The Childhood of Luvers

by Boris Pasternak
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 682

Zhenia Luvers’s first memories are of Perm, a gloomy northern city not far removed from a state of nature: Bearskin rugs are made from local animals; during the spring, weeds sprout and trees bud overnight; ice floes pass by on the river. Mr. Luvers manages a mine and spends little time with his children. Occasionally he is seen playing cards or discussing his dealings with factory owners. A series of governesses tend to Zhenia. She is educated first by an Englishwoman she scarcely remembers and then by a French tutor who burdens her with the conjugation of difficult verbs. When Zhenia is thirteen, she feels strangely ill and inadvertently leaves bloodstains on a bearskin rug and on her clothes. She takes the maid’s powder and attempts to efface the red marks, and a family confrontation takes place. Mrs. Luvers upbraids Zhenia at first and in the end dismisses the Frenchwoman. Subsequently, and quite more insistently than for previous visits, her mother arranges for a doctor to examine Zhenia. Some time later, and quite to her surprise, Zhenia learns that the family will move southeast to a city beyond the Urals.

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At first, Zhenia is enchanted with her new surroundings, which she persistently regards as “Asian.” Ekaterinburg is clear, clean, and spacious. The exotic and the commonplace mingle easily. Zhenia is entranced by Tatar children from the region; she makes friends with a local girl, Liza Defendova. When she is transferred from the city’s lycee and is given private lessons at home, Zhenia is more upset than her friend that they will no longer meet in school. Zhenia’s lessons do not always come easily—good-naturedly, she spells some words according to her own lights, and she confuses some terms for units of weight and measure. Her tutor, who has the improbable surname Dikikh, amuses her, and she is intrigued by his friend Tsvetkov, who walks with a limp. She competes half-seriously with her brother, Serezha, but fears that he may be steadily surpassing her in strength and endurance.

That autumn and winter are fixed in her mind more specifically and clearly than past changes of season; the days seem colder and darker than during previous years. Zhenia is aware that her mother does not leave the house, and rumors are afloat that she is pregnant. One night, as she lies in bed, Zhenia hears a scream and then another, rending, howling cries, and then she nearly runs into her father in the hallway. Hasty, disjointed questions and commands are exchanged among members of the family. Zhenia’s intuition seems confirmed: Her mother has given birth again. Then she falls asleep and has some trouble convincing herself that she has not dreamed it all. The next day she is sent to stay with the Defendovs; on her way out Zhenia notices that, amid jumbled pots, pans, medical supplies, and towels, her mother lies in bed and is still moaning. While at the neighbors, Zhenia asks Liza Defendova whether she can have babies, and she is reassured when Liza tells her that all girls can.

After several weeks Zhenia returns home and resumes her lessons; she learns what has actually happened from the doctor and her tutor. One night, her mother and father were returning from the theater when their stallion inexplicably reared up and trampled a bypasser to death. The mother suffered what—in the doctor’s euphemistic expression—was a “nervous upset.” Zhenia infers that her little baby brother was born dead; the doctor can only confirm her worst fears. Dikikh, the tutor, finds Zhenia strangely changed; he declares that he too has lost a friend. Intuitively Zhenia associates Tsvetkov, or someone like him, with the accident outside the theater; she screams as Dikikh sets forth his recollections of that tragic evening. Later the tutor, who seemingly has accepted his friend’s death, is taken aback at Zhenia’s “excessive sensitivity.” She seems under the power of impressions that cannot be described precisely in words. Zhenia’s schoolbook must be put back on the shelf to await another day.

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