The critic Herman Ermolaev has observed that Mikhail Sholokhov’s art embraces the epic, the dramatic, the comic, and the lyric; to this one might justly add the tragic, at least in The Silent Don. Helen Muchnic, for example, sees in the character of Grigorii the fatal flaw that marks the heroes of Greek tragedy: Grigorii is doomed by his failure to recognize the greatness of Bolshevism. His error lies in his independence. Like Oedipus, Grigorii cannot not know the truth, but unlike Sophocles’ hero, Sholokhov’s is destined never to know clearly. Even Soviet critics noted the tragic element in The Silent Don, and in 1940, Boris Emelyanov compared The Silent Don to Aeschylus’s The Persians (472 b.c.e.), since both were written from the viewpoint of the vanquished. The Silent Don is of epic proportions because of its length and its scope in time (1912-1922) at a crucial period in Western history, World War I and the Soviet Revolution. It was serialized in Oktyabr’ and Novy mir from 1928 to 1940. Volume 1 was published by Moskovskii Rabochii in 1928, volume 2 in 1929; Khudozhestvennaya Literatura published volumes 3 and 4 in 1933 and 1940 respectively.
The Silent Don
The novel is the story of the fall of a people seen through some of its most representative families: Melekhov, Korshunov, and Koshevoi in particular. Often compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-1869), The Silent Don unfolds a vast panorama of people and world-shaking events, and 1917 is to Sholokhov what 1812 was to Tolstoy. Yet Sholokhov is no Tolstoy. He lacks Tolstoy’s depth of vision, moral intensity, and psychological analysis. Sholokhov’s choice of a secluded and anachronistic prerevolutionary society places The Silent Don in the category of the primitive and popular epics, as David Stewart demonstrates through his analysis of action, character, language, and meaning in the novel.
Early in his career, Sholokhov was attracted to the theater, and thus it is not surprising that in both of his novels dialogue and action are of extreme importance. Sholokhov uses lively and spirited conversation, filled with dialectical and sometimes crude Cossack expressions, and often incorrect Russian. In fact, the major part of the novels is dialogue rather thannarrative, and important events come to light through the characters rather than through the author. Sholokhov does not write reflective philosophical works. Grigorii Melekhov’s search for truth is less evident in his thoughts than in his actions, as he vacillates constantly between Red and White, and between his wife, Natalia, and his mistress, Aksinia. Collectivization is not a well-thought-out plan in Virgin Soil Upturned but rather a process that occurs because each farmer moves in that direction.
Both people and nature are actors in Sholokhov’s works, and he moves effortlessly and harmoniously from one to the other. The poetic evocations of nature that make up at least one-fourth of The Silent Don and a good part, though less, of Virgin Soil Upturned show Sholokhov’s lyric mastery at its height. Most are placed at strategic positions, such as the beginning and end of chapters, and convey the union of people with nature. In somewhat pantheistic exultation, Sholokhov rejoices with nature in its cycle of birth, death, and resurrection. As one might expect from the titles of his novels, the Don mirrors human hopes and sorrows. Sholokhov’s books convey the feel of the earth—the Russian soil—and evoke the rhythm of nature.
Nature is frequently associated with love in Sholokhov’s fiction. Ermolaev, who has studied the role of nature in Sholokhov, identifies floral blooming with Aksinia; Easter, the spring, and rain, with Natalia. In Grigorii and Aksinia, one finds perhaps the tenderest love story in Soviet literature. Their passionate and fatal love recalls Anna Karenina or Dmitri Karamazov. As with Sholokhov’s poetic lyricism, his love stories are close to the earth and show the deep bond of human beings with nature. The tenderness of maternal love also plays an important role in Sholokhov’s works, as seen in the tender farewell of Ilinichna for her dead son, Piotra, and contrasts sharply with the brutality and violence of war.
Sholokhov’s humorous vein is more evident in Virgin Soil Upturned but is not absent from The Silent Don, where one might cite Panteleimon Melekhov’s wit. Virgin Soil Upturned abounds in...
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