Analysis of Ivan Turgenev’s Stories

The reputation of Ivan Turgenev (October 28, 1818 – September 3, 1883) as a short-story writer is based in equal measure on his stories about Russian peasant life and on stories about other segments of society. Although differing greatly in subject matter and emphasis, they nevertheless share the same mastery of storytelling and style and language. Turgenev wrote stories about the peasants early in his career, revealing his familiarity with life in the countryside and his preoccupation with liberal causes. As he grew older and traveled to Europe, his horizons expanded, and he became more interested in topics transcending his provincial outlook. His acquired cosmopolitanism was also reflected in his turning toward personal concerns of love, alienation, and psychological illumination of his characters. The last story that he wrote, “Klara Milich” (“Clara Milich”), takes him to the realm of the fantastic and supernatural, to life after death, and even to the bizarre twists of the human mind.

A Sportsman’s Sketches

Turgenev’s stories about Russian peasants are contained primarily in his collection A Sportsman’s Sketches. As the title implies (the accurate translation is “notes of a hunter”), the twenty-five tales are more like notes and sketches than full-blown stories with plot and characterization. It is one of the few examples in world literature where the entire collection of separate and independent stories has a thematic unity; another example of this unity is Isaac Babel’s Konormiia (1926; Red Cavalry, 1929). The unifying theme is the hard life of Russian peasants— many generations of whom had lived as serfs for centuries—and the neglect of their well-being on the part of their owners. Despite its innocuous title, chosen to mislead the censors, the collection provoked admiration as well as heated debates. It is credited with speeding up the process of the serfs’ emancipation.

The stories are set in the countryside around Turgenev’s family estate at the middle of the nineteenth century. They are told by the same narrator, a landowner, in fact the thinly disguised author himself. During his tireless hunting trips, Turgenev met various characters, mostly peasants, many of whom told stories worth listening to. The authentic human quality of the settings and marvelous characterization, rather than the social message, make the stories enduring literature.

The author approaches his characters with an open mind. He observes their demeanor “with curiosity and sympathy” and listens to their concerns and complaints without much comment, with a few questions for his own clarification. He refrains from passing judgment and avoids social criticism or satire. Through such unobtrusiveness, he gains the characters’ confidence and allows them to talk freely, making the stories more believable. More important, he does not idealize the peasants; instead, he attempts to penetrate the crust of everyday appearances.

The woman in the story “Ermolai i mel’nichikha” (“Yermolai and the Miller’s Wife”), whose freedom had been bought by her husband, talks nonchalantly about her hard lot and the lack of love in her life. Yet beneath her story, the reader senses deep melancholy and hopelessness, reinforced by the author’s remark to his hunting companion, “It seems she is ailing,” and by the companion’s retort, “What else should she be?” The burly, taciturn forest warden in the story “Biriuk” (“The Wolf”), who lives alone, excels in protecting the forest from the poachers, and is feared and hated by the peasants, who are not above stealing wood from the landowner. He cannot be bribed and plays no favorites, finding the only pleasure in doing his job. Yet when he catches a poor peasant trying to fell a tree, he lets him go because it is hunger that drove him to thievery. In one of Turgenev’s best stories, “Zhivye Moshchi” (“A Living Relic”), a young woman, dying of a fatal illness, gives the impression of total helplessness, yet she is nourished until her untimely death by her naïve religion and love of life. In all these stories, appearances are deceiving and the observernarrator is able to get to the core of his characters.

Not all characters have an adversarial relationship with their fate. The two friends in “Khor’i Kalynich” (“Khor and Kalynich”) epitomize the two halves of a Russian character. Khor is a practical, down-to-earth man who has found success in life. Kalynich is a sensitive soul living in unison with nature, a dreamer who revels in simple pleasures, without worrying about more complex aspects of life. The doctor in “Uezdnyi lekar” (“The Country Doctor”), called to the sickbed of a young girl, falls in love with her, and his love is returned, but he realizes that he cannot save the young girl. He finds solace in the discovery that the girl has satisfied her own craving for love in the last moments of her life. Thus, the results are not as important as the efforts to avoid or alleviate the blows, no matter how unsuccessful the efforts may be.

