Themes and Meanings
In this very early story, Turgenev introduces some well-worn romantic themes: the motif of three sisters, the confession of love as a terrible secret, and the image of Death itself seemingly in love with Beauty. Amid this romantic material, Turgenev sardonically plunks Trifon, the apologetic, snuff-taking, ruble-counting sawbones who shies away from “exalted emotions” (as he understands Alexandra’s passion).
Turgenev stays well in the background of this story, in his guise as a sympathetic listener, giving scarcely a clue as to his own interpretation of the events. He does make clear, however, that Trifon is a very limited fellow and a highly imperfect witness. The reader must fill in and make corrections for Trifon, and this gives rise to many possible interpretations. For example, the fate of the extremely proud girl, who has to be at the point of death before she can bring herself to confess her feelings for the too modest doctor, would seem to be the story’s chief irony. If one corrects for Trifon’s extreme humility and class-consciousness, however, it may well be Trifon who is the victim of an irony of fate. Perhaps Alexandra’s appreciation of his devotion to her had awakened a genuine love in her, which was totally lost on him.
The twin themes of the unendurable burden of unspoken love, and the equally excruciating consequences of confessing it, later attain a rich development in all of Turgenev’s mature major works. The type of the morbidly proud woman, although generally associated mainly with the works of Fyodor Dostoevski, is here seen to be a part of Turgenev’s world as well, even at a very early stage.