Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 702
N.N., a lonely bachelor in his forties, tells the story of the lost love of his youth, twenty years ago. This is his story. A Russian gentleman in his twenties with ample private means, he has been vacationing in a picturesque small town on the Rhine, where he meets by chance two fellow Russians, a young artist named Gagin and a girl of seventeen called Asya (a diminutive of Anna), whom Gagin introduces as his sister. N.N., recovering from an unsuccessful flirtation with a young widow, feels ready for a new relationship. Apparently the only Russians in town, the three soon become close friends.
N.N.’s curiosity is aroused by Asya. She has a mysterious, untamed, elfin quality, now skittish and shy, now embarrassingly forward. Her manners and class markings seem quite different from Gagin’s. The narrator imagines himself to be falling in love with her, but at the same time he is frequently irritated by her unconventional behavior. He suspects that she is not really Gagin’s sister at all, and the belief that he is being deceived irritates him all the more.
This early mystery is soon resolved, however, when Gagin, in a reminiscence, tells his and Asya’s story. Asya is his illegitimate half sister, the result of a liaison between his father and a serf woman some years after the early death of Gagin’s mother. When his father died, Gagin, a young man in his twenties, found himself responsible for this wild creature, to whom he was bound both by ties of blood and by the dying words of his father, who had “bequeathed” her to him, revealing her true identity for the first time. She had been brought up entirely in the country, first by her mother as a peasant, and then, after her mother’s death, by her father as a gentlewoman. After his father’s death, Gagin had placed her for some years in a finishing school in St. Petersburg, and they had only just come abroad together.
The romance between N.N. and Asya continues to develop, reaching a climax on a perfect day marked by a long walk by themselves in a vineyard, followed by an evening of dancing to Gagin’s accompaniment on the piano. The next day, however, Asya is strangely pensive and withdrawn, and N.N. finds himself unable to fathom her feelings or to sort out his own. The following day, he receives a summons from Asya. Gagin, however, intercepts N.N. with the startling announcement that his half sister loves him. She had spent a sleepless night, ultimately confessing her plight to Gagin with much sobbing. She is convinced, however, that N.N. despises her, presumably for her illegitimacy and peasant blood, and she had begged Gagin to take her away at once. Instead, Gagin has decided to talk to N.N. first, for to disappear would be tragic, if it turned out that N.N. also loved her. N.N. is thus forced into a difficult position: He must either propose marriage immediately or break off the relationship. The situation has suddenly become far more serious than he had anticipated, and once again his response is vexation.
In the denouement, N.N. has a secret meeting with Asya, arranged by her. At first, he draws her to him, but then abruptly he pulls back, saying that it is wrong of them to meet without her brother’s knowledge, and she runs away. Later that night, she returns, but not before N.N. and Gagin have worried about her, and the next day N.N. learns that Gagin and his sister have left town without leaving any forwarding address. Now N.N. is filled...
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with remorse and regret that he did not declare his love for her when he had the opportunity, but it is too late. He tries to follow them, to London and beyond, but in vain. All trace of Asya and her brother is lost, and now, twenty years later, N.N. looks back philosophically on this poignant episode of his youth. He suspects that it was all for the best: He would probably not have been happy with Asya.