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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1424

In “Viy,” a description of student life in the seminary of the Bratsk Monastery in Kiev is followed by an introduction to three students who are hiking home for the summer. They are the philosopher, Khoma Brut, the theologian, Khaliava, and the rhetorician, Tiberiy Gorobets. The three students lose their way in the dark and are unable to find the road. Being hungry and afraid of wolves, they ask for lodging at the first farmyard they come on. An old woman at first refuses to take them in, saying that she fears “such great hulking fellows.” The three students swear that they will behave themselves, however, and Khoma falsely promises to pay her “the devil’s bit” in the morning. The old woman invites them in, saying “What fine young gentlemen the devil has brought us!” She gives them all separate places to sleep. Khoma is given a place in the sheep pen.

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In the middle of the night, Khoma is awakened by the entry into the sheep pen of the old woman. She reaches out her arms toward him. Khoma tries to reject her advances, saying that she is too old for him and that it is a time of fasting. However, he finds himself strangely powerless to move away from her. She leaps onto his back with the swiftness of a cat and begins to ride him, beating him on his side with a broom.

To his amazement and horror, Khoma carries the old woman out into the wide plain, which seems to him to be at the bottom of a clear sea. The sun replaces the moon, and he sees a beautiful water nymph floating pale and naked before him. He feels an exhausting sensation that is at the same time voluptuous and exhilarating.

Realizing that he is in the power of a witch, Khoma begins to recite all the prayers he knows, all the exorcisms against evil spirits. The old woman’s power seems to fade, and he, as quick as lightning, stops carrying her and jumps onto her back instead. As she starts to carry him, he picks up a piece of wood from the roadside and begins to beat her with it. The moon comes back into its former place, and as they soar over the plain, the old woman’s angry howls become fainter and sweeter until they sound like delicate silver bells. Khoma, still beating her severely, wonders if she is really an old woman at all. At last, he hears her murmur, “I can do no more,” as she sinks exhausted onto the ground. As Khoma looks at her, she is transformed into a lovely young woman with luxuriant tresses and eyelashes as long as arrows.

Khoma, shaken by his experience with the old woman, runs all the way back to Kiev, forgetting his companions. In Kiev, he passes whistling through the market three times, finally winking at a young widow in a yellow bonnet, who takes him home to regale him with her food and her favors. That same evening, he is seen in a tavern smoking his pipe and throwing a gold coin to the keeper. He thinks no more about his extraordinary adventure.

Meanwhile, rumors are circulating everywhere that the daughter of one of the richest Cossack sotniks (commanders), who lives some distance from Kiev, has returned one day from a walk, severely injured, hardly able to crawl home to her father’s house, and is lying at the point of death, expressing the wish that one of the Kiev seminarists, the philosopher Khoma Brut, should read the prayers and the psalms over her for three nights after her death.

Hearing from the rector of the seminary about the sotnik’s daughter’s request, Khoma has a presentiment that something evil is awaiting him. He tries to excuse himself from the task and even plans to run away. The rector turns him over, though, to a detachment of the sotnik’s Cossacks, who transport him in a large chaise to the sotnik’s village, stopping along the way at a tavern to get drunk.

When they arrive at the sotnik’s house, Khoma is informed that the daughter has died. The sotnik, despondent and angry over his daughter’s death, leads Khoma to her body. Khoma almost panics as he recognizes in the beautiful young woman the luxuriant tresses and the eyelashes as long as arrows of the witch he killed earlier. He tries to excuse himself from the task of reading prayers over her body, telling the sotnik that he is sinful and unworthy, that he even “paid the baker’s wife a visit on Maunday Thursday.” The sotnik, however, will not relent. He insists that Khoma is to read the prayers each night from dusk to dawn.

Before the first night’s reading, Khoma talks to the Cossacks Yevtukh, Spirid, and Dorosh, who eagerly affirm that the sotnik’s daughter was indeed a witch. Spirid tells a chilling tale about Mikita the dog-keeper who withered and spontaneously burst into flame after the witch rode on his back all over the countryside. Then Dorosh relates how the witch, in the form of a dog, attacked the baby of Sheptun’s wife, sucking its blood and even killing its mother. From these stories, Khoma is frightened, but, fortified by vodka, he goes to read the first night’s prayers.

The body of the sotnik’s daughter has been taken into the village church. There, at dusk, Khoma begins to read his prayers, but soon the girl’s body rises up out of the coffin and walks around the church: It is the witch, reaching out her arms for him. Khoma draws a circle around himself and fervently reads all the prayers and exorcisms he has been taught. The witch is unable to penetrate the circle and, at dawn, she returns to her coffin.

The next day, Khoma witnesses the Cossacks playing a strange game, similar to skittles, called “kragli.” The winner of the game gets the right to ride on the loser’s back. This reminds him of the witch, but he is confident that his prayers will protect him. It is not until he is locked up for the second night in the church with the now-putrefying corpse that fear again seizes him. Indeed, the corpse does again rise to walk around the church, muttering unintelligible words and trying to possess him. He hears the wings and claws of other demons trying to enter the church, but he survives by staying within his drawn circle and reading his exorcisms with desperate zeal. In the morning, a local Cossack coquette notices that his hair has gone completely gray.

Before the third night’s reading, Khoma confronts the sotnik with the knowledge of his daughter’s witchcraft, trying one more time to be excused from reading the prayers over her body. The sotnik responds by threatening to flog Khoma if he does not complete his task. Khoma tries to run away, but he winds up running in a circle, back to where Yevtukh finds him and leads him back to the church at dusk. The third night’s vigil is the worst of all. The witch’s corpse rises as before but is now more terrible. Other monstrous demons crash through the windows of the church and scurry about, trying to find him. The witch shouts, “Bring Viy! Go get Viy!” Viy does indeed arrive: a thick-set, bandy-legged figure covered with black earth, and with eyelids drooping to the ground. “Lift up my eyelids. I do not see!” he says. The demons all rush to lift his eyelids. Now Viy’s terrible gaze is fixed on Khoma. “There he is!” he shouts, and all the demoniac company pounce on Khoma, who falls expiring to the ground, his soul fleeing his body in terror. The cock then crows to signal the dawn, and the demons panic. They wedge themselves into the doors and windows of the church while trying to get out. The priest is subsequently forced to close the church, which in later years is so overgrown with weeds that it is forgotten.

In the final scene, Tiberiy Gorobets and Khaliava are back in Kiev. Some time has passed; Khaliava is now the bell-ringer of Kiev’s highest belfry, while Tiberiy Gorobets is now a philosopher, as Khoma was. At a tavern they drink to Khoma’s memory, concluding that “all the old women who sit in our market in Kiev are witches.”

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