Yevgeny Zamyatin Short Fiction Analysis
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s short fiction is its charged, expressive narrative style. The writer characterized the style of his generation of writers in a lecture entitled “Contemporary Russian Literature,” delivered in 1918. Calling the artistic method of his generation Neorealism, he outlined the differences between Neorealist fiction and that of the preceding Realist movement. He states:By the time the Neorealists appeared, life had become more complex, faster, more feverish. In response to this way of life, the Neorealists have learned to write more compactly, briefly, tersely than the Realists. They have learned to say in ten lines what used to be said in a whole page.
During the first part of his career, Zamyatin consciously developed and honed his own unique form of Neorealist writing. Although his initial experimentation in this direction is evident in his early prose works (and especially in the long story A Provincial Tale), this tendency did not reach its expressive potential until the late 1910’s, when it blossomed both in his satires on British life and in the stories devoted to Russian themes. The stories The Islanders and “The Fisher of Men” provide a mordant examination of the stifling philistinism permeating the British middle class. The former work in particular displays the tenor and thrust of Zamyatin’s satiric style. The first character introduced into the tale is a minister named Vicar Dooley, who has written a Testament of Contemporary Salvation, in which he declares that “life must become a harmonious machine and with mechanical inevitability lead us to the desired goal.” Such a vision raises the specter of death and stasis, not energy and life, and Zamyatin marshals his innovative narrative skills to expose the dangers that this vision poses for society.
One salient feature of Zamyatin’s style is the identification of a character with a specific physical trait, animal, or object that seems to capture the essence of the character being depicted. Through this technique, the writer can both evoke the presence of the character by mentioning the associated image and underscore that character’s fundamental personality type. What is more, once Zamyatin has established such an identification, he can suggest significant shifts in his characters’ moods or situations by working changes on the associated images themselves. In The Islanders, this technique plays a vital role in the narrative exposition, and at times the associated images actually replace a given character in action. Thus, one character’s lips are compared at the outset of the story to thin worms, and the women who attend Dooley’s church are described as being pink and blue. Later, a tense interaction between the two is conveyed in striking terms: “Mrs. Campbell’s worms twisted and sizzled on a slow fire. The blues and pinks feasted their eyes.” Similarly, the central protagonist is compared to a tractor, and when his stolid reserve is shattered by feelings of love, Zamyatin writes that the tractor’s “steering wheel was broken.” Through this felicitous image Zamyatin not only evokes his hero’s ponderous bulk but also suggests the unpredictable consequences which follow the release of suppressed emotion.
As striking as his satires on British conservatism are, however, it is in the stories that he wrote on Russian subjects that Zamyatin attained the apex of his vibrant expressionistic style. In his lecture on contemporary Russian literature, he spoke of his desire to find fresh subjects for literary treatment. Contrasting urban and rural settings, he declared: “The life of big cities is like the life of factories. It robs people of individuality, makes them the same, machinelike.” In the countryside, Zamyatin concludes, “the Neorealists find not only genre, not only a way of life, but also a way of life concentrated, condensed by centuries to a strong essence, ninety-proof.”
As if to illustrate this premise, in 1918 he wrote the long tale entitled “The North.” This story celebrates the primal forces of nature: In a swift succession of scenes, Zamyatin depicts a passionate yet short-lived affair between a true child of the forest—a young woman named Pelka—and a simple fisherman named Marey. Pelka is perhaps the closest embodiment of the ideally “natural” character in all of Zamyatin’s works. She talks with the forest creatures, keeps a deer for a pet, and loves with a profound passion that cannot understand or tolerate the constraints imposed by civilized man. Sadly, her brief interlude of love with Marey is threatened by his foolish obsession with constructing a huge lantern “like those in Petersburg.” Marey’s desire to ape the fashions of the city destroys his romantic idyll with Pelka. After she vainly tries to stir Marey’s emotions by having a short fling with a smug, callous shopkeeper named Kortoma, Pelka engineers a fatal encounter between herself, Marey, and a wild bear: The two lovers die at the hands of the natural world.
To illuminate this spectacle of extraordinary desire and suffering, Zamyatin utilizes all the tools of his Neorealist narrative manner. Striving to show rather than describe, Zamyatin avoids the use of such connectors as “it seemed” or “as if” in making comparisons; instead, the metaphorical image becomes the illustrated object or action itself. Especially noteworthy in “The North” is Zamyatin’s use of charged color imagery. By...
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