Alexander Pushkin Short Fiction Analysis
Alexander Pushkin’s short fiction exhibits the classic characteristics of the Romantic tale. The focus is on event, on plot, with character portrayal subordinated to dramatic action. These cleverly plotted, entertaining stories have much in common with such early masters of the modern short story as Sir Walter Scott, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and Honoré de Balzac. As Romantic tales, Pushkin’s stories have been termed perfect. Yet his reputation as one of the developers of the modern short story rests on a remarkably small body of work: the five tales which make up the collection The Tales of Belkin and the masterpiece The Queen of Spades. In addition to these completed stories, a number of fragments were published after his death which illustrate Pushkin’s struggle in writing fiction. In contrast to his early achievements in poetry, his technical mastery of fiction required a long, difficult period of apprenticeship.
One of Pushkin’s most challenging technical problems was the appropriate management of point of view, and in The Tales of Belkin he finally solved that problem. He framed the tales with an opening device, as Scott had done in a series of novels titled “Tales of My Landlord” (1816-1819) and as Irving had done in his Tales of a Traveller (1824)"works popular in Russia at the time that Pushkin began writing fiction. Pushkin’s tales are presented as stories told by various people to one Ivan Petrovich Belkin, who wrote them down; upon his death, they were passed on to a publisher. The opening section of the collection is not a story but an address to the reader by this fictitious publisher, who comments on the background of the tales in a short paragraph and then presents a letter by a friend of Belkin which describes Belkin’s life. This elaborate device does function to place the tales together in a coherent arrangement wherein Pushkin’s voice carries consistently from one tale to the next.
The opening tale of the collection is “Vystrel” (“The Shot”), one of the most widely anthologized tales in short fiction. Within that single story, Pushkin exhibits a master’s manipulation of point of view, with a central narrator who, in turn, relates narration by two other characters. The central narrator is a young army officer, Lieutenant I. L. P., who describes the conditions of his regiment in a small, isolated town. The young officers spend their evenings gambling at the house of a thirty-five-year-old civilian named Silvio, who is a Byronic figure—a Romantic hero, detached and proud, somewhat ironic and cynical, with an obsessive personality. When Silvio is insulted by a newcomer, everyone expects Silvio to kill the brash young newcomer in a duel, for Silvio is a renowned shot who practices daily. Silvio passes up the opportunity, however, and the incident is forgotten by everyone but the lieutenant/narrator, who secretly cannot forgive Silvio for what he considers his cowardice.
Later, however, when Silvio learns that he must leave town, he calls the lieutenant aside and explains his reason for passing up the duel by relating a series of previous events, thus becoming a second narrator in the story. Six years previously, as a hussar himself, Silvio had a duel with another young officer, a brilliant count of great social position and wealth. From the details which Silvio relates, it is obvious that subconsciously he was jealous of the man. The conditions of the duel were such that the two men drew lots for the first shot; Silvio’s opponent won, but his shot missed, passing through Silvio’s cap. As Silvio prepared for his shot, the young count possessed such aplomb that he ate cherries, calmly spitting out the seeds, as he waited. Angered by this show of superiority, Silvio made the strange request that he be allowed to take his shot at some future date, at any time he should choose to do so; the young count, with his great poise, agreed without any sign of apprehension. Now, Silvio has learned that the count is to be married, and Silvio is leaving to take his revenge. Because of this previous commitment to his honor, Silvio was forced to allow the recent insult to go unchallenged; consequently, the lieutenant learns that Silvio is not a coward after all. After Silvio relates these events, however, the lieutenant has strange, contradictory feelings about him: What kind of a man would do such a thing? An antihero in the Byronic tradition, Silvio is an elevated figure who believes that he is beyond the common sensibilities of society; the response of the narrator illustrates his ambivalence toward that Byronic role, an ambivalence which reflects Pushkin’s own attitude.
The first section of the story ends with Silvio’s departure, and the second begins four or five years later, when the lieutenant has left the army to return to his country estate. His neighbor, a Countess B., has been absent from her estate, but when she returns with her husband, the narrator visits them to relieve his boredom. In a short while, the narrator discovers that the husband is the same man whom Silvio left to kill, the brilliant young count, and he becomes the third narrator as he relates the events that followed Silvio’s departure at the end of the first section of the story. Silvio indeed did appear at the estate, finding the count enjoying his honeymoon, but when Silvio claimed his shot, the count agreed. Silvio, however, in the spirit of the duelist, determined that they should draw lots once more. Once more, the count wins the first shot, but once more he misses, his stray shot striking a painting on the wall. Yet as Silvio readies himself to fire the deciding shot, the countess rushes in and, seeing her husband in danger, throws her arms around his neck. This action is too much for the count, and he angrily demands that Silvio shoot. Silvio, now satisfied that he has broken the count’s poise, fires his shot off to one side, into the same painting that the count struck. The story ends with the comment by the central narrator that Silvio was killed some years later in a military battle. The portrayal of Silvio that emerges from the separate narrators of this highly crafted tale is that of a principled, intriguing figure. There is a new twist to this tale, however, which deviates from the literary type of the day: The Byronic antihero has been bested by a straightforward, decent man. Although Pushkin actually began this story as a parody on the Byronic figure, his technical proficiency enabled him to explore the larger meanings of that figure, and “The Shot” became a masterpiece.
The two stories which follow “The Shot” in the collection, “Metel” (“The Blizzard”) and “Grobovshchik” (“The Undertaker”), are not as complex. “The Blizzard” revolves around a case of mistaken identity, which was a popular subject for Romantic tales at the time. A young heroine, Maria Gavrilovna, who has been brought up reading French novels, falls in love and sneaks off to marry her lover at night. Without her knowledge, a blizzard causes her lover to lose his way while going to the church, and she marries a man who, unknown to her, is not her lover. She returns to her parents’ home and four years later learns that her lover—whom she believes is...
(The entire section is 2999 words.)