Peasants are not the only characters drawing the author’s attention. The landowners, who wield the power of life and death over their serfs, also appear in several stories. For the most part, they are depicted with much less sympathy and understanding, despite the author’s own social origin. In “Dva pomeshchika” (“Two Landowners”), both characters show negative traits: One, a major-general, is a social clown; the other is an insensitive brute, who thinks that a peasant will always be a peasant and who uses a homespun “philosophy” that “if the father’s a thief, the son’s a thief too . . . it’s blood that counts.” The author seems to be saying that, with such a negative attitude, no improvement of the peasants’ lot is possible. “Gamlet Shchigrovskogo uezda” (“Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District”) offers an even stronger castigation of the serf-owning class. Here, an intelligent and sensitive landowner fails to find understanding among his peers for his attempts to improve the lot of everybody. In a Dostoevskian fashion, he is forced to act like a buffoon in hopes of gaining attention that way. Turgenev’s position here sounds very much like a sharp satire against the existing state of affairs, but, as mentioned, he abstains from open and direct criticism, thus making his points even more effective.

Not all of the stories in A Sportsman’s Sketches are bleak or hopeless. The two best stories of the collection are also the most positive. In “Bezhin lug” (“Bezhin Meadow”), Turgenev relates his evening encounter with five young boys taking care of the horses in the countryside. Sitting by the fire in the evening, they tell one another fantastic stories, to amuse and even frighten one another. The narrator is impressed by the boys’ natural demeanor, straightforwardness, bravery, and, above all, rich imagination of which folktales are spun. The author seems to imply that the future of the country is secure if judged by the young who are to inherit it.

The second story, “Pevtsy” (“The Singers”), is even more uplifting. In another chance encounter, the narrator stumbles across an inn in the barely accessible backwoods. He is treated with a singing competition among the inn patrons unlike any other he had experienced. Turgenev uses the diamond-in-the-rough theme to show where the real talent can be found. As the narrator leaves the inn, he hears the people’s voices calling each other from one hill to another—a possible explanation of where the marvelous singers learn how to sing. These stories, along with a few others, strike a balance between the negative and the positive aspects of the life depicted in the book.

Surrounded and suffused by nature, Turgenev reacts to it by stating his position concerning human beings in nature. He expresses his admiration for nature by using strikingly detailed descriptions, emphasizing colors, sounds, and scents. His subtlety of observation is complemented by genuine lyricism and careful use of a melodic, rhythmical language. Despite these ornamental features, however, the reader is tempted to view the author’s notion of nature as being rather unfeeling and indifferent toward humankind, in the best tradition of Georg Brandes’ theory of la grande indifférent. A closer look, however, reveals that nature in Turgenev’s works shows the difference in degree, not in kind, and that for him, humankind is a part of nature, not outside it. Only in unison with nature can human beings fulfill their potential, in which case nature is not indifferent but, on the contrary, very helpful, as seen in the example of the singers in the aforementioned story.

Other artistic merits of these stories (which Turgenev was able to maintain throughout his writing career) can be found in his careful and delicate choice of suggestive and descriptive words; in the sketchy but pithy psychological portraiture; in the uncomplicated plot structure, consisting usually of an anecdote or episode; in the natural, calm, matter-of-fact narration; and in the effective imagery that is not strained or artificial. Superior craftsmanship goes hand in hand with the “social message” here, preventing the stories from being dated or used for inartistic purposes.


The Diary of a Superfluous Man

The second group of Turgenev’s tales strikes an altogether different path, although a kinship with his earlier stories can be easily detected. Among many stories outside the cycle of A Sportsman’s Sketches, eight deserve to be singled out, either for the significance of their contents or for their artistic merit, or both. An early story, “Dnevnik lishnega cheloveka” (“The Diary of a Superfluous Man”), despite its relative immaturity, has a significance that surpasses its artistic quality. It is here that Turgenev coined the phrase “a superfluous man,” which would reverberate throughout Russian literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Even though the superfluous man theme had been used before Turgenev by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in the novel in verse by the same name and by Mikhail Lermontov’s Pechorin in Geroy nashego vremeni (1840; A Hero of Our Times, 1854), it was Turgenev who made the phrase a literary byword. The story presages Dostoevski’s Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Letters from the Underworld, 1913; better known as Notes from the Underground, 1918).

Turgenev’s “superfluous man” is a young scion of erstwhile wealthy landowners, who writes a diary knowing that he will soon die of a disease. To compound his misery, he is rejected in his love for a beautiful neighbor. The excessive introspection of the “hero” and his inability to cope with reality make this story primarily a psychological character study and not a social statement, as some of Turgenev’s works of the same kind would become later.


Perhaps the best known of Turgenev’s stories, “Mumu” comes the closest in spirit to the collection A Sportsman’s Sketches. A deaf-mute servant loses the girl he loves when he is forced into marrying another woman. Later, he is ordered to kill his beloved dog because its barking is disturbing his mistress’s sleep. Drawing the character of the insensitive mistress after his mother, Turgenev castigates the insensitivity of the entire serf-owning class. The story does not sink into sentimental bathos primarily because of the remarkable characterization of the servant as an ultimate sufferer, underscoring the proverbial capacity for suffering of an entire nation. Moreover, by arousing overwhelming pity for the deaf-mute, Turgenev clearly places the blame for this human and social injustice at the door of the unfeeling gentry.

