Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 807
Marya Gavrilovna, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a wealthy landowner in provincial Russia, has formed her ideas of romance by reading French romantic novels. She develops an infatuation for Vladimir Nikolayevitch, a poor army subaltern, who returns her love. Her parents consider him unacceptable for their daughter and forbid them to see each other. They continue, however, to meet in secret. When winter comes and their secret meetings become impossible, they agree to a secret wedding, planning to return later and throw themselves at her parents’ feet, confident of receiving their forgiveness.
The night before her elopement, Marya writes letters to be delivered to her parents and a sentimental young girlfriend after the wedding. That night, her sleep is troubled by dreams foreboding her separation from Vladimir. The next day, she is restless and leaves the dinner table early to await the hour of her departure. In the meantime, a violent blizzard has arisen. At the appointed hour, she slips quietly from the house and goes to the end of the garden, where a sledge and Vladimir’s coachman, Tereshka, await to take her to the little church in Zhadrino for the wedding.
During the day, Vladimir has arranged for a priest to officiate at the wedding and selected three witnesses. Two hours before the wedding, he sends his coachman to get Marya and leaves alone in his one-horse sledge for the twenty-minute ride to the church. Almost immediately, the blizzard begins. Unable to see through the raging, swirling storm, he loses all direction. Soon his sledge is off the road. Many times it turns over and has to be righted. As the hours pass, he grows desperate until he sees a small village and learns that he has overshot Zhadrino by a great distance. Hiring a guide, he retraces his steps and arrives at the village church just at dawn. The church is locked and empty. Alexander Pushkin adds, “And what news awaited him!”
The next morning, back at Marya’s home, no one knows what has happened. Marya has burned the letters she wrote. Her maid, the priest, the witnesses, and Tereshka all keep a discreet silence about the events of the previous evening. That evening, however, Marya becomes quite ill. In her delirium, she talks confusedly about her love for Vladimir. Her parents, on consultation with neighbors, relent and send him word that they now consent to the marriage. Much to their surprise, he writes back refusing their offer and stating that his only hope is death. His wish is granted when, a short time later, he is wounded in Russia’s battle against Napoleon at Borodino and dies the day Napoleon enters Moscow.
A second tragedy strikes when Marya’s father dies, leaving her the sole heiress of his large estate. Surrounded by too many sad memories, Marya and her mother, Praskovya Petrovna, move to an estate in another area. Many suitors seek the hand of this beautiful, wealthy heiress, but she is faithful to the memory of Vladimir.
The war against Napoleon ends victoriously and the regiments return in showers of glory. They are the pride of Russia. The appearance of any officer in a provincial town is greeted with enthusiastic applause. A charming young Hussar, Colonel Burmin, returns to his estate near Marya’s home to recuperate from a battle wound. Even though it is rumored that he has formerly been a prankster, he now appears reserved. Marya is determined to break that reserve and to see him at her feet. It seems that she is succeeding, and the neighborhood expects an imminent wedding. Burmin, however, does not propose. Finally, he decides that he must give her an explanation. He begins, “I love you passionately.” She expects a declaration of love like that Saint-Preux made to Julie in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel and is shocked when he adds that an insuperable barrier separates them: He is already married. He continues that in 1812 he was on his way to join his regiment when a terrible blizzard arose and his driver became lost in strange country. He requested the driver to stop to ask for directions at a small wooden church that was open. Several people, asking why he was so late, rushed him into the darkened church, lit by only a few candles, to the side of a bride. In a spirit of recklessness, he allowed the priest to marry them. When he turned to kiss the bride, she cried out, “No! This is not he!” and fainted. Rushing to his sledge, he hurried away. He concludes that after so many years he has no way of finding the young lady on whom he had played such a cruel prank.
Marya seizes his hand and cries out, “So it was you? Do you not recognize me?” whereupon Burmin throws himself at her feet.