Although separated into ten chapters, the actual plot of this story is fairly quickly summarized. The story is far more of a character analysis written in the first person by a narrator who starts out on the verge of hysteria and runs headlong into the extremity of that condition than it is a story reliant on convoluted plot mechanics. Most chapters revolve around one incident that is circle around by the narrator in his intensified state until he finally provides all the necessary information and moves on.
The narration begins at the end with the pawnbroker waiting for the undertaker to take a woman’s dead body off his table and place it into a coffin. Then the narrative instantly flashes back to the beginning as he describes his life as a lonely pawnbroker whose heart is touched by a sixteen year old girl who comes in sell items in a bid to raise money to advertise for a position as a governess in the newspaper. Feeling sorry for her penurious condition, he sets about giving her more money than her stuff is actually worth. Coming to look forward to her appearance, he does some checking up on her and finds she is forced into circumstances requiring she live with two aunts who see her only as a potential meal ticket by arranging a favorable marriage regardless of the girl’s wants or desires. He is moved to propose and after some time, she agrees.
.The marriage is not exactly one of great passion and the pawnbroker’s parsimonious way of handling business does not exactly endear his young bride. Eventually, they begin to argue over this means of handling business that usually takes the form of silent treatments rather than actual hostile exchange of words. Before long, the girl develops an untenable ritual of leaving each day. The pawnbroker learns that her daily sojourn takes her to a man named Efimovich. He and the narrator had once belonged to the same military regiment and now that she knows Efimovich, she also knows his terrible secret of being disgracefully release from duty. Nevertheless everything remains the same: she continues to take her daily visit. The turning point comes when one day he follows her armed with a gun. As he listens from outside, his wife and Efimovich begin to quarrel. When he hears her laughing at the man, the narrator makes his move, grandly sweeping in and taking his back.
Upon returning home, however, they take refuge in separate beds. During the middle of the night, the narrator awakens to the sight of his wife standing over and the feel of the cold metal of his gun pressed against his temple. He closes his eyes and when he once again dares to open them, she is gone. With the tacit understanding that the visit in the night was message, he reaches an unspoken accord with her and signs the contract by making formal arrangements for her to have her own separate sleeping quarters. And then she falls ill.
Tossing his natural frugality aside as well as the whirlwind of recent developments, the narrator spends all that is necessary to ensure her recovery. The recovery is slow, lasting through the winter until one day suddenly he hears her singing. Overcome with great emotion at pull back from the abyss, he promises to change and almost lives for a while on manic promise to take her to Boulogne to bathe in the sea.
A few days later he returns to his home after leaving to make arrangement for passports in order to make good on that promise. A crowd is gathered outside, looking down at the dead body of his wife who while he was gone had committed suicide by jumping out the window. Driven nearly to the point of madness at the conviction that had he arrived just five minutes earlier he could have stopped her from jumping, he ends by wondering what will become of him when they arrive tomorrow to take away her body.