Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 646
Ivan Andreitch (Vanya) Laevsky
Ivan Andreitch (Vanya) Laevsky (ahn-DREH-ihch LAH-ehv-skee), a minor official of the czarist government. This slender, neurotic, twenty-eight-year-old intellectual already considers himself a failure. He is living in the Caucasus with another man’s wife and, after two years of this scandalous conduct, finds that he has grown tired of her and is going mad in this backwater community. He desperately wishes to abandon his mistress and flee to St. Petersburg, where the social and intellectual life is more compatible with his temperament. He realizes, however, that he is always thinking that a new love affair or change of surroundings will inspire him to do great things. He drinks too much, neglects his work, spends his time playing cards, and generally displays himself as a weakling, a wastrel, and a cad. His behavior eventually involves him in a pistol duel that marks a turning point in his life. Afterward, he becomes temperate, industrious, and mature; he marries his mistress (whose husband has recently died), and they settle down to a humble provincial life.
“Kolya” Von Koren
“Kolya” Von Koren, a zoologist. This broad-shouldered, swarthy, vigorous young man stands in striking contrast to Laevsky. Whereas the latter is a dreamer and romantic, the scientist is a hardheaded realist strongly affected by the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche and Charles Darwin. He hates Laevsky and believes that individuals like Laevsky should be executed or sent to labor camps to prevent them from infecting society. The real reason for their mutual antagonism, however, is the instinctive biological reaction of two fundamentally different natures. Von Koren lives by his reason, Laevsky by his feelings. Oddly enough, after the sobering experience of their duel, each acquires character traits of the other. Laevsky becomes industrious and responsible; Von Koren becomes more sympathetic and tolerant. When Von Koren’s summer field trip ends, the two men part on friendly terms, illustrating the author’s thesis that, life being such a mysterious and precarious affair, human beings ought to try to tolerate one another with Christian humility.
Alexandr Daviditch Samoylenko
Alexandr Daviditch Samoylenko (dah-VIH-dihch sah-moy-LEHN-koh), an army doctor and friend of both Laevsky and Von Koren. This fat, flabby, homely, man affects the brusque manner of a martinet and bully to cover up his tenderhearted, generous nature. Laevsky and Von Koren frequently encounter each other at Samoylenko’s home. The army officer likes them both and tries to get them to tolerate each other. In this role, he represents the author’s idea of how human beings ought to regard one another.
Nadyezhda Fyodorovna (nah-DEHZH-dah FYOH-doh-rov-nah), Laevsky’s mistress. This attractive woman who ran away from her husband to live with Laevsky considers herself a freethinker and an intellectual. Like Laevsky, she has been influenced by the liberal ideas of the 1880’s, including those of such men as Herbert Spencer and Henrik Ibsen. She finds herself in a difficult position in the Caucasus, however, among provincial people with conservative ideas. They regard her as a fallen woman, and some men believe they can force her into assignations. Her own attitude toward herself is being undermined by social pressure. She actually succumbs to offers of liaisons with two other men. With no money of her own, she seems well on her way to becoming a common prostitute if Laevsky were to desert her.
Ilya Mihalitch Kirilin
Ilya Mihalitch Kirilin (MIH-hah-lihch kih-RIH-lihn), the local police captain. This swaggering, insensitive man is one of Nadyezhda’s lovers. His brutal treatment of her shows the extent to which she has fallen in social regard and foreshadows what her future might be like without Laevsky. Just before his duel with Von Koren, Laevsky surprises Nadyezhda and Kirilin in a sordid encounter in a rented room, but he forgives her because of what he has come to understand about universal weakness and human suffering.