Here, as in all the stories in Zapiski okhotnika (1852; A Sportsman’s Sketches, 1855), Ivan Turgenev (or his transparently disguised alter ego, the gentleman sportsman on a hunting trip) encounters the protagonist, the “district doctor,” in a natural, casual fashion. The weather is bad, the sportsman falls ill, and his only choice of a doctor turns out to be a modest local man, Trifon Ivanych. Grateful for any distraction, the patient listens to the doctor unburden himself of a haunting incident. Turgenev subtly persuades the reader to identify with the fretfully ailing sportsman and to await the unfolding of the doctor’s tale with impatience.
However, the doctor, who tells the story in his own words, has difficulty in sticking to his subject. His apologies, self-deprecations, and fussy details not only increase the suspense but also draw the portrait of an earnest but limited fellow, very uncomfortable with the subject matter that he is trying to convey.
One night, in his younger days, the doctor was summoned to an emergency: A young woman is critically ill with fever. The horses and carriage sent for him are pitiful, the roads are impassable, and the house is a long way off. The doctor feels wretched, both at these conditions and at the meager remuneration that undoubtedly awaits him.
At last, in the middle of this terrible night, the doctor arrives. He finds himself deeply moved. The dying girl, Alexandra Andreyevna, is very beautiful; the widowed mother is in despair; the two other sisters are touchingly concerned. They are cultivated people but very poor: This doctor is their only hope for saving her.
The doctor’s life thus veers from its course: He is unable to leave the girl’s side. He forgets all of his other patients, virtually stops fretting about fees, and moves into her house to devote himself to curing her.
Long before it is over, the doctor knows that her case is hopeless, yet he cannot bear to leave. His feelings are a mixture of professional duty, pity, and fascination. There is a mystery locked inside this dying young woman. On the first night, she began to say, “I will tell you why I don’t want to die,” but she has not yet come out with her explanation.
The reader endures increasing suspense, in parallel with the doctor’s growing despair, as Alexandra only gets worse the harder he tries to cure her. One night, when she realizes that she is probably never going to get well, she confesses to the doctor: “If I can know for certain that I must die . . . then I will tell you all—all!” What is the terrible secret that has been tormenting her? “Do you hear, I love you!” she lets out at last.
The doctor copes with this most ineptly. Alexandra grasps at him with physical passion, and he almost screams aloud. As an act of mercy, he pretends a proposal of marriage, not very convincingly.
Then a note of bitter comedy enters. Having known him only as “doctor” until now, Alexandra wishes to learn the first name of her beloved. Highly cultivated and high-class as she is (at least in his eyes), she finds his resoundingly plebeian name (which even in Russian sounds funny) hard to take: Trifon Ivanych. The “unpleasant” laugh and the French phrase with which this poor but extremely proud young woman reacts to his ridiculous name are not lost on Trifon.
Nor is the falseness of her position, as his pretended “fiancé,” lost on Alexandra. By the next morning, she has seriously deteriorated. The final three days include...
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an excruciating charade of asking for her mother’s blessing on their union. The girl herself dies unconvinced.
After years of pondering this strange event in his life, the doctor has come to his own understanding of it: “Say what you will, it’s hard to die at twenty without having known love; this was what was torturing her; this was why, in despair, she caught at me—do you understand now?”
Having gotten the morbid story off his chest, and now perfectly calm again, the doctor modestly refers to his subsequent marriage to a merchant’s daughter: “seven hundred for a dowry” coming out in the same breath.