‘‘My First Goose’’ appeared in Red Cavalry, Babel’s first collection of vignettes and stories—none longer than four pages. This interconnected cycle of stories, considered by many critics to be Isaac Babel’s best work, is also considered one of the most important contributions to twentieth-century Russian literature. The stories showcase Babel’s gift for disturbing imagery and complex philosophy. Containing his signature moral and religious ambiguity, they are characterized by an ironic and exaggerated tone. Red Cavalry initially gained popularity in serialized newspaper form and commanded international critical attention. The public was quick to respond to these new and shocking tales that were simultaneously beautiful and brutal, traditional and contemporary. However, Babel had political detractors as well as religious ones. The government became uneasy with his work, which did not appear to present exclusively socialist thought. ‘‘My First Goose’’ typifies the kind of writing that gained Babel this kind of varied and emotional response. The story contains the violence and passion typical of most of his work and concerns a deeply emotional narrator of ambiguous political, religious, and moral sentiment. Indeed, throughout his body of work and in his dealings with the government, Babel remained elusive about his actual political views.
The story contains a meticulous shape and acutely particular language.‘‘My First Goose’’ contains one of Babel’s famous and suggestive descriptions—that of the Commander’s legs, ‘‘like girls sheathed to the neck in shining riding boots.’’ This detail, the first the reader encounters, is echoed in the story’s end, when the unnamed narrator sleeps with his legs entwined in the other soldiers’ legs, dreaming of women. The narrator, whose job as Propaganda Officer is to educate the troops on Leninist thought, tells of his first day of assignment to a Cossack troop. Babel makes much of the narrator’s physical frailties, including his eyeglasses. In fact this narrator resembles the author himself physically, and appears in many of Red Cavalry’s tales. In the story’s crucial moment, the previously weak narrator proves his strength by killing a helpless goose. Themes of violence run throughout the story, as well as erotic and religious themes. Swift, unsettling, and strangely elevated, ‘‘My First Goose’’ remains one of Babel’s most widely read and variously interpreted stories.