Last Updated on June 23, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 939
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s short story “Matryona’s House” was published in 1959, shortly after his return from political imprisonment. The short story reflects Solzhenitsyn’s experiences, as his narrator, Ignatich, also spends ten years imprisoned before returning home in 1953. In 1945, while serving in the Red Army during WWII, Solzhenitsyn was arrested for defamatory, anti-Soviet sentiments in private letters and incarcerated in several Soviet gulags until Joseph Stalin died in 1953. Following his death, Solzhenitsyn was released into lifelong exile. He was allowed to return home to Russia in 1956 and spent his later life writing subversive and pointed works.
Critical of the Soviet Union’s governmental ethos, state-enforced atheism, and the loss of Imperial Russian traditions, Solzhenitsyn argued that the modern Soviet state had caused immense moral decay and demolished any sense of national identity. Solzhenitsyn’s criticism of Soviet authoritarianism and its silencing of dissenting literary voices was overtly reflected throughout his work, so much so that he was stripped of his citizenship in 1974 and expelled to the United States, where he would remain for nearly two decades.
“Matryona’s House” reflects Solzhenitsyn’s sociopolitical ideas through a lens of Social Realism, a literary tradition focused on the lives of common people. Social Realism depicts normal citizens’ social, cultural, political, and economic conditions as a means of drawing attention to—and criticizing—such conditions and the broader structures that created them. The Soviet Union co-opted this tradition and began a campaign of Soviet-sponsored Socialist Realism, which depicted the lives of the proletariat through a propagandistic lens that validated communist rule. “Matryona’s House” avoids this state-sanctioned style and instead intends to accurately portray the failures and consequences of life in Soviet Russia while venerating Russian naturalism and rural virtues. Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of this reality is bleak, and his self-inspired narrator, Ignatich, faithfully reflects his pessimistic and disapproving assessment of contemporary life.
The story is told through first-person, past-tense narration, beholden to Ignatich’s (and by extension, Solzhenitsyn’s) subjectivity. The story is relayed long after the events it describes. In a short prologue, Solzhenitsyn introduces foreshadowing, a structural feature that remains consistent throughout the story. The ominous introduction ends with Ignatich’s claim to knowledge that most—including readers—do not have, an enticing lure that draws the audience into his tale and situates the narrative firmly in the past. Merely a paragraph in length, the prologue leaves readers in the dark, building suspense and evoking curiosity. As such, foreshadowing and narratorial interjections are a recurring device used to remind readers that Ignatich’s narration is tinged with the pain of hindsight.
Ignatich stresses the importance of mundane details and finds irony in events that may not yet make sense to readers. As he describes Matryona, he adds the caveat that she “was by no means a fearless woman… most of all she was terrified of trains.” Ignatich offers reasons for her fear, attempting to explain it rationally, but Matryona rejects them all, describing her fear of trains as something innate and deeply physical. It is simply a part of her, one that, at the time, seems irrelevant and ancillary to the narrative but is later revealed to be painfully ironic. Too, Ignatich’s narration of her illness, peasant lifestyle, and decaying surroundings, paired with Matryona’s prescient knowledge “that she had not long to live,” establish her death as a near inevitability.
The story’s rural backdrop and its accompanying cast of peasant characters allow Solzhenitsyn to juxtapose Ignatich’s desire for the past with the greed and selfishness of modern Russia. These characters offer a lens for condemnation and didacticism, indicating to readers both the failures that Solzhenitsyn identifies as well as their subversion. Ilya’s greed, Matryona’s sister-in-law’s gossiping ways, the collective farm’s exploitation, and each villager’s willingness to accept favors and unwillingness to return them—all offer criticisms of the Soviet Union as it was. Imprisoned for his distaste for Stalinism and his desire for doctrinal purity, “Matryona’s House” details the failures of communism through the 1950s, leaving villagers fighting for scarce resources and unwilling to share the limited labor and material goods available.
It is in this environment that Matryona’s virtue shines. At the story’s end, as Ignatich thinks back on her life and realizes her unyielding virtuosity, he comments: “We had… never understood that she was that righteous one without whom, as the proverb says, no village can stand. Nor any city. Nor our whole land.”
Matryona lived a life of sorrow, suffering, and simplicity. Despite her hardships, she unflinchingly faces life with a smile, appreciating the company of her fig plants, her lame cat, and the peeling wallpaper of a home that, though humble, is hers. Though her illness lays her low and help is rarely offered, she holds firm to her sense of duty and desire to be of use. In her character, Solzhenitsyn offers a set of moralizing truths and an ideal to uphold.
Set against the cold, immoral backdrop of the majority of the residents of Tal’novo, Matryona’s goodness stands out in even starker contrast; she was unlike any other, and the village stands to suffer from her loss. Ignatich’s understanding dawns slowly, and his revelations are directly shared with readers. In effect, she becomes a figure worthy of praise and replication. Through Ignatich, Solzhenitsyn’s voice echoes through, conveying to readers the morality, Christian-coded virtue, and selflessness that the individual and the nation must strive for. The story is a love letter to the Russia of the past and the lost place that both Ignatich and Solzhenitsyn yearn for.