as it was. Then Ticks shouted that he hated Luka, his consolations, and Bubnov's truth, and ran away.
Luca thoughtfully told Bubnov that "the truth does not always cure the soul," and told him of a man who believed that there was a righteous land where everyone respected each other. This belief helped him to endure poverty and hardship. One day the scholar proved to the man that there was no righteous earth and he hanged himself.
Bubnov did not believe him, laughed and went away from the window. Luka said that he would soon go "to the Khokhlys," where, according to rumors, they had discovered a new faith: "whoever wants hard will find it," you only have to help people and respect them.
Ashes offered Natasha to go with him, promising with her help to change, to give up stealing.
One must live in such a way... that one can respect oneself <...>.
The girl did not believe Ash and did not like him. At last she agreed, but promised to hang herself if Ash struck her. Luca encouraged the girl, "he needs you more than you need him." Vasilisa overheard their conversation and began to mock her sister and Ash. Luka called her a "poisonous viper."
Kostylyov found out that Luka was going to leave. He believed that a man's duty was not to wander, but to do good. A wanderer should not meddle in other people's affairs, live as a hermit and pray "for all worldly sins". Luke objected: there are people like fertile soil - "what you do not sow in it will give birth" - and such as Kostylev, even God cannot reform. The angry Kostylyov kicked Luke out of the dormitory.
Bubnov believed that "it is always better to leave in time"; he "was saved from hard labor by leaving in time. Bubnov's wife and her lover wanted to kill him. Bubnov changed his mind to kill his wife and left his tannery.
Satin and the Actor, who had not been drinking all day, appeared.
Satin told Luca that as a young man he "killed a scoundrel" while defending his sister. While he was in prison, his sister died, and Satin became a player. The Tick came along. He sold all his tools to bury his wife, and he has nothing to work with, and it is a shame to be idle.
Then everyone learned that Vasilisa had mutilated her sister by scalding her feet. Enraged Ash pushed Kostylev, who fell and died. Vasilisa called the thief a murderer, and he shouted that it was Vasilisa who instigated him to kill her husband. Natasha decided that they also mutilated her to get out of the way. Being half unconscious, she cursed Ash.
Act 4. After Luke's disappearance
Night. The partition, behind which Ashes lived, and The Rivet's workbench have disappeared from the dormitory. At the table, Klesch, who had become a beggar, was mending his harmonica, while Satin, Baron and Nastya were drinking. The Actor was coughing on the stove.
Everybody was discussing Luka, who had disappeared. Nastya, who had decided to leave Baron, regretted the kind and understanding old man. Satin compared Luka to crumbs for the toothless, and Baron to a band-aid for boils. The mite thought the old man was good: he "had the law in his soul," and the truth - who needs it? And without it there is nothing to breathe. The actor was still going to the mythical asylum for drunkards.
Satin believed that the old man was lying out of pity for his neighbors. Such a lie is necessary for those "who are weak in soul and who live with other people's juices," but not for someone who is his own master. But Satin did not consider the old man a charlatan either; he felt that Luca understood what a man is.
What is truth? A man is the truth! He understood that...
Nevertheless, Satin was affected by the old man "like acid on an old and dirty coin." He was struck by Luke's words that people do not really live for themselves, but wait for a better man to be born. Therefore, each person should be respected - suddenly it was born for good luck and for great benefit.
Baron remembered his family - natives of France. His ancestors served the Russian tsars, held high positions. To offend Baron, Nastya shouted that none of this had happened. Satin advised him to forget everything.
Nastya told him that Natasha had escaped from the hospital and disappeared without a trace. The girl thought that the cunning Vasilisa would turn out, and Pepel would go to hard labor.
Satin began to reason that in Man - the totality of all men on earth - "all beginnings and ends," and that the world around him is "the work of his hands and his brain." He should not be humiliated by pity, but respected, for "man is a proud sound.
Baron did not know how to reason in this way, and he was afraid to do so. He drifted all his life and changed his clothes. He studied - wore uniform of a student, got married - tried on tailcoat, got rich - wore grey jacket and red pants, served as a clerk - put on uniform and cap, stole state money - got a prisoner's coat, now he wears rags, and why he was born - still did not understand.
The actor drank a glass of vodka and ran out of the room. Bubnov and the policeman, who had been drinking, came in with vodka and snacks and started treating everybody. Everyone laughed at the policeman: he had been fired from the police, now he was subordinate to the saleswoman, and she was rumored to have beaten him. The drinking companions, singing merrily, gathered at the inn.
Then the frightened Baron reported that the Actor had hanged himself in the wasteland. Satin said softly: "Eh... ruined the song... dur-rak!"
The retelling is based on edition of the story from Gorky's Collected Works in 30 Volumes (M.: Goslitizdat, 1949).