The House on the Embankment

by Yuri Trifonov

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Themes and Meanings

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Reconstructing the past is a central theme in The House on the Embankment. While “reality looks different at different times,” the outline of the past remains visible. The “skeletal pattern” appears. This theme is developed through the complex narrative structure of shifting time frames. By using two narrators, Trifonov creates a multiple perspective of the past: Glebov’s thoughts as related by the narrator, the narrator’s semi-detached, sometimes ironic view, and the view of the narrator, who is openly annoyed by Glebov. The structure also illustrates the difficulty in determining when a situation actually begins. Glebov’s chance encounter with Lev occurs not in the present, but two years before he meets his mother on the train. In a sense, the action begins and ends with Glebov being snubbed, by Lev and his mother. Lev’s hoping for a miracle at the end, a parody of the happy ending of Socialist Realism, is actually in the past. The reader is called upon to reconstruct the order of events and evaluate their meaning.

Another important and related theme is the brutalization of life under Stalin. Oppression is ever-present in Glebov’s childhood and youth, even if only as a sinister threat in the background, and its insidious effect appears as fear, hypocrisy, compromise, betrayal, and guilt. The boys’ war with the Deryugin Street gang, the literary battles of the 1920’s which Ganchuk fought, and the plot at the Institute—all reflect and are metaphors of the larger political struggles. The end of the regime, noted only by a brief mention of Stalin’s funeral, is a pivotal point. It accounts for the simultaneous rehabilitation of Lev’s real father, the fall of his second stepfather, and the reinstatement of Ganchuk. Viewed against this background, Glebov’s behavior, though unethical, appears understandable.

The gray, imposing apartment house on the embankment, which dominated Glebov’s childhood and the landscape, is a symbol of the Stalinist regime. Outwardly dull and intimidating, the house contains bourgeois luxuries hypocritically enjoyed by the elite, the Communist bourgeoisie.

There are also allusions to Fyodor Dostoevski’s Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886). Both works contain a compassionate character named Sonya. When Glebov visits the Ganchuks during the plot at the Institute, Ganchuk makes a half-conscious comparison between Glebov and Raskolnikov, the murderer who returned to the scene of the crime in Dostoevski’s novel.

The last episode is set symbolically in the monastery cemetery where Sonya is buried. The extinguished crematorium is a symbol of the finality of death; it is “dead death.” The eerie cemetery in twilight and mist, with rooks cawing overhead, recalls classical descriptions of entrances to the underworld. Here, however, it is a universe without spiritual consolation.

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