Olenin is a young man who has reached age twenty-four without accomplishing much of anything, except for squandering half his fortune. His decision to become an army officer, in part so he can leave Moscow, emerges from his notion that in the city and society, he could not accomplish his life’s work—although he had deliberately put off deciding on what that work would be. Leo Tolstoy portrays him as selfish and easily swayed, constantly becoming infatuated with one young woman after another, and dabbling in various pursuits, from music to farming. Olenin is devoted to maintaining his freedom, and also very conscious that one is only young once.
He meditated on the use to which he should devote that power of youth which is granted to man only once in a lifetime: that force which gives a man the power of making himself, or even—as it seemed to him—of making the universe, into anything he wishes: should it be to art, to science, to love of woman, or to practical activities? . . . Olenin was too strongly conscious of the presence of that all-powerful God of Youth—of that capacity to be entirely transformed into an aspiration or idea—the capacity to wish and to do—to throw oneself headlong into a bottomless abyss without knowing why or wherefore.
At the remote Terek River village where Olenin and his unit are stationed, he has few regular duties because he is a cadet officer. The unit is largely providing reinforcements for the Cossacks who protect the villagers from tribal raids. The Cossacks spurn the Russian troops, seeing them as weak and poorly trained. Olenin and his servant, Vanyusha, are quartered in the home of a Cossack family. Olenin soon becomes infatuated with their daughter, Maryanka, drawn to her “wild” and simple ways yet realizing a relationship would never work. She is developing a relationship with a local man, Lukashka, although he is also courting Nazarka. Lukashka is considered a hero because he saved a boy from drowning. He...
(The entire section is 524 words.)