The longest of Alexander Pushkin’s completed prose tales, The Captain’s Daughter is based on true events that Pushkin wrote as history in his 1834 Istoria Pugachev (The History of the Pugachev Rebellion, 1966). The most astonishing aspect of The Captain’s Daughter is that, though written in 1836, it possesses a brisk, lean style more suggestive of the twentieth century than of the mid-nineteenth century. Pushkin wastes no words, yet his scenes are vivid, his characters fully fleshed and remarkably alive, and his tale recounted in a suspenseful and moving manner. The realistic first-person narration adds to the verisimilitude of the story. The entire story is seen through Peter’s eyes, allowing the reader to share his enthusiasms, impetuousness, and fears, as well as his youthful ardor and romantic spirit. The naïve, romantic illusions of the young protagonist are described by the narrator in a thoroughly disarming and often humorous manner. A sense of the vitality of youth pervades the book.
Pushkin recounts action, such as the duel or the siege of the Bailogorsk fortress, in a vivid, well-paced manner. Throughout the novel, he writes with extraordinary vitality, bringing situations and characters to life in a few strokes. Sly humor is an integral part of the narrative. When the hero notes that his French tutor was sent from Moscow with the yearly supply of wine and olive oil, readers know precisely where that unlucky tutor fit into the household. Many of the characters possess a humorous side to their nature. The ill-fated, henpecked captain and his talkative but kindly tyrant of a wife are both portrayed with a light touch. Old Savelitch, Peter’s servant, is the truest comic figure in the novel; devoted to his young master, as earlier he had been to Peter’s father, the old man would willingly sacrifice his life for Peter but never hesitates to talk back to Peter or to the rebel Cossack leader if he feels that he is in the right. Even Pougatcheff, the self-styled claimant to the throne, is presented with a great deal of humor; in a sense, he is the only character in the book who does not take himself completely seriously, and this, at least in part, is because he has an ironic realization of the precariousness of his existence.
Many scenes in the novel possess double-edged humor, from the absurd, aborted, and then completed duel between Peter and Shvabrin to the moment, in the middle of horror, when old Savelitch dares to present an itemized list of destroyed and stolen goods to the man who holds all of their lives in his hands. The deaths of the captain and his wife are handled with a certain grotesque humor. As in William Shakespeare’s tragedies, humor serves to heighten the horror of such dramatic scenes as the fall of the fortress and the murders of the innocent at the hands of the rebels. At the same time, there are shockingly realistic portrayals of the duplicity of human nature, Shvabrin’s traitorous villainy, the garrison’s cowardice when they all throw down their arms in the face of the enemy, and the pettiness displayed by many of the minor characters. Despite the terrible events portrayed in the novel, the book is, however, not grim. It is a romantic tale of action and romance, with an appropriate happy ending. Even the conclusion, with its scenes of mistaken identity, possesses a charming humor. The brilliant construction of the novel, with its alternating light and dark scenes, sweeps readers along, never letting them be quite sure of where they are. Pushkin seems to delight in catching...
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readers off guard, making them laugh and gasp with horror, and then hurling a piece of slapstick at them before they have recovered from the surprise. The scene of the captain’s fat wife being dragged naked from her house to the gallows, screaming and shouting abuse at the Cossacks, is both funny and horrible. Shvabrin, completely despicable, is shown to be absurd as he struts and postures during his brief glory, and then, even more so, when he falls. Pushkin is extremely deft at showing both sides of human beings, the noble and the phony, the absurd and the courageous, the hateful and the loving.
The Russian land is an important part of this novel. The vast spaces become another character, as the hero flies across them in sleds and carriages or on horseback. Pushkin carefully builds a sense of intense patriotic fervor throughout the narrative, culminating in the scenes with the empress. The empress is seen as the mother figure of all Russia, wise and warm, quick to understand and forgive and to come to the aid of her “children.” Frequently in the course of the book, words and phrases refer to the Russian people as one large family; underlings call their masters and mistresses “Father” and “Mother,” and the land is referred to as the great mother of them all. The empress and the land are inseparable. In the light of this powerful sentiment, the daring of Pougatcheff to attempt to usurp the throne becomes all the more shocking, as Pushkin intended, because to attack the throne is to attack all of Russia and to undermine the structure of the entire country.
The Captain’s Daughter exerted a tremendous influence on Russian fiction; it showed novelists the possibilities of Russian themes and Russian settings, and, above all, it illustrated the narrative capabilities of the Russian language. Never before had Russian prose been used in fiction in such a lean, vigorous, and completely unpretentious manner. The perfection of the book was inspiring to the writers who followed. It can be said that the great period of Russian fiction begins with The Captain’s Daughter. The other great influence on Russian fiction, Nikolai Gogol’s Myortvye dushi (Dead Souls, 1887) did not appear until 1842. The great tragedy for Russian literature and the world is that the year after writing this novel, Pushkin was killed at the age of thirty-seven in a duel.