Written more as a character study than a short story, “Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District” is one of twenty-five sketches that Turgenev wrote between 1847 and 1851. It was included in Turgenev’s first published work, a collection of the most important of these sketches, entitled Zapiski okhotnika (1852; Russian Life in the Interior, 1855; better known as A Sportsman’s Sketches, 1932). Each sketch is a minutely detailed portrait of a Russian type: a representative of the kinds of people whom Turgenev met while he hunted through the Russian countryside. The sketches are linked by an objective narrator, a discerning hunter who is able to hear the voices of provincial landowners and peasants, who is able to hear the land and its peasant boys speak; yet this huntsman cannot answer. He is a nearly mute narrator, an instrument on which the people he encounters play a uniquely poignant Russian tune.
Although the role of the narrator in this story is typical of the collection, in other ways this is an atypical piece. It is one of Turgenev’s broadest satires; whereas some of Turgenev’s sketches, such as “Bezhin Meadow,” are poetically descriptive and capture the beauty of the Russian countryside, and others, such as “Khos and Kalinych,” document peasant life, this piece concentrates on the landowning class. Dialogue is minimal. Vasily Vasilych’s speech, imitative of Hamlet’s soliloquies, indicates how form fits meaning: The dramatic monologue is an ideal form for this self-absorbed, overly sensitive man. Although Hamlet directs his words to his audience, Vasily Vasilych uses the narrator (and consequently the reader) as an audience. Not only is Vasilych a Hamlet-type, but also he acts as Hamlet, and the tiny, damp bedroom becomes his stage.
This particular sketch is like the others in Turgenev’s first published work, however, in that it captures and holds a moment in time. All the sketches, enduring works of art in their own right, allowed Turgenev a means to perfect his craft.