Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1211
Marya, since the death of her husband, has become a social leader in her small provincial town. Her daughter Liza speaks French quite well and plays the piano. Her other children have the best tutors available. She takes great delight in receiving guests, especially Panshin, who holds an important position in Moscow. Her evening gatherings are always entertaining when Panshin is there to quote his own poetry.
It is rumored that Lavretzky is returning to the district. Although he is a cousin of the house, Marya scarcely knows how to treat him, for Lavretzky made an unfortunate marriage. He is now separated from his pretty wife, who is reputed to be fast and flighty. Lavretzky’s visit creates no difficulties, however. He is a rather silent, affable man, and he notices Liza with interest. Liza is a religious-minded and beautiful girl of nineteen. It is very evident that the brilliant Panshin is courting her with the full approval of her mother. On the evening of his visit, Lavretzky is not impressed with Panshin’s rendition of his musical romance, but the ladies are ecstatic.
The following day Lavretzky goes on to his small country estate. The place is run-down because it has been uninhabited since his sister’s death. Lavretzky, content to sink into a quiet country life, orders the gardens cleaned up, moves in some newer furniture, and begins to take an interest in the crops. He seems suspended in a real Russian atmosphere, close to the land. His new life is particularly pleasing after his residence in France and the painful separation from his wife.
Lavretzky had an unusual upbringing. His father, disappointed by his failure to inherit an aunt’s fortune, decided to make his son a strong man, even a Spartan. At twelve years of age, Lavretzky was dressed in Highland kilts and trained in gymnastics and horsemanship. He was given only one meal a day, and he took cold showers at four in the morning. Along with the physical culture intended to produce a natural man according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s doctrines, the father indoctrinated his son with Voltaire’s philosophy.
Lavretzky’s father died after enduring great pain for two years. During this time, he lost his bravery and atheistic independence, and, at the end, he was a sniveling wreck. His death was a release to Lavretzky, then twenty-three years old, who immediately enrolled in a university in Moscow. At the opera one night, he met Varvara, the beautiful daughter of a retired general who lives mostly by his wits. At first, Varvara’s parents have little use for Lavretzky, whom they take to be an unimportant student. When they learn that he comes of a good family and is a landed proprietor, they favor an early marriage. Because Varvara wants to travel, Lavretzky winds up his affairs and installs his new father-in-law as overseer of his properties.
In Paris, Varvara begins a dizzy social whirl. Her adoring husband is content merely to be at her side, and he lets her indulge her whims freely. She soon gains a reputation as a brilliant host, but her guests think her husband a nonentity. Lavretzky has no suspicion that Vavara is anything but a devoted wife and mother to their daughter until a letter accidentally comes into his hands, from which he learns of her lover and of their furtive meetings. Lavretzky leaves home immediately and takes up separate residence. When he writes to Varvara, telling her of the reason for the separation, she does not deny her guilt but asks only for consideration. After settling an income on his wife, Lavretzky returns to Russia.
At first, Lavretzky stays on his estate; later, he begins to ride into town occasionally to call on Marya and her family. After he becomes better acquainted with Liza, the young girl scolds him for being so hardhearted toward his wife. According to Liza’s religious beliefs, Lavretzky should pardon Varvara for her sins and continue the marriage. Lavretzky warns Liza that the carefree young diplomat Panshin is all surface and no substance and that he is not the man for her. Lavretzky has an ally in Marfa, the old aunt, who also sees through Panshin’s fine manners and clever speeches. When Panshin proposes to Liza by letter, she puts off making a decision.
Liza’s music teacher is an old, broken German named Lemm. Although Lavretzky has little ear for music, he has a deep appreciation for Lemm’s talent. He invites the old man to his farm. During the visit, the two men find that they have much in common. Lavretzky is saddened to see that the old music teacher is hopelessly in love with Liza.
One night, Panshin brilliantly holds forth in Marya’s drawing room on the inadequacies of Russia. He asserts that the country is far behind the rest of Europe in agriculture and politics. The English are superior in manufacture and merchandising, the French in social life and the arts, the Germans in philosophy and science. His views are those of the aristocratic detractors of Russia. The usually silent Lavretzky finally takes issue with Panshin and skillfully demolishes his every argument. Liza listens with approval.
Lavretzky comes upon a brief notice in the society section of a French paper, which informs him that his wife is dead. For a while he cannot think clearly, but as the import of the news comes home to him he realizes that he is in love with Liza. Riding into town, he gives the paper quietly to Liza. As soon as he can be alone with her, he declares his love. The young girl receives his declaration soberly, almost seeming to regard their love as a punishment. Although troubled at first by her attitude, Lavretzky soon achieves a happiness he never expected to find.
His happiness is short-lived, however. One day, his servant announces that Varvara has returned with their daughter. She tells him she was very ill and did not bother to correct the rumor of her death. Now she asks only to be allowed to live somewhere near him. Suspecting that her meekness is only assumed, Lavretzky arranges for her to live on a distant estate, far from his own house.
Liza’s reaction is controlled when he tells her the news. She seems almost to have expected the punishment, for she is convinced that sorrow is the lot of all Russians. Varvara brazenly calls on Marya and completely captivates her with her beauty, her French manners, and her accomplished playing and singing. Liza meets Lavretzky’s wife with grave composure. For a time, Varvara complies with her promise to stay isolated on the distant estate, where she frequently entertains Panshin. In the winter, when she moves to Moscow, Panshin is her devoted follower. At last, she goes back to Paris.
Liza enters a convent. Lavretzky sees her once from a distance as she scurries timidly to a prayer service. Taking what strength he can from the soil, he remains on his farm. When he is forty-five years old, he visits the house where Liza lived. Marya and everyone else he knew in the household had died. He feels ill at ease among the younger, laughing generation.