And Quiet Flows the Don

by Mikhail Sholokhov

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

Mikhail Sholokhov’s style in And Quiet Flows the Don is personal and inventive, with neologisms and other created words and images in Russian that are lost in translation, folk songs, prayers, and sayings, and a variety of dialects, including Cossack words related to unique objects and concepts of Cossack life. Metaphor dominates, even more than in the English translation, with recurring imagery that focuses on the natural, the animalistic, and the simple, commonplace farm and village experience. Characters and landscapes are like wolves, caterpillars, ants, and serpents. One man chews his lip like a horse; another crows like a cock as he repeats the same old story. The czar is a horseradish, and the mist crawls “into the cliff like a grey, headless serpent.” Aksinia is “like rain in autumn—one continual drizzle,” and her thoughts drive away sleep “as wind does a haycock.” The Don yawns, swallows, and lashes into fury. The personification of the Don and the recurring descriptions of its moods and seasons indicate that river’s symbolic significance in the novel. The title sums up the essential argument that humans come and go but nature endures. It also captures the irony of the times, for the “quiet Don” is as far from quiet as the civil turbulence that envelopes the inhabitants along its banks.

The absence of authorial interruptions editorializing and lecturing readers on how to interpret characters and events requires a close textual analysis of the type accorded drama in order to determine value and meaning. No one of the competing voices and perceptions can be called representative of Sholokhov’s views, except perhaps the central character, Gregor, whose perspective, interpretation, and loyalty constantly shift with changing times, situations, information, and influences. The clues to Sholokhov’s personal values lie in the nature of the novel’s descriptions, which eulogize the land and capture the violence and senseless destruction of war with brutal realism; the changed style of passages designed to denote unrealizable and perhaps foolish dreams of the future; and the recurring imagery that makes clear humanity’s close ties to the land and to nature.

Despite critical claims that Sholokhov’s novel is a brilliant example of socialist realism, it neither makes concessions to politics nor tries to beautify reality. It is stark and grim, carefully researched and historically accurate. For example, Sholokhov accurately describes the sore bottoms and poor horsemanship of the Red Brigade, whose machinists and city boys were unaccustomed to the seat of a horse. This portrait is in contrast to the opposing Cossacks, who were so at home astride a horse that they could stand in the stirrups and charge with saber swinging with deadly force. And Quiet Flows the Don captures the confusions and tragedy of the time, the regional loyalties, and the difficulty that participants had seeing an overview of those controversial years.

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Critical Context