Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A richly ambiguous story, “Old-World Landowners” seems an idyll of an old-fashioned way of life in early nineteenth century rural Ukraine. Nikolai Gogol himself defined the idyll as a “vivid representation of a quiet, peaceful way of life, a scene having no dramatic movement”; he calls it “a picture, in the true sense, and by virtue of the objects it chooses, which are always simple ones, a picture of the Flemish school.” In this object-filled depiction of the small landowner’s way of life, however, the idyllic pattern is interrupted at several points by the first-person narrator, whose shaping of the story allows to surface social criticism of this empty country life, fear of sexuality and of human isolation, the contemplation of death, and reflection on the relative force of habit and passion in people’s lives.

The loving picture of an Edenic country life, of this Ukrainian Philemon and Baucis, provides delight in the passive regular years, the days of which move solely by mealtimes. The old man is gentle, the old woman a charming representation of a country wife, an old-time nourisher. The reader laughs gently at their simplicity and weeps at their grief. However, this is an idyll with a difference. From the time of the story’s first publication, critics have uncomfortably realized that the pair are vacuous, unable to respond to anything other than food and eating. Furthermore, the estate is already in decay at the beginning of the story and in complete ruin at the end. Is the tale an attack on the fecklessness of such landowners, or on the waste and thievery of estate managers, or of the...

(The entire section is 664 words.)