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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Ivan Ivanich Chimsha-Himalaisky and Burkin are hunting in the countryside when a heavy rain begins; they decide to seek shelter at the home of a local landowner, Pavel Konstantinovich Alekhin. Alekhin is young, unmarried, and a hard worker; he is also inclined to neglect his appearance in the absence of guests. In preparation for dinner and an evening of conversation, Alekhin and his guests bathe in the river; the guests notice that the water around their host turns brown as the dirt cascades off his body. The narrator, who is presumably the author, looks on Alekhin with favor, however, as he accentuates the young landowner’s love of hard work and energetic interest in everything around him.

After their ablutions, the three gentlemen settle down with tea as Ivan Ivanich tells Burkin and Alekhin the curious story of his brother’s life. Nikolai Ivanich Chimsha-Himalaisky went to work as a clerk in a large city at the age of nineteen. Both of the brothers grew up in the countryside, but their family estate was sold to settle debts. Nikolai Ivanich has never reconciled himself to life in the city and makes plans to acquire enough money to buy a small estate where he can grow gooseberries, which become a symbol in his mind of gracious living in the countryside. He spends his days dreaming of the future estate: where the main building will be located, ducks swimming in a pond, how he will eat soup made from cabbages that he has grown himself, and where the gooseberry bushes will be planted. Ivan Ivanich does not sympathize with his brother’s dream, viewing it as an escape from reality and an unnecessary limitation on one’s field of action. Instead of retreating to a country estate, a person should see the world and be active in society, he thinks.

After this aside, Ivan Ivanich returns to his story. Nikolai Ivanich becomes very stingy as he pinches pennies in order to buy his estate. In his forties, he marries an ugly, elderly, but rich widow in order to acquire more money for his estate. This poor woman, who was accustomed to good living with her former husband, loses control of her finances and is put on a Spartan regimen by Nikolai Ivanich. Within three years she dies; Nikolai Ivanich buys three hundred acres, and he sets about making his dream come true. There are a few drawbacks, however; there is neither a pond nor gooseberry bushes. There is a river, but it is polluted by a factory on one side and a kiln on the other, making the water coffee-brown. Undaunted, Nikolai Ivanich plants gooseberry bushes and settles into the life of a country squire.

Ivan Ivanich decides to pay his brother a visit in order to see how he is doing. The estate is cluttered with ditches, fences, and hedges, with the resulting impression of complete disorder. A dog that looks like a pig barks at the visitor, bringing out a barefoot cook who also looks like a pig. The cook directs Ivan Ivanich to his brother, who has grown stout and also resembles a pig. The reader realizes how removed this estate is from the dream that Nikolai Ivanich had envisioned as a youth.

Ivan Ivanich now describes Nikolai Ivanich’s life as a landed proprietor. The formerly timid clerk now pontificates on all sorts of issues and demands to be addressed with respect by the peasants, whom he alternately treats with severity and generosity, as the mood becomes him. He opines that education is necessary for the masses, but that they are not yet ready for it; corporal punishment is evil but in certain cases still necessary for the peasants, and so forth.

One evening, the two brothers are drinking tea as the cook brings in a full plate of gooseberries grown by Nikolai Ivanich, the first fruits of his bushes. After five minutes of silent contemplation, Nikolai Ivanich puts one in his mouth and pronounces it to be very tasty. In fact, Ivan Ivanich tells Burkin and Alekhin, the gooseberries were sour and hard. A terrible depression overcomes Ivan Ivanich as he realizes how deluded...

(The entire section is 2,164 words.)