Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The central theme of “Matryona’s House” has its focal point in Matryona herself. She is presented by her didactic author not so much as a generalized moral ideal as the embodiment of all that is worth preserving in the old ways of the Russian peasant. Solzhenitsyn looks primarily to prerevolutionary ideals (those of Matryona’s childhood) and thus implicitly criticizes the new mores under the Communist regime. The author’s attitude toward the values of contemporary Soviet society determines the second important theme of the story.

It will be seen that Matryona’s homestead—with its wooden shingles and weathered logs, its withered garden and potted plants, its Russian tile stove and icons in the corner, and its nanny goat, large cat, mice, and cockroaches—constitutes an extension of Matryona herself. The dismantling of the outbuilding symbolizes or anticipates the death of the old woman; more than that, it warns of the death of rural Russia, of its ancient, time-tested ways that must not be forgotten. This extended symbolism is reinforced by the author’s failure to tell the exact location of Matryona’s village. He speaks of his desire “to go somewhere in central Russia . . . and vanish in the very heartland of Russia.” He emphasizes the fundamental Russianness of Tal’novo by placing it in the context of a whole series of villages with ancient names that stretch out from the railway deep into the interior. The author writes, “The names wafted over me like a soothing breeze. They held a promise of the true, legendary Russia.”

Among the Russian virtues practiced by Matryona are her passive acceptance of her fate (including her tendency not to complain when suffering illness or adversity); her willingness to help others without thought of compensation—in general, her self-sacrificing nature; her ability to live easily in the world of nature (for...

(The entire section is 775 words.)