The Gentleman from San Francisco Themes

Ivan Bunin

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As Bunin himself commented later, this story can be read as a sober warning to a world poised on the brink of World War I. Modern society, his story implies, has fallen prey to the forces of egocentricity, arrogance, and avarice. Wealth and rank seem to be its only measure of human worth. Thus the gentleman’s daughter finds herself spellbound with excitement in the presence of the crown prince of a certain Asian nation. Although the prince is described as unattractive, even corpselike, the thought that he has ancient royal blood coursing through his veins causes her heart to beat with silent ecstasy. As for the gentleman himself, he vainly believes that everyone on Capri, from the cabmen to the hotel staff, lives only to serve him. The fallacy of his perception becomes glaringly obvious after his death, when the hotel staff treats his family with undisguised disrespect. Because the source of their income has departed, they have little use for such unprofitable emotions as pity and compassion.

Although Bunin devotes the major portion of his narrative to the gentleman and his fellow travelers, he does offer a modest counter to this group with the scene involving the two peasants. Their humble spirituality and their evident love both for God and for the natural world offer an alternative to the self-absorption of the gentleman’s company, and in this scene the reader discovers Bunin’s solution to the perils he saw threatening modern society. Individuals should not act as if the universe were centered on them, but rather they must recognize that they are only a small element in a vast and wondrous cosmos that should be approached with reverence and love, not arrogance and cynicism. Egocentric desire must yield to self-effacing acceptance of the natural order, or the result will be death, decay, and dissolution.