Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District by Ivan Turgenev

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Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The first-person narrator begins this story by establishing a frank and straightforward camaraderie with his audience. A well-mannered, cultured, and polite man, the narrator informs his readers that he had, on one of his hunting trips, been invited to a dinner party that was given by one Alexander Mikhailych. The host’s surname is unimportant. A minor character, he is a representative of his class: a small-minded, provincial landowner who nearly starves his guests because he must wait for the arrival of an important dignitary.

Using the party as a vehicle to satirize provincial aristocracy, the narrator gives a blow-by-blow account of the evening’s festivities: when he arrived, how he was greeted, who was there and what was said. He minutely details how he watched the provincials playing cards, their stomachs drooping over the tables; how he nearly fell asleep; and how he was first whisked away by Voinitsyn, a college failure, and then by Pyotr Lupikhin, the local satirist. This traveling hunter is far too reserved and polished to direct more than a subtle, pointed attack on what he witnessed. In this story he uses first Lupikhin and then Vasily Vasilych as mouthpieces for broad, virulent satire.

Lupikhin mocks the pageant of landowners who parade in front of him: They are a fat, ignorant lot, and Lupikhin sees them as so many animals. One is said to be “as stupid as a couple of merchants’ horses”; another is described as a sly predator, “stealing along by the wall, glancing all around him like a veritable wolf.”

While pleading disgust and claiming that it is hardly necessary for him to describe such a dinner, the narrator, humorously enough, describes it anyway. He captures snapshots of hypocritical stances: The boorish landowners, attempting to appear sophisticated, wear French manners as one wears a tight girdle. The tardy dignitary graces his fellow guests with a high-sounding after-dinner speech; this high official’s remarks are as fatuous as the philosophizing of William Shakespeare’s Polonius.

The party described, the narrator slowly moves toward the core of his story. Something happened that evening, he tells his readers, that made the party worth mentioning: He met “a certain remarkable person.” This is where the story-within-a-story begins. In a thoroughly unappealing room, the narrator meets one Vasily Vasilych. The latter, seeing that the narrator cannot sleep just as he cannot, begins a long dramatic monologue on the story of his life: the circumstances of his birth, his mama’s efforts to educate her boy of the steppes, and his foolish boyhood. What Vasily Vasilych reiterates, in this confessional tirade, is his awareness of his mediocrity. He knows that, like everyone else, he lacks originality. He differs from those pretentious party guests only in that he knows that he is common; he suffers, Vasily Vasilych tells the narrator (and the narrator retells his readers) because he is sensitive to his condition.

Who knows what one will say in the middle of the night, in a...

(The entire section is 775 words.)