And Quiet Flows the Don is the first of Mikhail Sholokhov’s four-part work, and it is largely for this novel that Sholokhov won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1965. Its title in the original means simply “the quiet Don,” and it was published in English in two volumes (in 1934 and in 1940) under two different titles: And Quiet Flows the Don, containing the first two parts, and The Don Flows Home to the Sea, containing the latter two parts.
The novel is of truly epic proportions. It starts sometime in the first decade of the twentieth century in the Don region of rural Russia and follows the fortunes of the Melekhov family through peacetime, World War I, and the revolution and civil war in Russia, concluding with the victory of the Bolsheviks in that civil war. Within that broad framework, the entire life of a nation within a nation—the Don Cossacks—is depicted: at peace and war, at work and play, through joys and sorrows, weddings, births, love, hatred, death, murder, even incest. The historical, sociological, and ethnographical aspects of the novel are not to be underestimated, although And Quiet Flows the Don is not truly a historical novel. Many events, places, and names are historical, to be sure, but there are also fictitious events and characters that make the novel a fictional creation.
As a result of circumstances beyond their control, the Cossacks were called upon toward the end of World War I to decide their future in a situation beyond their understanding. They lived a secluded life for centuries, always regarding Moscow with suspicion and disapproval. Their only bond with the rest of Russia was their inexplicable love and veneration for the czar; when they had to live without him after his abdication, they were left adrift. Although Russians themselves (but mixed with other nationalities, especially those from Asia), they considered the outside world as intruding. Not well informed about the world’s happenings and yet forced to participate in them, they were thrust into turbulent events and made numerous mistakes. Nevertheless, a gritty survival instinct kept them afloat. When the years-long upheaval ended, they found themselves bidding farewell to a life they had been living for centuries and adapting to a new life under the Bolsheviks, facing an uncertain future. No one exemplifies the fate of the Cossacks better than the protagonist of the novel, Gregor Melekhov.
At the beginning of the novel Gregor is a carefree, playful youth, whose only desire is to work on the farm and get as much as possible out of life, including amorous pleasures. After years of fighting for causes he does not fully understand, he loses almost all members of his family and faces an uncertain future himself. During those years he changes his allegiance from the czarist army to the revolutionaries, to the Whites, to the separatist Cossacks, back to the revolutionaries or Reds, to the outlaws, and finally comes to terms with the Bolsheviks. He thus becomes a hero in search of himself. Throughout these ordeals, Gregor possesses an uncanny sense of right and wrong, and every time he changes sides he follows his conscience. Although an uncommonly brave and fierce soldier, he is happiest working on his land in peace. He is not the positive hero of the kind required by the official Soviet literary standard in the 1920’s and 1930’s, because he does not “see the light” at the end and “change for the better.” He cannot be called an antihero either, because of his basically healthy and constructive outlook. The closest classification is...
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that of a Greek tragic hero, his tragic flaw being ignorance of the forces shaping his life—a flaw he shares with his entire nation.
Sholokhov succeeds in eschewing potentially didactic, politically overloaded subject matter through genuine artistry. His straightforward realism is sprinkled with poetic outbursts, especially when describing nature. His closeness to nature is expressed also in the employment of all senses when describing human action. Nearly all the action in the novel occurs on the surface of the narration; there is little symbolism, and philosophical themes, if present, are implied. The author keeps himself in the background, creating superb characters and letting them speak and act. The powerful dramatic quality of the action is underscored by the extraordinary time in history of the setting and the excessive amount of fighting and killing throughout the book. The relationship between Gregor and his neighbor’s wife, Aksinia, adds love to the story. The striking objectivity in the presentation of the Russian Revolution makes And Quiet Flows the Don one of the outstanding novels of twentieth century literature.