Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473
The title, “A Living Relic,” refers to a paralyzed serf girl, Lukerya, whom the narrator, Pyotr Petrovich, unexpectedly encounters lying alone and abandoned in a small shed on one of his mother’s farms. Pyotr is stunned by the sight of the immobile, mummylike body that lies before him and cannot believe that the half-dead creature is the same lively, beautiful, robust young girl who loved to sing and dance a mere six years ago, when she lived in his mother’s manor house as one of her household serfs.
Pyotr’s compassion for the girl grows as he questions her about her misfortunes and learns that she fell, injured herself internally, and gradually lost the use of her legs. Because the doctors were unable to diagnose her illness and the gentry considered it inconvenient to keep invalids in the manor house, she was sent to the village of Alekseyevka. Her affliction caused her great grief because it separated her from the young peasant lad, Vasily Polyakov, whom she loved and to whom she had been betrothed. Vasily also grieved but eventually married another girl, named Agrafena. As Lukerya relates her misfortune, the narrator is astonished to learn that she harbors no resentment. She is grateful knowing that Vasily has found a good wife who has provided him with children. She weeps only after Vasily’s visits, when she recalls the happy times that they shared together. For the most part she endures her suffering quietly and patiently, without dwelling on her affliction. She explains that as long as she still breathes, she is alive and she values that life. She takes delight in the beauty of the natural world around her: the aroma of wild flowers; the sounds of insects; the activities of birds, fowl, and other small woodland creatures that creep into her shed. Although it is with great effort, she continues to sing and even teaches the songs she remembers to an orphan girl. Pyotr is overwhelmed by the scarcely audible but pure sound that she emits from her trembling lips.
Deeply moved by the condition of the unfortunate Lukerya, he offers to transfer her to a hospital, but she declines, remembering the painful medical treatment she received. She asks only that he try to obtain for her more opium to help relieve her sleeplessness. Then, in a supreme expression of compassion and concern for others, she asks Pyotr to persuade his mother to reduce the quit-rent for the peasants because they are poor and do not have enough land. Pyotr agrees and departs. As he leaves, the foreman on the farm tells him that the local peasants call Lukerya “Living Relic,” because she never complains and is grateful for everything. A few weeks later, Pyotr learns that Lukerya has died as she had foreseen in one of her dreams.