The story of The Woman Who Waited is narrated in the first person by a young, unnamed folklorist researcher, who is sent in November, 1975, to a northern Russian province near the White Sea to record local habits, customs, and legends. Being a liberal and an opponent of the Soviet regime, his own intentions are to write satirical pieces about Soviet reality. Instead, in the village Mirnoe he meets the beautiful middle>aged Vera, a teacher, who intrigues him more than anything else on the trip. He spends most of the time observing and making theories about her behavior. Little by little, he finds out her life story. When she was only sixteen, she fell in love with a nineteen-year-old boy, Boris Koptev. He was conscripted in the army toward the end of the war and was reported killed on the outskirts of Berlin. Vera was stricken by this, but she refused to believe it and decided to wait for him no matter how long it took. (“Vera” means “faith” in Russian.) She goes regularly to the mailbox, hoping to find there a letter of happy news. When the narrator meets her, she has been waiting thirty years, without seeing a man and refusing to enter into amorous liaisons.
The narrator hears this highly unusual story not from her but from other villagers. He decides to get to the bottom of it, as if it were a legend he was sent out to record. His attempts even to speak to Vera run into a wall of silence erected by this strange woman. Interestingly, she tolerates his presence and his touch, allowing him to help her row the boat to the school on the island where she teaches and when they go on a trip to gather wild mushrooms.
Slowly, he is able to draw a picture of this enigmatic woman. Vera has an unusually strong will, stemming most likely from her tragic experience with her first and only love or from the environment in which she has decided to live and contribute. The village Mirnoe is unusual in that almost all the inhabitants are elderly women who had lost their husbands in the war. It is as if time has stopped for them and there is no hope that the future will be any better. Because of the loss of so many men, there is little chance for these women to marry again. Moreover, postwar deprivations have not been conducive to adequate health care. Vera has taken it upon herself to take care of these helpless women, finding the meaning of life in this.
The narrator finds this attitude remarkable, and his respect for Vera’s sacrifice grows accordingly. Yet, he is still puzzled by her refusal to have relationships with men. Her waiting for the invisible ghost of her teenage love strikes him as inexplicable and, perhaps, not true. He is reinforced in this belief by a chance acquaintance, Otar, a Georgian who talks incessantly about women and sex and believes that all women are sows who need to be satisfied by pigs. The narrator is amused but refuses to take Otar’s description to heart because he begins to feel that his relationship with this woman who is waiting is affecting him more deeply than he expected.
The narrator is a typical Russian intellectual in a society that not only ignores his basic needs but forces him to think and behave against his will. He refuses to accept this but is unwilling or incapable of rising against it. Instead, he and his like-minded friends express their disapproval and unhappiness in relatively mild but still distinctly rebellious protest. In a studio called Wigwam, for example, in a town near Leningrad, he participates in a wild party of young people, mostly opponents of the regime. They read antiregime poems like “The Kremlin Zoo,” play forbidden music, dance Western style, and carry on sexual orgies openly, to defy all constraints. An American journalist is also present who participates in sex acts and eventually falls asleep. The narrator is accompanied by Arkady Gorin, a dissident poet...
(The entire section contains 1800 words.)
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