Last Updated on June 23, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1336
The story opens ominously, with the as-yet-unnamed narrator alluding to an unknown past event and detailing its lingering ramifications. He describes an eerie recurring phenomenon on the train tracks “exactly a hundred and eighty-four kilometers from Moscow.” Passengers rise from their seats as the train slows for no known reason. They peer out their windows and at their schedules in shared confusion. The narrator ominously notes that neither he nor the train drivers share this confusion. After this final note, the prologue ends.
The story begins earlier, in the summer of 1953, as Ignatich, the narrator, returns to Russia after a ten-year imprisonment in Asia. He tells readers of his desire to acquire a teaching position in central Russia and his interest in reprising the traditional life he so fondly recalls. He visits the Regional Education Department and—much to their surprise—requests a rural appointment. First, they send him to High Field, a village far too modern for his tastes. He returns to ask for a different position and heads to a new location, Peatproduce. On arrival, he discovers that Peatproduce is a rough factory town coated in smog and littered with the modern tokens he dislikes. It is home to a narrow-gauge railway and a pub filled with undesirable drunkards.
Ignatich encounters a woman selling fresh milk and inquires about housing. In a sing-song voice, she explains that while Peatproduce is a regional hub, there are several remote villages nearby, including her home, Tal’novo. The name reminds Ignatich of the “true, legendary Russia,” and he accompanies her home, seeking lodgings. His options are limited, so he settles for Matryona’s house. Likely intended for a family, the run-down cottage is now home to a solitary old woman, alone but for her fig plants and lame cat. Her cooking is plain and often seasoned with cockroaches.
Despite this environment, Ignatich quickly becomes comfortable amongst the roaches, rats, and peeling wallpaper. He learns of her life: the illness which lays her low for days on end; her inability to reject requests for unpaid labor and aid; her husband, dead for twelve years, lost during WWII; her struggle to acquire the pension rightfully owed her. Much of the story is occupied with the requests and demands the villagers and collective farm make of Matryona. Despite her age and their unwillingness to compensate her for her labor, she willingly offers help time and again. Her giving nature is often juxtaposed with her illness: after helping the collective farm during a labor shortage, she experiences a bout of illness. No one offers to help.
As the harsh winter descends, however, Matryona's life gradually improves. Finally, she gets her pension and sews two-hundred roubles—far more money than she has ever had—into the lining of her coat to fund her funeral. Matryona and Ignatich grow comfortable in their cohabitation. One day, a dignified older man visits the cottage to discuss the performance of his son, Antoshka Grigoriev, one of Ignatich’s underperforming pupils. He asks after the man’s—whose name he later learns is Ilya—relationship to Matryona. Her response is cold, and she leaves the cottage.
Later that evening, Matryona tells Ignatich of her troubled history with Ilya. The two were very nearly engaged, their romance disrupted by the beginning of WWI. Called to fight, Ilya was captured and held as a prisoner of war for three years. The long years went by, and without word otherwise, Matryona assumed he was dead and married his younger brother, Efim. Ilya returned home to find them wed and flew into a bitter rage. He had told Matryona that if she had married any man other than his brother, he would have murdered them both. She tells Ignatich, too, about her marriage to Efim, their six children that died in infancy, and her adoption of Kira, Ilya’s youngest daughter.
Shortly after this conversation, Matryona begins writing her will. She has bequeathed her outhouse to Kira, so she and her husband can build a home and claim their plot of land in Cherusti. It is a generous gift, as building materials are inordinately expensive and hard to come by. Ilya jumps on the opportunity and pushes Matryona to forfeit the materials sooner rather than later. After some time, she agrees; Ilya, his sons, and his sons-in-law arrive to demolish a part of her beloved home. When the outhouse is sufficiently destroyed, Kira’s husband leaves to retrieve a tractor to haul the load. A blizzard hits, and they must wait for the roads to clear. Ilya, already impatient, grows more so.
After two weeks, the roads are clear. Ilya demands they drag the two timber-filled sledges in one trip, though his son-in-law, an engine driver, warns that the tractor is not powerful enough. Despite his misgivings, they do as Ilya says and load up both sledges for a single trip. Matryona flutters about, adding wood to the sledge. Ignatich notices she is wearing (and has dirtied) his quilted jacket, a memento from his time in prison and snaps at her—the first time he has done so. After the sledges are loaded, the men pile into Matryona’s kitchen to drink and carouse, growing ever louder and drunker. Eventually, the crew leaves. Matryona rushes to join them soon after they embark, worried that something will go wrong with the overloaded tractor.
Hours pass, and she does not return. Ignatich waits, growing worried, until one o’clock in the morning, when four men—two garbed in railway attire—arrive at the house. They demand to know if the tractor crew had been drinking; Ignatich answers truthfully—“not that I could see”—for he had heard, rather than seen, the carousing. They leave his anxious questions unanswered; as the men depart, they coldly explain that “the whole lot. . . caught it,” a confusing turn of phrase that does not illuminate the situation for poor Ignatich.
Shortly after, a tear-streaked Masha arrives. Through sobs, she explains what has happened. The rope holding the first sledge snapped, and the second sledge—built out of rotten wood due to Ilya’s frugality—fell apart. They had pulled the first sledge free, but the second one had proven more difficult. One of Ilya’s sons and Matryona returned to the tracks to try and salvage their haul, but with the noise of the tractor they failed to notice that there were two coupled trains driving backward with their lights off. The crash killed them both, mangling their bodies horribly, and nearly derailed the 9 o’clock train, which was carrying over a thousand passengers. Ignatich mourns her death and recalls with horror Ilya’s solemn vow: “If it wasn’t my own brother.” Finally, he has found his revenge.
Matryona’s body returns home, where the women bathe and bind it, preparing her body for its final rest. The village holds a funeral, an event Ignatich describes as filled with politics and interpersonal machinations rather than grief. The families squabble over her possessions and properties, her sisters cut the two hundred roubles out of her coat, and only Kira cries genuine tears. He sees the villagers as greedy people willing to exploit others for their own ends. At the wake, his point is further proven, and Ignatich grows disillusioned with this image of modern Russia and its people. He watches solemnly as the greedy are rewarded (Ilya claims his timber), the good are forgotten (Kira cries quietly and alone), and the virtuous are condemned (Matryona becomes the posthumous subject of village mockery).
Matryona’s family divides up the cottage and its materials, greedily distributing all that remains of her life. Soon after, Ignatich begins lodging with one of her sisters-in-law. He describes the condescension she ascribes to Matryona’s memory, degrading her lifestyle, ridiculing her marriage, and blaming her death on her overly giving ways. However, in the story’s final passage, Ignatich praises Matryona’s thriftiness, lack of livestock, modest lifestyle, and unyielding willingness to help others.