During the formative years of his life, Vladimir Petrovitch Sanine is away from the influence of his family and their home. When he returns as a young man to his mother’s house in a provincial garrison town, he comes as a person believing only in himself, his strength, and the desirability of following his inclinations, wherever they might lead him. His mother, Maria Ivanovna, cannot understand her son. His sister Lida, however, finds him strangely attractive, even though she distrusts and fears his thinking and its influence.
Lida, having many admirers among young civilians and the junior army officers, is the belle of the little garrison town. Her two most serious admirers are Dr. Novikov, who wishes sincerely to marry her but is awkward as a suitor, and Captain Zarudin, a brutal and lascivious army officer who wishes only to make a sexual conquest and is well on his way to success with the young woman. Sanine, giving the same freedoms to others as he believes in for himself, makes no serious attempt to interfere in his sister’s affairs.
Before long Sanine is caught up in the social life among the young intelligentsia of the town. Among those in the group are Sina Karsavina and Yuri Svarozhich. The former is a pretty young schoolteacher of strong emotions who finds herself drawn strangely to Sanine, although she is very much in love with Yuri, a young student who was exiled to the provinces for his part in revolutionary activities. Although attracted to Sina, Yuri feels that his political duties and ambitions would be hampered if he were married. As a result of his beliefs in political duty, and as a result of bashfulness as well, he avoids becoming emotionally involved with the young schoolteacher.
As the weeks pass, Lida draws closer to Captain Zarudin. So strong is his physical attraction that she refuses a proposal of marriage from Dr. Novikov, whose jealousy almost becomes hate. Soon afterward, Lida becomes Captain Zarudin’s mistress. Discovering that she is pregnant, she turns for help to her lover, only to learn that he is now finished with her, having made his conquest. Lida is distraught and thinks of drowning herself, but she is found by her brother in time. He convinces her that she needs to live and that she should become Dr. Novikov’s wife. Having his sister’s agreement, Sanine goes to Dr. Novikov, who is about to leave the town. Little persuasion is needed, even with a knowledge of the facts, to get the doctor’s agreement to marry Lida.
About this time Captain Zarudin has a visitor from St. Petersburg. When Captain Zarudin and his friend pay a visit to the Sanine home so that the officer might show off the beautiful woman he seduced, Sanine orders the captain to leave the house and suggests further that he leave town. Captain Zarudin, true to the code of his corps, challenges Sanine to a duel. Sanine believes that dueling proves nothing and so refuses the challenge. He learns that his sister, on the other hand, expects him to fight the duel. Realizing that his sister, like his mother, is a conformist to opinion and tradition, Sanine feels alienated from them because of their attitudes and their failure to understand his ideas.
Even more angered by the refusal of his challenge, Captain Zarudin fears that his failure to avenge his honor might put him in a disgraceful position with his brother officers. That he disgraced himself in some people’s eyes by his treatment of Lida does not enter his mind. One evening, as Sanine and some friends are strolling along the boulevard, they unexpectedly meet Captain Zarudin and several of his fellow officers. Captain Zarudin speaks harshly to Sanine and threatens him with a riding crop. In self-defense, Sanine knocks down the officer with his fist. Not much hurt physically but humiliated by the indignity of the blow, Captain...
(The entire section is 1,020 words.)