Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 875
The narrator begins “Old-World Landowners” with praise of the rural landowners of an earlier time in Ukraine, people who live “an extraordinarily secluded life, in which not a single desire strays beyond the palisade surrounding the small courtyard, beyond the wattle fence of the orchard, full of plum and apple trees, beyond the lopsided peasant cottages spaced round it under the shade of willows, elders and pear-trees.” He quickly moves, however, to a particular couple, who are not only old-fashioned but also old: Afanasiy Ivanovich Tovstogub and his wife Pul’kheriya Ivanovna Tovstogubikha. (The usual feminine form of the family name is here made diminutive and affectionate.)
The narrator then lovingly presents this pair in homely detail, moving from a physical description of each, with brief biography, to mood-setting analogies of their present quiet life. He describes the house where they live, with a famous passage on the “singing doors” in the house, whose various voices comment on the regular pattern of life in this isolated country setting.
The description proceeds to the activities of the old man and his wife; the old woman is the real overseer of any work done by the peasants and servants, all of whom steal most brazenly from the estate, which nevertheless provides, like Eden, God’s plenty for the loving pair. The old man teases his wife occasionally with imaginary catastrophes: “What if our house suddenly caught fire?” Such games offer her only excitement.
The main activity of their lives is, however, eating, or overeating, and the ceremony of their daily meals and snacks is meticulously given. Specific dishes that the old lady and her servants provide—pickled mushrooms, poppy-seed patties, fruit dumplings—are set temptingly before the old man all through the day and even in the middle of the night. Bellyaches are common among all members of the house. Even their conversation is mainly about food.
Visitors are most hospitably entertained. The old wife cannot press enough dainties on the visitor. She tells the narrator the secrets of her delicious preserves and flavored vodkas. The old man listens with pleased incomprehension to the visitor’s tales of life in the outside world.
In this rich presentation of the idyllic life of two good-hearted and loving nonentities, two-thirds of the story is over before an “event” occurs: Pul’kheriya’s little gray cat disappears, wooed away by wild tomcats from the woods, “as a company of soldiers entice a silly country girl.” Pul’kheriya looks for the cat but forgets about her when she does not come home. Some time later, however, the cat does return, emaciated and half wild herself. Pul’kheriya feeds her; the cat eats ravenously but again departs, forever. Pul’kheriya interprets this reappearance of the cat, for no apparent reason, as her own “death,” and promptly sets about making plans for the old man’s care after her demise. Her only concern is that he must be fed and attended to. That matter arranged, she takes to her bed, refuses to eat, and dies within a few days.
The old man’s grief is childlike and enormous. The narrator shows him stunned at the funeral and then skips to a return visit five years later. He first interrupts the narrative, though, with his thoughts about the way people respond to grief by telling a story within this story about a man in the great world whose beloved dies suddenly, leaving him to a paroxysm of grief and several attempts at suicide. Nevertheless, the man recovers and marries a year later, plays cards, and enjoys life as before.
It is not so for Afanasiy. At the narrator’s return after five years, both the estate and the old man are in great decay, all suffering from the absence of his wife. The widower weeps, misses his mouth when he carries food to it, and spills his dinner. A man who has “never been troubled by any strong emotions,” one who has spent his life “eating dried fish and pears,” has been destroyed by grief. The narrator questions whether the reaction demonstrates that passion is less powerful over human beings than habit.
The old man dies not long after that visit. He walks out in the garden one day and hears someone behind him distinctly call his name. As Pul’kheriya interpreted the cat’s return as her death come for her, so Afanasiy interprets the call as Pul’kheriya’s voice from the grave, telling him to join her. He obediently does so.
Before Afanasiy dies, however, the narrator inserts another story within the story: his own hearing of such a voice calling his name, repeatedly, when he was young. He experiences terror at the call and flees in panic to find another human being, whose presence alone can dispel “the terrible feeling of emptiness” in his heart.
The thieving steward, the housekeeper, and the elder carry off much of what is left in the house and grounds, and a distant relative who inherits the estate arrives, makes a few superficial “reforms,” and then lets it fall into receivership. The house, like the old people, falls over completely, the serfs run away, and the owner, impoverished, rarely appears and does not stay long.
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