Last Updated on June 23, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1218
Ignatich is the narrator of “Matryona’s House.” Given his background and sensibility, he can be seen as representing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the author. Returning to Russia in the summer of 1953, Ignatich’s arrival marks the end of a ten-year exile in Asia, later revealed to be the result of an extended period of imprisonment. His experiences of exile and imprisonment directly recall Solzhenitsyn’s own.
Homesick, Ignatich seeks the romanticized lifestyle of prerevolution Russia. To sate this desire, he looks for employment in the central Russian countryside and finds it in the form of a mathematics instructor position in Tal’novo. As the story of the train accident he foreshadows begins to unfold, we see events through his eyes, burdened by the gaze of a man unduly imprisoned for an extended period. Though it is never made explicit, historical and authorial context imply that Ignatich’s imprisonment stems from political dissent, daring to criticize either Stalin or the Soviet regime. This implied fact reveals much about Ignatich’s perspective. He yearns for the Russia of his youth and decries the unfamiliar nation to which he has returned.
The first-person voice grants him authority over the narrative, and the story’s past tense framing provides a sense of objectivity. As a character, he figures little into the narrative itself, used as a lens to realistically—and often bleakly—depict a pastoral scene filled with both virtuous and selfish characters. Ignatich describes Matryona’s life in detail. His quiet praise for her simple lifestyle reveals much about h. Ignatich himself is reticent and composed, appreciative and sincere. He is motivated by human connection and thrives in Matryona’s simple, nostalgic home.
Matryona is the story’s central subject. At nearly sixty years old, she is regularly ill. Until Ignatich’s arrival, she lived alone in a dilapidated cottage; her collection of fig plants and the lame cat she pityingly adopted were her sole companions. She lives a modest life, subsisting on potatoes and cheap millet; Matryona seems content with her peeling wallpaper, roach-infested kitchen, and rat-ridden walls.
Perpetually at work, she spends her days occupied by labor-intensive, mundane tasks necessary for survival. In the twelve years since her husband’s death, she has not once received the pension owed to her. Every day is a struggle, and resources are scarce; she is truly on her own but does not shy from her forced independence. Though she is entirely self-dependent, Matryona willingly offers unpaid aid to her fellow villagers and the cooperative farm. She never turns down an opportunity to lend a hand—a favor the villagers never seem to return.
Matryona represents a critique of modern Russia and its inhabitants. Her positive attitude, bucolic contentment, and virtuous ways constitute a morally good woman and a true Christian. Where Ignatich operates as a site of authorial self-insertion through which Solzhenitsyn’s experience and perspective find footing, Matryona is the expression of the traditional Russian peace he seeks. Her acceptance of simplicity, her desire to be of use, her rejection of modernity, and her fondness for the land are traits that harken back to the nation he so dearly wishes to reprise.
Ilya Grigoriev initially appears as the wise, overly doting father of Ignatich’s underperforming pupil, Antoshka. Ignatich’s initial impression of the man is misleading. Though he first sees Ilya’s dark, furrowed brow as dignified and wise, it later seems insidious and menacing.
Ilya was a past suitor of Matryona. Their marriage was all but assured until he was called to fight in WWI. For three years, he was kept as a prisoner of war. Upon returning home, he found her married to his brother, Efim. His rage at this revelation quickly turned violent, and he promised her that if her new husband had been anyone other than his brother, he would have killed them both. Out of spite, he sought out another woman named Matryona and married her. Though their marriage produced six children, it lacked love and joy and often devolved into abuse.
Conniving and manipulative, Ilya’s self-presentation is contingent on circumstance. His defining motivation is material wealth and personal gain. He appears in two forms: withered and aged or impatient and wrathful. In his youth, he helped his father build the house Matryona now lives in; in a stark irony, his greed helps demolish it. Ilya’s presence lingers across the span of her life, a black cloud of guilt and grief she cannot shake. Ilya is the embodiment of the material greed and immorality of contemporary Russia that Solzhenitsyn so pointedly critiques, and his effort to acquire Matryona’s outhouse is the culmination of decades of bitterness. His manipulative nature disguises his unbridled greed, and his duplicitous character is the cause of much of the conflict in “Matryona’s House.”
Efim Grigoriev is Ilya Grigoriev’s younger brother. As Matryona’s husband, Efim usurped the life his brother built for himself in Tal’novo. Efim was a year younger than his new wife, and their marriage was one of convenience. His proposition was economically sound, offering her a degree of social and financial security that she could not pass up.
Soon after they married, Ilya returned home to find them married, a betrayal that cast a shadow over the marriage. Together, Efim and Matryona have six children, though none of them survive infancy. Their relationship was comfortable, and Efim never abused Matryona. He was drafted for WWII in 1941 and never returned home to Tal’novo. Fellow soldiers thought he was either taken prisoner or missing, but Matryona now assumes he was dead. Regardless, he has been gone for twelve years, and the state of their home together reflects his absence.
Kira is the youngest daughter of Ilya and Matryona Grigoriev. After Efim’s disappearance, Matryona Vasilievna begs the Grigorievs for one of their children. They allow her to adopt Kira, and for ten years, Matryona raises her as her own. Just before Ignatich arrived in Tal’novo, Matryona had arranged Kira’s marriage to an engine driver from the neighboring town Cherusti.
Kira is one of the few characters to display empathy, compassion, and humanity—traits that most of the villagers lack. Consistently, she is one of the few people to offer Matryona aid in the form of comfort and material goods. After the accident, she is among the few who genuinely mourns Matryona; her tears are inspired by affection rather than immoral attempts at personal gain.
Masha, alongside Kira, is one of the few villagers who genuinely cares for Matryona. She is her lifelong friend of fifty years, and after Kira moves to Cherusti, Masha is seemingly the only person in the village willing to care for Matryona. She provides comfort and care during her bouts of illness, tends the fire, and ensures the health of her goat. The two spend evenings together, talking and eating sunflower seeds.
Similar to Matryona’s adopted daughter, Masha is a singular light in the dull haze of greedy villagers. She values Matryona’s company and cares for her, unlike their exploitative and ungrateful neighbors. It is Masha who arrives at Matryona’s home in the dead of night to inform Ignatich of the tragedy on the tracks.