Exposition: The story takes place on an August night at the side of a road. Two peasants are sitting with a dead body.
Rising Action: The two men are talking while they keep watch over the dead body before they hear a rustling in the bushes behind them. A religious traveler comes from behind them and they engage in brief conversation. The traveler explains that he cannot find his way and asks for directions. He then notices the dead body and becomes frightened. He explains that he is afraid of the dead and asks how the man died. The peasants reply that they do not know, and the traveler offers to pray for him, but they reply that it would not be prudent because he could have taken his own life. The traveler, too frightened to go on by himself, asks them to walk with him to his destination, but they say they have to stay and watch the body.
Climax: One of the peasants decides to go with the traveler while the other stays with the body.
Falling Action: The peasant that opts to stay with the body falls asleep while the other peasant and the traveler walk off into the distance.
Resolution: The resolution of this story is left up to the reader. The story is left open-ended with the traveler and peasant walking off into the distance, and the other peasant falling asleep while the fire dies down and casts a shadow over the dark body. My interpretation was that the two peasants had murdered and robbed the man and were possibly waiting for a third peasant to come back and tell them what to do with the body. It can be assumed that the peasant that leaves with the traveler may do the same to him.
This story takes place in August on the side of the road in a field. We can presume that it takes place in Russia based on one of the character's names ( Syomushka) and the fact that the author lived in Russia.
Analyses of main characters
Syomushka: He is a peasant who does not seem to have much sense. He mindlessly follows the direction he is given to stay with the dead body. He falls asleep a few times throughout the story and its reprimanded by the other peasant for it. "I...I am not asleep..." ("A Dead Body") In the end, he stays with the body while the other peasant goes off with the traveler to show him his way while Syomushka falls asleep again.
Other Peasant: This man's name is not given, but it is obvious he is a little bit smarter and a lot more full of himself than Syomushka. He rebukes Syomushka for being such a "simpleton" as he puts it. "I dare say you are fifty, but you have less sense than a child. Aren't you sorry that you are a simpleton?" ("A Dead Body") He also ends up leaving with the traveler that they encounter to help him find his way to his destination.
Traveler: This man is walking down the road that the peasants are sitting by. He travels to different monasteries, but has lost his way. When he finds out about the body, he becomes very frightened and almost panicked. "I am not afraid of wolves, of thieves, or of darkness, but I am afraid of the dead. I am afraid of them, and that is all about it." ("A Dead Body") The "Other Peasant" ends up leaving with him to help him find his way as he is too frightened to go on by himself.
The overall theme of this story is very dark and mysterious. This story can be interpreted many different ways. One interpretation is that you should be wary of strangers. One can believe that the two peasants killed the man and would kill the traveler, too, so he should not be so trusting. Another interpretation is that you must look beneath the surface of things to see the true meaning and not be blinded by fear or confusion. This is achieved through the way that the story itself is very confusing and the readers have to figure it out for themselves.
Dead Body: This can be interpreted as the darkness in the story. Whether the person was murdered or committed suicide, it is obvious that something horrible happened to them. The fact that the two men were sitting by a dead body, should have warned the traveler that something was strange, but he was so blinded by his fear of the dead that he did not think of this.
Light/Darkness: The absence of light at the beginning of the story sets the mysterious and dark mood. The use of this symbol is continued after the "Other Peasant" and the traveler leave and the fore dies down. It casts a shadow over the dead body and one can assume that something horrible is happening to the traveler.