Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Vassily Aksyonov began to write in the early 1960’s, at the time of significant changes in the Soviet Union a decade after Joseph Stalin’s death. Although full artistic freedom was three decades away, the writers of that time were able to express themselves more freely than their predecessors. They were able to get away from prescribed topics and writing methods, and they were much bolder in using allegory, irony, and satire. “Little Whale, Varnisher of Reality,” although a fascinating human story, is also a subtle allegory about the Soviet way of life and thinking.

The story is built on a different way of looking at things. The protagonist is facing two worlds, each having its own rules and ways. On one side is his unhappy wife, who takes her dissatisfaction out on him because he is seemingly unwilling to assert himself adequately in the rough real world. He is having difficulties with his superiors at work as well, much of which is not his fault. He has had an affair with a beautiful aunt, as Little Whale calls her, who is pestering him now that the affair is over. His friends are not always sincere and helpful. On the other side, he sees the world of his little son, which is a world of innocence and instinctive goodness. His son’s world, although replete with fantasy and make-believe, appears to be more truthful, and certainly more wholesome and nourishing, than the adult world.

The dichotomy of these two worlds can be seen from two angles, philosophical and political. The question of what is real—a dilemma that many a Soviet writer has had to face—imposes itself. Is the world of the grownups, with all of their lies, hypocrisy, insincerity, and merciless struggle for survival, the only real world, the one to which a person has to devote all of his or her time? Does Ivan’s world, with its innocence, make-believe, and seemingly deliberate changing of what seems to be real, deserve at least to be treated equally, if not preferably? Because Aksyonov is not primarily a contemplative writer, it is unfair to expect Tolya to solve this age-old dilemma, nor does he try...

(The entire section is 859 words.)