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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

“Yermolai and the Miller’s Wife” was the second in a series of short sketches that Ivan Turgenev published in the late 1840’s, largely in the St. Petersburg literary periodical, The Contemporary, and that were later collected under the title Zapiski okhotnika (1852; Russian Life in the Interior , 1855;...

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“Yermolai and the Miller’s Wife” was the second in a series of short sketches that Ivan Turgenev published in the late 1840’s, largely in the St. Petersburg literary periodical, The Contemporary, and that were later collected under the title Zapiski okhotnika (1852; Russian Life in the Interior, 1855; better known as A Sportsman’s Sketches, 1932). This collection has been described by critic D. S. Mirsky as “belonging to the highest, most lasting and least questionable achievement of Turgenev and of Russian realism.” The sketches gained great popularity with the Russian reading public and were said to have influenced the young heir to the throne, Alexander II, in his decision to abolish serfdom in 1861. In these sketches, the simple man is in the foreground and is presented from a perspective of psychological complexity, which was a novelty at the time. Yermolai is interesting as a person, having both positive and negative features. Such simple folk had not previously been considered worthy of serious literary treatment. Without training and education, they did not seem to possess what were deemed interesting character features. As serfs, they were condemned to a lowly life of drudgery and were viewed with condescension.

Turgenev saw these humble people from a different point of view, foremost as individual human beings, talented, sensitive, and as complex in their emotional life as the members of his own class. He broke with the stereotype of presenting them as a dark, anonymous mass. By showing Yermolai and Arina as gifted and sensitive individuals, the narrator invites the reader to draw his own conclusions about such masters as the Zverkovs and the system of serfdom. He makes his point implicitly, but his lack of sympathy for the self-righteousness, condescension, and egotism of the masters is quite clear. Such people of the upper class see life only in terms of their own comfort and pleasure, remaining totally indifferent to the human needs of others. The elevation of humble people and the indication of the absence of justice in social relations could not help but move Turgenev’s readers. However, Turgenev was too perceptive an observer of life, even at a young age, to attribute all ills to social conditions. Human callousness seems to be as much a general condition of life as the result of social causes, as demonstrated by Yermolai’s ill treatment of his wife, whom he neglects unconscionably, and the apparent coldness of the miller toward Arina.

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