Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The story has much realistic, specific detail. Details of setting, including not only sights and sounds but also smells, are described with great vividness and emotional effect, such as the closeness of Marya’s carriage, which “smelt of eau de Cologne and dust.” Also, like his fellow realists Gustave Flaubert and Anton Chekhov, Tolstoy does not shun the scatological component of reality, considering it not only the basest but also the most basic level of experience, noting that with the advent of spring in Moscow comes not only beauty: “Streams of water hurried gurgling between the frozen dung-heaps in the wet streets of the town.”
However, like Fyodor Dostoevski, Tolstoy in this story—as in much of his work—endows realistic details with symbolic import. The smell of Marya’s carriage, for example, is part of the network of symbolic contrasts in the story, the eau de cologne of the upper-class setting representing a foil to the smell of the confined carriers’ quarters: “a smell of human beings, baking bread, and cabbage, and sheepskins.” Similarly, the careful physical description of Matryosha in the story’s opening paragraphs creates a symbolic antithesis between her robust vitality and Marya’s moribund decay.
Besides the symbolic applicability of Psalm 104 to the story (its own cyclical symmetry corresponding to the story’s) and the symbolism of Nastasya’s dream (which suggests that death has been a joyful...
(The entire section is 370 words.)
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