Nikolai Kavalerov (nih-koh-LAY kah-vah-LEH-rov), a homeless drunk, the narrator of the first part of the novel. Kavalerov, a twenty-seven-year-old drifter, “a fat-bellied little guy,” has a difficult time finding his place in postrevolutionary Soviet society. His main problem is that he sees no chance for individual success, unlike in the West. Fighting for tenderness, pathos, and individuality, he cannot adjust to the mechanical, practical, and despiritualized world around him and become a cog in the machine; in fact, he does not understand anything about mechanics and is afraid of machines. It is in this world, however, that he longs for glory. Because of this personality split, he develops a strong envy of those who are successful. As a result, he becomes a bystander, a typical superfluous man of Russian literature and a jester at those who have succeeded. He develops a false superiority complex out of his inferiority, belittling everything in impotent rage.
Andrei Babichev (bah-BEE-chehv), the director of the Food Industry Trust. Andrei is an example of the success for which Kavalerov yearns. An inventor of the “Quarter,” a cafeteria offering a two-course meal of nourishing, clean, and cheap food for a quarter, he takes pride in being practical and efficient. He has no respect for good-for-nothings like Kavalerov, whom he literally picked out of the gutter in the hope of reforming him. Even though Kavalerov calls him a belly-worshiping glutton and a greedy, jealous, petty, and suspicious bureaucrat, Andrei clearly represents a successful doer who is not devoid of at least some humanitarian impulses.
Ivan Babichev, the older brother of Andrei, a somewhat crazed dreamer and an opponent of the trends of the twentieth century. A direct opposite of his brother, Ivan is a “fat little preacher” of civil disobedience who belongs to the prerevolutionary Russia and who tries to organize an army of all the unhappy and frustrated individuals like Kavalerov. He lives in a world of fantasy, for he believes that fantasy is the beloved of reason. To achieve his quixotic goals, he has invented in his imagination a universal machine to kill all machines, naming her Ophelia, for the Shakespearean character who went out of her mind with love and despair. He also wants to organize a conspiracy of feelings and to lead “the last parade of the ancient, human passions,” because he complains that many emotions such as pity, tenderness, pride, love, and compassion have been declared banal. Like his pupil Kavalerov, he ends up sharing the bed of an elderly widow, thus admitting his defeat.
Volodya Makarov (voh-LOH-dyah mah-KAH-rov), a star athlete and engineering student. Even though he is ten years younger than Kavalerov, Volodya can be considered his foil in that he has succeeded where Kavalerov has failed. He calls himself a human machine and a heavy-industry man and wants to be like Thomas Edison. He is envious of the machine and desires to become a cog in it, without allowing for any individuality. A protégé of Andrei, Volodya imitates him in every way and shares his goals. He is the new Soviet man and, as such, shows only contempt for the likes of Ivan and Kavalerov.
Valya, Ivan’s daughter. Valya is loved by both Kavalerov and Volodya; Ivan and Andrei fight for her affection as well. The beautiful and healthy sixteen-year-old girl represents the future of the Soviet Union. The fact that in the end she chooses Volodya and shuns her father, despite her love for him, tips the author’s hand in predicting the eventual victors in the struggle between the old and the new.
Annie Prokopovich (pro-koh-POH-vihch), an elderly widow with whom both Kavalerov and Ivan sleep. Annie symbolizes the humiliation and defeat of both men, especially the former because of his youth.
The characters in this novel represent two conflicting attitudes in the Soviet Union of the...
(The entire section is 1,061 words.)