"The Schoolmistress" Characters

The main characters in “The Schoolmistress” are Marya Vassilyevna, Hanov, and Semyon.

  • Marya Vassilyevna once lived comfortably in Moscow with her parents and brother but now dwells in poverty, isolation, and hopelessness as a schoolmistress in a small village.
  • Hanov is a wealthy landowner who, though handsome and charming, seems to live a life as dull and lonely as Marya’s and who is rumored to drink heavily.
  • Semyon is an old cart driver who attempts to engage Marya in conversation about local scandals while driving her back to the village.


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Marya Vassilyevna

Marya Vassilyevna is a sad, dull-spirited woman whose life lacks any spark of enthusiasm or ambition. She was not always that way. Once, long ago, when her parents were alive and she lived in Moscow, she had a different life, but that is long gone now. Her parents are dead, her brother no longer answers her letters, and Marya is alone in the world. Part of her would like to marry, and she is attracted to Hanov but not interested enough to pursue him. She believes she would have no chance in any case, for he is rich and she is poor, and there is no help for it.

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Marya cannot even take comfort in her position as schoolmistress, for it is merely a job, not a vocation. She does not choose to teach school; she accepts the profession out of necessity. She must earn her living somehow, and women have few options. Yet teaching is not at all her calling. She does not care about enlightening her students. She makes no attempt to connect with them or with their parents or to inspire them toward higher learning or a better life. After all, she has no inspiration to share, no sense that there is actually a better life.

Indeed, Marya is focused on merely surviving on twenty-one roubles per month. Her room is small. Her food is poor, and it gives her heartburn every day. Her head aches. She struggles to have enough money for firewood, and the school guardian pockets some of that for his own use. She bows and scrapes before the school board just to keep her position, not daring to complain too much. Marya's thoughts concentrate almost exclusively on school matters and her daily existence. She never recalls interesting books or beautiful art or music. She has almost forgotten her past and family; they have faded like her mother's photograph. She does not even seem to enjoy the concertina music at the tavern, and she completely fails to notice the beauty of the spring day that surrounds her. She has turned in upon herself and is trapped in her own mind, fettered by her near despair, chained by apathy.

Yet there is still a hint of a spark somewhere deep within Marya, and that spark occasionally pushes its way to the surface of the schoolmistress's consciousness. She recognizes her attraction to Hanov, for instance, imagining for a few moments what it might like to be married to him, but she quickly returns her thoughts to the school, longing “to think of beautiful eyes, of love, of the happiness which would never be” but stopping herself from following that path. It would be awful for her, poor as she is, to fall in love. She can predict only heartache.

The spark flares again, much more strongly, at the end of the story when Marya watches the train pass and sees a lady standing on the platform between two carriages. In Marya's eyes, the lady looks exactly like her mother, and the schoolmistress's imagination explodes into vivid pictures of her parents, her brother, and their home in Moscow. She recalls even the smallest details, sights and sounds she has long repressed. Joy fills her, and she is happier than she has been in years. Hanov drives up at that moment, and Marya's imagination extends its power toward him. She smiles and greets him as a friend, and for a moment, her life is different. She is not a schoolmistress caught up in circumstances beyond her...

(The entire section contains 1248 words.)

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