Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 705

Alexander Pushkin’s attitude toward religion was skeptical, to say the least; among his writings are works that would be considered blasphemous or irreverent by any standard. In this story, the author uses two New Testament parables—those of the prodigal son and the good shepherd—as contrasts to the reality of the...

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Alexander Pushkin’s attitude toward religion was skeptical, to say the least; among his writings are works that would be considered blasphemous or irreverent by any standard. In this story, the author uses two New Testament parables—those of the prodigal son and the good shepherd—as contrasts to the reality of the station-master’s life.

On his first visit, the narrator sees the four pictures depicting the tale of the prodigal son and recalls the story behind each picture. On his second visit, the narrator again notes the presence of the pictures, thus reminding the reader of the parable. Dunya’s experiences and character are quite different from those of the errant son; while the latter is a fool who contributes nothing to his father’s work and desires only to spend his inheritance in riotous living, Dunya is the mainstay of her father’s station and goes to St. Petersburg reluctantly. The son is depicted with loose women, while Dunya maintains a monogamous relationship with the man she loves. When the son runs out of money, his friends abandon him; he is forced to live with pigs and to eat their food. Dunya, on the other hand, is not abandoned, but rather lives comfortably with a man who loves her very deeply.

The big difference between Pushkin’s story and the parable is the delusion of the father, perhaps caused by his viewing of the pictures every day and presuming that reality will parallel what he has read in the Scriptures. Samson persists in believing that his daughter will come to the same end as the prodigal son. He does not wait for his daughter to come home, but seeks her out. When his attempts are unsuccessful, he returns home and drinks himself to death. Dunya does return home, but in finery and with children, not seeking forgiveness and not degraded. The prodigal son realized that he had been foolish and sought to rectify his errors; Dunya has always been independent and has always known what to do under any circumstances. She has not been foolish. Dunya’s father, not Dunya, has fallen into ruin. Even on her return to the village, she is in control of her children and tells the young boy that she does not need a guide to the cemetery. She is not the lost person that her father imagines, but rather an assertive young woman in control of her life.

Is this tale, then, a polemic with the parable of the prodigal son, an attack on filial piety and religion? It may only be the use of a tale familiar to all Russian readers of the time in order to make other points, such as the complexity of life or the danger of simply transferring one’s reading to reality without thought. On the other hand, given Pushkin’s attitude toward religion, it may well have been an attempt on his part to demonstrate the shortcomings of biblical morality.

Samson refers to his daughter as the “lost sheep” and seeks her, just as the good shepherd sought the one lost sheep in the New Testament parable. Samson, however, is unsuccessful, and Pushkin seems to ridicule the efforts of the old man. The officer, who on one occasion is contrasted to a wolf by the station-master (before the flight to St. Petersburg), lures the lost sheep away, while the shepherd returns home empty-handed. Moreover, the reader knows that Samson’s effort is ill-advised and not the praiseworthy search of the shepherd; the “lost sheep” is better off with the wolf than with her father at the station.

Despite the religious symbolism, it is possible that Pushkin was attempting to scuttle a literary myth, not religion. The author wrote this story as Romanticism was giving way to realism as the predominant literary influence. One of the typical plots of sentimental novels was the doomed love of social unequals, usually a noble male and peasant female. In this story Pushkin portrays such a situation, but with a completely different ending; the love is enduring. The use of religious symbolism may have been only to buttress his point that established dogma—in this case, literary—had to give way to alternative positions.

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