King Lear of the Steppes

“Stepnoi Korol’ Lir” (“King Lear of the Steppes”) is another story that in its countryside setting shows kinship with A Sportsman’s Sketches. Yet it is entirely different in the subject matter, spirit, and atmosphere. In a takeoff on William Shakespeare’s tragedy, the story shows children behaving toward their father in a similar manner. The atmosphere here, however, is typically Russian. Harlov, a descendant of a Russianized Swedish family, suffers the same indignity and ingratitude at the hands of his daughters, and he takes similar revenge upon them, but the tragedy is not relieved or ennobled. Turgenev shows a fine sense for plot, and the dialogues— more excessive than usual for him—are in line with the dramatic nature of its model. Artistically, this story is almost a masterpiece, keeping the reader in suspense until the end.


Love is an overriding theme in Turgenev’s later stories. “Asya” (“Asya”) and “Pervaya lyubov” (“First Love”) are the best representatives of Turgenev’s love stories. Both are told in the first person, tempting one to attribute to them autobiographical character, which may not be totally unjustified. “Asya” is set in a German town where the narrator (perhaps Turgenev) comes across two compatriots, a brother and a sister.

As the story unfolds, the narrator is increasingly attracted to the woman and develops genuine love feelings, yet he is unable to declare his love openly, vacillating constantly until every chance for consummation is lost. Turgenev was known to have been indecisive in his love affairs, as illustrated by his strange attachment to the Viardot couple. Seen from that angle, the autobiographical element becomes very plausible, but there is more to the story than simply Turgenev’s indecisiveness. At this stage of his development, Turgenev had published only one book of short stories and one novel, and he was beset by doubts and indecision, not only in his love relationships but also in his literary aspirations, all too similar to those of the narrator in “Asya.” As he himself said,

There are turning points in life, points when the past dies and something new is born; woe to the man who doesn’t know how to sense these turning points and either holds on stubbornly to a dead past or seeks prematurely to summon to life what has not yet fully ripened.

The story reflects the wrenching doubts and soul-searching of the protagonist, which did not enable him to take a resolute stance toward the young woman, who herself was searching for a more assuring love. Thus, the love between Asya and the narrator was doomed to failure almost before it began. The two part, and the only thing left is a bittersweet memory of what might have been.

Perhaps Turgenev was not yet ready to give the story the adequate treatment that it deserves. This is evidenced in the fact that Asya, wistful and charming though she may be, is not developed fully as a character. Turgenev will return soon to a similar theme and develop it to the fullest in his novel A House of Gentlefolk. It is also worth mentioning that “Asya” is another example of the theme of the superfluous man, which started with “The Diary of a Superfluous Man.”

First Love

“First Love” is a better love story because both the plot and the characters are more fully developed. It involves a rivalry between a young man and his father, vying for the affection of the same woman, Zinaida. In Turgenev’s own admission, the story is autobiographical; as he wrote about it in a letter, “It is the only thing that still gives me pleasure, because it is life itself, it was not made up. . . . ‘First Love’ is part of my experience.” Aside from this candid admission, the story has a wide appeal to all, both young and old; to the young because the first love is always cherished the most (the only true love, according to Turgenev), and to the old because it offers a vicarious pleasure of a last triumph.

It invariably evokes a bittersweet nostalgia in everyone. It also presents a plausible, even if not too common, situation. Turgenev controls with a sure hand the delicate relationships between the three partners in this emotional drama fraught with the awakening of manhood in an adolescent, with the amorous playfulness of a young woman who is both a temptress and a victim, and with the satisfaction of a conquest by a man entering the autumn of his life. Similarly, the author handles tactfully a potentially explosive situation between the loving father and adoring son, producing no rancor in aftermath. The story is a throwback to Romanticism, which had already passed in Russian literature and elsewhere at the time of the story’s publication. The story ends in a Turgenev fashion—unhappily for everyone concerned. All these attributes make “First Love” one of the best love stories in world literature. “The Song of Triumphant Love” •

Twenty years later, Turgenev would write another love story, “Pesn’ torzhestvuiushchei liubvi” (“The Song of Triumphant Love”), which differs from “First Love” in many respects. It again deals with a love relationship in a ménage à trois (it seems that Turgenev was constantly reliving his own predicament with the Viardot couple), but the similarities stop there. The setting is in sixteenth-century Ferrara, and the male players—members of ancient patrician families—are on equal footing, even if one is a husband and the other a suitor. The ending is much more than unhappy: It is downright tragic. What makes this story decisively different from other love stories by Turgenev is the introduction of a supernatural element manifesting itself in the woman’s conceiving, not by intercourse, but by the platonic desire and the singing of a song by the unsuccessful suitor.

