This short work has a deceptively simple plot: A rich American businessperson travels with his family to Europe for a vacation and dies suddenly of a heart attack on the island of Capri. He then returns home in a coffin on the same ship on which he went to Europe. However, over the sparse frame of this plot, Ivan Bunin weaves an elaborate narrative fabric richly textured with subtle counterpoint and evocative detail. Some critics have interpreted the tale as an indictment of Western capitalism, but such an evaluation is inadequate. Through his title character, Bunin illustrates a pervasive problem afflicting all of modern society: a fatal preoccupation with the self that leaves one coldly indifferent to other people, to nature, and to God.
Bunin’s narrative exposes the shallowness and insensitivity of the gentleman and his fellow travelers through a variety of details. Describing the gentleman’s shipboard passage to the Old World, he unveils a lifestyle in which everything is devoted to the passengers’ comfort. Unmindful of the turbulent realm of nature outside, the passengers pursue one idle distraction after another. For them, eating is a major pastime, and the crown of their existence is dinner. However, beneath this veneer of civility one finds a core of avarice and hypocrisy. An apparently romantic couple admired by all the passengers is revealed to have been hired by the shipping company to act out the role of being in love. Even the most basic and profound of human emotions—love—becomes a hollow travesty in this banal society.
Once in Europe, the gentleman embarks on a numbing routine of sightseeing. The majestic churches of Italy soon become repetitious and boring, and the sightseers discover that “the same thing is found everywhere: . . . vast emptiness, silence . . . slippery gravestones under the feet and someone’s Deposition from the Cross, invariably famous.” The images of death here foreshadow the...
(The entire section is 797 words.)