Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 928

The Don Flows Home to the Sea is the last half of an immense historical novel, Tikhii Don. The novel follows a Don Cossack, Gregor Melekhov, from peacetime czarist Russia through the German-Russian War to the Russian Revolution and the civil war. Although the focal point of the novel is war, the cultural life of Cossack Russia—the roles of men and women in the agrarian family and their love for the land—is equally well portrayed. The length of the work enables a magnificent panorama of history to unfold.

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Mikhail Sholokhov intensely loved the Don, the steppe, and the cycles of the seasons, and his poetic language beautifully captures the bond of the Cossacks with their land. Theirs is a peasant’s life. They are in tune with the wind, the coming of rain, the swelling and cracking of the frozen Don. Numerous scenes begin with painterly descriptions of landscape, subtle but insistent reminders that it is from the land that life comes. Death, undisguised, is omnipresent. Gory and detailed descriptions of the dying and of the dead are commonplace, but the Don and the steppe survive all tragedies. Sholokhov evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of that earthy existence so vividly that the pain of Cossack uprootedness is totally convincing. Young soldiers who fight valiantly near the Don are ineffectual, lifeless, on foreign soil; refugees wander aimlessly when forced to flee their Don home.

The Melekhov family and the other townspeople of Tatarsk are typical of agrarian society and culture. Roles within family units are assumed unquestioningly, although not always obediently. The head of the Melekhov household, old Pantaleimon Prokoffivich, Gregor’s father, is responsible for all who live under his roof: his wife, his sons, their wives and children, and his daughter until she marries. He is the patriarchal authority. Pantaleimon orders the marriage of Gregor and Natalia when he learns of Gregor’s affair with Aksinia; Gregor complies. Old Pantaleimon becomes confused about his authority over his sons, however, when their military ranks surpass his.

Pantaleimon expects and demands to be served and respected by women, who are, he assumes, his subordinates. In Cossack society, females are less valued than males and are treated as possessions by husbands. When Stepan Astakhov first learns of the affair between his wife, Aksinia, and Gregor, he returns home to beat, then to stomp on Aksinia as if he were doing a Cossack dance. He is within his rights to thus punish her transgression.

The matriarch of the Melekhov family is Ilinichna, Pantaleimon’s wife, who is not only the female head of the household (wife, mother, and grandmother) but also the mother to her sons’ wives. The relationship between the mother-in-law and the daughters-in-law is an interesting one. Ilinichna gives orders to Daria, Piotra’s wife, and Natalia as a mistress would to servants. The young married women have no rights except as granted by their husbands and mother-in-law.

Children are reared in an extended family, and parental authority is often less than that of the grandparent. The middle generation, sons and daughters-in-law, are treated as overgrown children by the older generation. A major role for the young men is to serve in the military. Service is seen as an honor, a duty that is fulfilled unquestioningly. The process of maturation for young men seems to occur in the military. When Gregor and his friends return home from war, the townspeople comment on how broad-shouldered they have become.

A strain of violence permeates Cossack life. Even during peacetime there is an air of exaggerated rivalry in which anger is expressed overtly. When old Pantaleimon proudly races through the village with his hero son, Gregor, he becomes infuriated with an old woman who scolds him for nearly running over her livestock. His anger could easily lead him to using his whip on her. Wartime violence is seen both on the battlefront and within the civilian population. There is an irony in the reverence a soldier holds for his own mother when he mistreats another’s mother; an irony when he who has shared another soldier’s wife returns home enraged to find that his wife has been similarly unfaithful.

The length of the novel gives the feeling of the flow of history, not in generalized sweeping trends or wartime strategies, but in a long series of specific circumstances that enables the reader to become involved with numerous major characters and to care about their lives and deaths as much as about the life of the one central figure, Gregor Melekhov. A dead soldier by the side of the road becomes a vital loss, as the reader learns in retrospect from a small diary of the soldier’s life and love. The relationship that grows between Podtielkov and Anna Pogodko is another mini-novel that is given life and death within the confines of Sholokhov’s world. The deaths that affect Gregor most deeply are those of his and Aksinia’s daughter, of Piotra on the battlefield, of Piotra’s wife by suicide, of Natalia by an unsuccessful abortion, of Pantaleimon of typhus as a refugee, and, finally, of Aksinia. The reader participates in Gregor’s suffering because Sholokhov has fully developed all of these characters.

This long-range focus on history through specific tragedies gives the indelible impression of the war weariness, resignation, and readiness for death that Gregor feels when he finally returns home for the last time. This work and the first part of the narrative, And Quiet Flows the Don, have also been published as one book.

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