Last Updated September 6, 2023.
The narrator of the story is a first person objective narrator. This means that he is a participant in the events that take place and that he is telling the story after these events have occurred. One can typically identify this type of narrator by their use of the first person pronoun "I" as well as past tense, rather than present tense, verbs. Objective narrators are often less emotional than subjective narrators, who describe events as they are taking place, making objective narratives often more measured and less intense. The objective narrator, after all, knows how things turn out, what information is important, and so on.
This particular narrator does seem measured and relatively unemotional. He does not really pass judgment on other characters but, instead, allows their behavior to speak for itself. Neither does he try to shield anyone from criticism, sugarcoating or defending their actions. For this reason, he seems quite reliable; he does not seem to have any motive that might compel him to misrepresent anyone.
In his telling of these events, neither group—the lords or the serfs, the powerful or the powerless—ends up appearing blameless. A reader might be inclined to sympathize with the serfs, as we likely feel for Arina and the sad treatment she has received from her father (who sold her off), her master (who refused to recognize her humanity), or her husband (who isn't exactly kind to her and orders her around a lot). However, Yermolai's refusal to feed his dog and his absolute cruelty to his wife likely do not inspire the same feelings from the reader.
On the other hand, Mr. Zvyerkov, who argues that one cannot expect serfs to have a heart or feelings of gratitude, ironically demonstrates his heartlessness through his behavior toward Arina. The narrator, who Yermolai describes as a "gentleman" and who once rode in a coach with Zvyerkov, evidently spoke in favor of the serfs's humanity to Zvyerkov, and he invites Yermolai to hunt with him.
The behavior of these individuals, then, conveys the idea that, contrary to Zvyerkov's belief, one's class does not determine one's goodness or morality; being a serf does not mean that a person is immoral just as wealth is not an assurance of goodness or morality and vice versa. In the end, Zvyerkov was right about one thing: he said that "You may feed the wolf as you will; he has always a hankering for the woods." Taken out of the context of his degrading and dehumanizing characterization of serfs, this statement can mean that one cannot change a person no matter how hard one tries. If a person is cruel, no amount of good or bad fortune will change that, and on the other hand, if a person is kind and sensitive, they will remain so despite their circumstances.