Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 260

The main theme of "Matryona's House" is found at the end of the text, when the narrator proclaims that "she was the righteous one without whom, as the proverb says, no village can stand. Nor any city. Nor our whole land" (Solzhenitsyn, 45). Matryona is a poor, uncomplaining peasant woman...

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The main theme of "Matryona's House" is found at the end of the text, when the narrator proclaims that "she was the righteous one without whom, as the proverb says, no village can stand. Nor any city. Nor our whole land" (Solzhenitsyn, 45). Matryona is a poor, uncomplaining peasant woman who has worked hard and been generous to everyone without asking for anything in return for her entire life. Matryona allows people to constantly take advantage of her until she has nothing left to give. The village asks for her work without paying her, her relatives take pieces of her home while she is still in it, and even after her death her neighbors and relatives come around to immediately divide up her property.

Ultimately she is destroyed by the greed of those around her. Her relatives come to take part of her house away in order to build a home for themselves. Foolishly, the tractor driver tries to drive the load in one trip because he gets paid the same for one trip or two, despite the fact that one trip would be foolish and unsafe. Matryona helps with the load, but when the tractor gets stuck on some train tracks because it is overweight she is struck and killed by the train. After her death her relatives criticize her for being so "silly" and not asking for payment or not trying to store up her own wealth.

The story explores the martyrdom of its main character and laments the greed and selfishness of the rest of the other characters.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 775

The central theme of “Matryona’s House” has its focal point in Matryona herself. She is presented by her didactic author not so much as a generalized moral ideal as the embodiment of all that is worth preserving in the old ways of the Russian peasant. Solzhenitsyn looks primarily to prerevolutionary ideals (those of Matryona’s childhood) and thus implicitly criticizes the new mores under the Communist regime. The author’s attitude toward the values of contemporary Soviet society determines the second important theme of the story.

It will be seen that Matryona’s homestead—with its wooden shingles and weathered logs, its withered garden and potted plants, its Russian tile stove and icons in the corner, and its nanny goat, large cat, mice, and cockroaches—constitutes an extension of Matryona herself. The dismantling of the outbuilding symbolizes or anticipates the death of the old woman; more than that, it warns of the death of rural Russia, of its ancient, time-tested ways that must not be forgotten. This extended symbolism is reinforced by the author’s failure to tell the exact location of Matryona’s village. He speaks of his desire “to go somewhere in central Russia . . . and vanish in the very heartland of Russia.” He emphasizes the fundamental Russianness of Tal’novo by placing it in the context of a whole series of villages with ancient names that stretch out from the railway deep into the interior. The author writes, “The names wafted over me like a soothing breeze. They held a promise of the true, legendary Russia.”

Among the Russian virtues practiced by Matryona are her passive acceptance of her fate (including her tendency not to complain when suffering illness or adversity); her willingness to help others without thought of compensation—in general, her self-sacrificing nature; her ability to live easily in the world of nature (for example, being on good terms with the mice and cockroaches); her practicing of old folkways, such as weaving on a hand loom; and a nonostentatious piety that includes displaying icons in a corner of her cottage but not praying aloud or in public. Solzhenitsyn refers to her also as “pagan” and superstitious, but this merely enhances her idealized Russianness. The fact that she is not very intelligent, not very ambitious, and does not like “new things” similarly marks her as typically Russian.

Another trait that Solzhenitsyn especially admires, and that he seems to feel is very Russian, is Matryona’s willingness to work—“an infallible means of restoring her good spirits.” In addition to collecting peat, scrounging tree stumps, and gathering hay for her goat, she picks bilberries and bottles them for the winter. She also works for the collective farm when asked. About work, she says, “Now to my way of thinking, when you work, you work—no gossiping, but get on with the job, and before you know where you are, it’s suppertime.” These views are precisely those of the protagonist in Solzhenitsyn’s Odin den Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963).

Matryona’s virtues are held up to the defects of Communist civilization, embodied here in the manners and morals of the “Peatproduce” collective farm, with its smoke-belching peat factories, its rumbling tractors, and even the railroad track that it has lured into the once virgin land. Also attacked are the uncaring regional bureaucracy, the indifferent medical clinic, and the careless teaching practices in the high school. The toilers in these institutions seem to have lost all feeling for the work ethic. That, together with the greed, selfishness, and “materialism” exhibited by many of the peasants—and by Ilya in particular—is perhaps meant to characterize the moral failure of Communism. The author is probably aware, however, that such pervasive social defects are as much a characteristic of the Soviet Union’s transition to an urban society—occurring at a very rapid pace in the 1960’s—as of Communism per se.

When he wrote this story, Solzhenitsyn was at least theoretically willing to hope that Soviet Communism was capable of positive change. Thus, when he gives the time of the story as 1953, he reminds the reader that the tyrant Joseph Stalin is dead and the time of the thaw has begun. A similar hope is expressed in the replacement of a black leather door in the education office by a glass partition: the diminishing of paranoid secrecy. Thus, although the tone of the story, especially at the end, takes on the character of an apocalyptic warning, the author nevertheless provides a basis for hope that the new society may be at least somewhat receptive to Matryona’s virtues.

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