“The Song of Triumphant Love” marks the transition to a more esoteric subject matter in Turgenev’s writing. He had written fantastic stories before (“Prizraki,” or “Phantoms”), but in the last decade of his life, he employed the supernatural with increasing frequency. In “Stuk . . . stuk . . . stuk . . .” (“Knock . . . Knock . . . Knock . . .”), he deals with a suicidal urge that borders on the supernatural. In his last story, “Clara Milich,” he tells of a man who has fallen in love with a woman after her death. Turgenev believed that there is a thin line dividing the real and the fantastic and that the fantastic stories people tell have happened in real life. As he said, “Wherever you look, there is the drama in life, and there are still writers who complain that all subjects have been exhausted.” Had he lived longer, most likely he would have tried to reconcile real life with so-called fantasy and the supernatural.

Major Works
Plays: Neostorozhnost, pb. 1843 (Carelessness, 1924); Bezdenezhe, pb. 1846, pr. 1852 (A Poor Gentleman, 1924); Kholostyak, pr. 1849 (The Bachelor, 1924); Nakhlebnik, wr. 1849, pb. 1857, pr. 1862 (The Family Charge, 1924); Zavtrak u predvoditelya, pr. 1849, pb. 1856 (An Amicable Settlement, 1924); Mesyats v derevne, wr. 1850, pb. 1855, pr. 1872 (A Month in the Country, 1924); Razgovor na bolshoy doroge, pr. 1850, pb. 1851 (A Conversation on the Highway, 1924); Gde tonko, tam i rvyotsya, wr. 1851, pr. 1912 (Where It Is Thin, There It Breaks, 1924); Provintsialka, pr. 1851 (A Provincial Lady, 1934); Vecher v Sorrente, wr. 1852, pr. 1884, pb. 1891 (An Evening in Sorrento, 1924); The Plays of Ivan Turgenev, pb. 1924; Three Plays, pb. 1934.
Novels: Rudin, 1856 (Dimitri Roudine, 1873; better known as Rudin, 1947); Asya, 1858 (English translation, 1877); Dvoryanskoye gnezdo, 1859 (Liza, 1869; also as A Nobleman’s Nest, 1903; better known as A House of Gentlefolk, 1894); Nakanune, 1860 (On the Eve, 1871); Pervaya lyubov, 1860 (First Love, 1884); Ottsy i deti, 1862 (Fathers and Sons, 1867); Dym, 1867 (Smoke, 1868); Veshniye vody, 1872 (Spring Floods, 1874; better known as The Torrents of Spring, 1897); Nov, 1877 (Virgin Soil, 1877); The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 1894-1899 (15 volumes).
Miscellaneous: The Works of Iván Turgenieff, 1903-1904 (6 volumes); The Essential Turgenev, 1994.
Nonfiction: “Gamlet i Don Kikhot,” 1860 (“Hamlet and Don Quixote,” 1930); Literaturnya i zhiteyskiya vospominaniya, 1880 (Literary Reminiscences and Autobiographical Fragments, 1958); Letters, 1983 (David Lowe, editor); Turgenev’s Letters, 1983 (A. V. Knowles, editor).
Poetry: Parasha, 1843; Senilia, 1882, 1930 (better known as Stikhotvoreniya v proze; Poems in Prose, 1883, 1945).

Allen, Elizabeth Cheresh. Beyond Realism: Turgenev’s Poetics of Secular Salvation. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992.
Brodianski, Nina. “Turgenev’s Short Stories: A Reevaluation.” Slavonic and East European Review 32, no. 78 (1953): 70-91.
Brouwer, Sander. Character in the Short Prose of Ivan Sergeevic Turgenev. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1996.
Gregg, Richard. “Turgenev and Hawthorne: The Life-Giving Satyr and the Fallen Faun.” Slavic and East European Journal 41 (Summer, 1997): 258-270.
Kagan-Kans, Eva. “Fate and Fantasy: A Study of Turgenev’s Fantastic Stories.” Slavic Review 18 (1969): 543-560.
Lowe, David A., ed. Critical Essays on Ivan Turgenev. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Seeley, Frank Friedeberg. Turgenev: A Reading of His Fiction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Sheidley, William E. “‘Born in Imitation of Someone Else’: Reading Turgenev’s ‘Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District’ as a Version of Hamlet.” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (Summer, 1990): 391-398.
Woodward, James B. Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons.” London: Bristol Classical Press, 1996.

Categories: Russian Literature, Short Story

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