The Gentleman from San Francisco Analysis

Ivan Bunin

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

To convey his vision of a society riddled with self-indulgence and hypocrisy, Bunin marshaled all of his gifts as a prose artist. The result is a masterpiece of expressive technique. Each word and image contributes to the work’s total impact, and hardly any superfluous or insignificant detail can be identified. From the outset, Bunin creates a special narrative style whose very diction carries subtle overtones of irony to expose the folly and vanity of the gentleman’s worldview. Writing of the reasons for the gentleman’s trip, Bunin states: “He was firmly convinced that he was fully entitled to a rest, to pleasure, and to a journey excellent in all respects.” This is not Bunin’s normal style. The solemn pomposity of its formulations belongs to the gentleman himself, creating a satiric echo of his own arrogance. It is truly ironic, however, that this self-impressed character remains anonymous throughout the story. Despite his own belief in his personal significance, no one could even remember the man’s name after his death.

Bunin also relies heavily on symbolic detail to evoke the shallowness of the gentleman’s lifestyle and the dangers inherent in the narrow-minded self-absorption of his society. The relationship between the ship on which the gentleman travels and the sea through which this ship moves provides a good illustration of the writer’s symbolic technique. Opposed to the power and majesty of the human-made ship is the churning realm of the gale-swept sea. Bunin’s descriptions of the ship and the sea suggest that a profound struggle is being waged between the elemental forces of nature and the artificial constructs of modern civilization. This struggle even takes on spiritual or religious dimensions. Bunin notes that the ship is ruled by the captain, a mysterious figure compared to an idol or pagan god, while the devil himself watches the struggle of ship against sea from the shoreline. It seems as though modern society has created its own gods and its own Hell, next to which the Old World devil seems almost irrelevant. Similar examples of evocative detail can be found in Bunin’s descriptions of the gentleman’s itinerary, clothing, and pastimes. Bunin’s narrative serves as a frank mirror for the gentleman and his milieu, disclosing the severe wrinkles under his makeup and the cheap trappings in which a vain world wraps itself.