My First Goose Summary
“My First Goose” is an early story in Isaac Babel’s collection Konarmiia (1926; Red Cavalry, 1929), based on the author’s experiences in the Russian campaign against Poland during the summer of 1920. Although this story is not precisely autobiographical, the fuller context of the collection clarifies that the narrator, like the author, is an educated Jew, newly appointed to the Division as “Propaganda Officer.” Virtually all the soldiers in the Division are Cossacks, and anti-Semitic to the bone (as were the men of the historic First Cavalry in which Babel served).
The entire thrust of the first half of the story is to contrast the narrator, the newly arrived, bespectacled officer, with his little trunk full of manuscripts, to the Cossacks of the Division Staff. First, Commander Savitsky is described as a marvelous giant, all in purple and crimson, and beautiful, as he strikes his riding whip on the table. Not content to be merely imposing, Savitsky, on learning that his new propaganda officer can read and write, calls him a “nasty little object” and ridicules his “specs”—referring to him as “one of those [Jew] grinds.” When the quartermaster takes the new officer to his billet, one of the five soldiers living there immediately tosses out the officer’s little trunk, turns his backside to him, and emits a series of vulgar noises.
Mortified, the narrator withdraws and tries to read Vladimir Ilich Lenin’s speech published that day in Pravda; he cannot concentrate, though, as the Cossacks continue to torment him. Finally he goes to the old landlady, who is half blind with cataracts and in a suicidal state because the soldiers have taken over her house, and demands food. Cursing, he shoves her aside, overtakes a goose in the yard, and cracks open its head beneath his boot. He digs into it with a sword and demands that the old woman cook it.
On witnessing this act, which, at its most trivial level, may be seen as an initiation rite common to any male group admitting or testing a new member, the Cossacks immediately open up to the propaganda officer. They invite him to share their cabbage soup and pork until his “goose” is ready. Well aware that his gesture of cruelty was essential to gain the confidence of the soldiers, the narrator nevertheless remains depressed. When the illiterate Cossacks ask him what is in the newspaper, however, he triumphantly reads aloud to them Lenin’s speech. “I read on,” he says, “and rejoiced, spying out exultingly the secret curve of Lenin’s straight line.” The platoon commander, Surovkov, praises Lenin’s ability to strike at the truth “straight off like a hen pecking at a grain!”
Thus, the narrator’s first day’s duty is accomplished. He has won over the men and established a rudimentary but effective propaganda program. The fact that the Cossacks are all nominally Bolsheviks does not mean that they have an understanding of Marxism-Leninism. The propaganda officer’s task is a difficult one, but at least he has begun well. That night, he and the five Cossacks sleep together in a shed, “warming one another.” The narrator sees women in his dreams, but his “heart, stained with bloodshed, grated and brimmed over.”
The ambivalence created by the final line is crucial to a right perception of this story: Violence is evil and must not be condoned. However, violence is necessary and cannot be avoided. The anguish of knowing that these conflicting realities can never be resolved is to be fully aware of the human condition.
The simple plot follows a narrator, whose name the reader does not learn, through the afternoon and evening of his assignment as a Propaganda Officer to a Cossack Division of the Red Army. The story takes place during the civil war which began in Russia in 1918. The narrator’s job is to spread Leninism throughout the Russian division at the Polish border. The story opens with the introduction of the narrator to Commander Savitsky, a man...
(The entire section is 1,123 words.)