Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The most important stylistic feature of “The Story of My Dovecot” is the epiphany described in detail above. This is a device often used by Babel but never more successfully than in this particular story. At its best, the literary epiphany brings into focus all of the main elements of the story in which it appears. It becomes a “showing forth.”

Interestingly, Babel echoes the major epiphany of this story with a minor one that acts as an ode to the joy of a young Russian peasant as he smashes the house of a Jew: “Sighing, he smiled all around with the amiable grin of drunkenness, sweat, and spiritual power. The whole street was filled with a splitting, a snapping, the song of flying wood.” This epiphany truly reflects the happiness of the peasant, but it is ironic to such a degree that it qualifies as black humor. There is irony also in the fact that the peasant is smashing the house of Khariton Efrussi, thus acting as the instrument of the Babel family’s desired vengeance on the hated parvenu. Such a linking of early and late elements in the story lends artistic unity to the work.

Surprisingly, this story contains much humor, required both for emotional relief and as a device for maintaining detachment in the narrating author. An example of such humor is the remark, “Like all Jews I was short, weakly, and had headaches from studying.” The exaggeration qualifies as self-deprecating Jewish humor. However, there is also truth in it; many Jews really were short and weak, owing to poverty and poor diet—the consequence of anti-Semitism.

Babel employs a number of effective images that are relatively low-key, not so “ornamental” as in most of his other stories of the early 1920’s. An example is his description of the Russian Pyatnitsky, as he walks down a corridor, hemmed in by the shadowy walls, and “moving between them as a barge moves through a deep canal.” This positive image of a good Russian is needed in the story—as is the dedication to Gorky—but it cannot make up for the anti-Semitism that is shown in the story to be ubiquitous.