Yermolai and the Miller's Wife

by Ivan Turgenev

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Last Updated on February 23, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 629

The narrator begins this story by explaining what stand-shooting is: a type of hunting in which the hunter goes out at sunrise or sunset, finds a spot for himself, and keeps very still so as to await his prey. At sunset, the hunter can watch the sky and the forest around him changing color, hear each species of bird go quiet for the night, and eventually recognize the nightingale's songs and seeing the snipes take to the air.

Next, the narrator describes his hunting partner, Yermolai. Yermolai is middle-aged, tall, and thin. He is, to use the narrator's word, a vagabond, somewhat eccentric, and generally thought of as weird and different, though he is a fantastic shot and has a loyal dog. Yermolai drinks a lot, and he rarely goes home to his wife, who he treats terribly. He belongs, as a serf, to a local man who only demands that Yermolai bring him a certain number of fowls per month, and his owner finds Yermolai to be lazy and not good for much.

One night, the narrator and Yermolai go hunting, and they decide that they'd like to continue in the morning, so they'll need a place to spend the night. They try the hospitality of a miller nearby, but they are refused. Then they offer to pay for hay to sleep outside, and the miller agrees. The narrator and Yermolai stay in a little out-building, and the miller's wife, Arina, cooks dinner for them.

The narrator falls asleep and then comes to, hearing Yermolai and Arina talking. Yermolai asks questions about her life, even calling her his "darling," and she brings him a drink. Arina is not well. Yermolai says that he will drive his wife away if Arina will come and visit him. He is much kinder to her than his own wife, it seems. Yermolai stoops to wake up the narrator for their dinner, and the narrator strikes up a conversation with Arina. It turns out that he knows her former master from when she was a serf.

Recalling her master, Mr. Zvyerkov, makes the narrator feel great sympathy for her, as he is, evidently, an unkind man. His wife, too, was unpleasant at best. The narrator and Zvyerkov once shared a coach, and Zvyerkov accused the narrator and all young people of being critical of institutions and traditions like the feudal system that they don't really understand.

Zvyerkov tells a story about a young woman his wife once plucked from obscurity—a young Arina—in order to impress upon the narrator how ungrateful, immoral, and hopeless the serfs are. Zvyerkov details how Arina came to him, after years of being spoiled by his wife, and asked to marry (knowing that her mistress does not keep married ladies's maids). He denied her. Six months later, Arina made the same request and was again refused. Soon, Mrs. Zvyerkov came to her husband, crying and ashamed to tell why Arina must go—Arina was, evidently, pregnant with the child of their footman, Petrushka. Zvyerkov blamed Arina only, ordering that her hair be cut off and she be returned to her village wearing sackcloth as a sign of her immorality. Zvyerkov describes how "hurt" and "wounded" he felt by Arina's ingratitude, citing it as proof that "it's no good to look for feeling, for heart, in these people! You may feed the wolf as you will; he has always a hankering for the woods."

Yermolai knows Petrushka, the baby's father, and says that the footman was sent away to the army, and Arina explains how she eventually came to marry the miller, who purchased her freedom. The narrator asks about her health, and Yermolai confirms that it is not good. Finally, Yermolai and the narrator go to sleep.

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