Bezhin Meadow (Bezhin lug) by Ivan Turgenev, 1852

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BEZHIN MEADOW (Bezhin lug)
by Ivan Turgenev, 1852

"Bezhin Meadow" ("Bezhin lug"), one of the pieces collected in Ivan Turgenev's 1852 volume A Sportsman's Sketches (also A Huntsman's Sketches; originally published as Zapiski Okhotnika) is indeed more sketch than short story proper: it is held together not by a linear plot but by a set of contrasting yet interlocking motifs. Like certain masterful drawings or paintings, "Bezhin Meadow" is motionless but full of palpable, dynamic tensions of theme, line, and mood.

The general structural composition of the Turgenev piece is fairly simple, framed by two specimens of the lyrical nature writing for which he is famous. Many of the sketches in the collection begin with a statement by the narrator about how, during his shooting excursions, he happened to be in a certain locality and ran into the people he intends to describe. "Bezhin Meadow" departs from this pattern; not until after a full page chronicling the progress of earth and sky on a perfect July day—the keynotes are serenity, settledness, a vitality that is also peace—does he locate himself at all, and then only briefly because he promptly gets lost. There follows an atmospherically uncanny description of his hapless wanderings through landscapes that have suddenly become both less reassuring and more eerily haunting. We are now in a world more visionary than the beatifically normal one described at first, and we are utterly alone except for the narrator, the wild creatures he encounters, and his hunting dog, a creature of tamed, almost humanized, instinct. (Throughout the sketch animal and human behavior are juxtaposed repeatedly, as if to invite comparisons between the human and nonhuman.) Night having fallen, the hunter arrives at a precipice where another step or two might have plunged him to his death. Only now is he ready to introduce us to the human actors in his sketch, whom we have been prepared to see as exotic fantasy creatures.

And yet they are utterly normal, "natural" boys after all on a delightful but commonplace mission: nightgrazing some horses. We and the protagonist have happened on this group by a scenic and psychological route resembling those in fairy stories, yet what we find is not in the least otherworldly. On the other hand, there is something wondrous about the boys, although we can see that better than they can themselves. In this double vision of the boys we come near the heart of what Turgenev is doing in "Bezhin Meadow": exploring the relationship of the wondrous to the ordinary, of what is supernatural to what is natural, of the fantastic to the human.

To the five boys there is nothing extraordinary about the natural world—except in the still-childlike imagination of the youngest one, the seven-year-old Vanya, and even he, entranced by the stars, compares them in a homely way to swarming bees. Nor is there any sign that the boys think of themselves as anything very special. They are almost entirely unself-conscious; even the oldest, Fedya, interested in girls and aware of his somewhat superior background, is still essentially naive. For these youngsters the wondrous lies not in or around them but in ghosts and ghost stories. They are touchingly unaware that the world they live in, the "merely" natural world, and indeed they themselves, are a good deal more interesting and wonderful than water goblins and noisy but invisible revenants. They are too young, for instance, to understand or appreciate the poignant human implications, on the naturalistic level, of the story about Gavrila's despondency. And although the boys can see the riskiness in Pavel's going to fetch water from the goblin's river habitat, they cannot appreciate the human courage he displays when he faces up to wolves and dismisses fatalistically the supernatural ill omens that he too believes. The ironies in all this are not directed against the youngsters; they are simply too inexperienced to appreciate such things. A more cutting irony implicates the kind of adults whose imaginations can respond to lurid fantasy but not to the truly human, the truly natural—in short, the vein that realist writers such as Turgenev adopted as their own.

Nature is not merely mood enhancing in "Bezhin Meadow," nor is it merely used as a backdrop. It is a principal agent—posed against the supernatural agencies in the ghost tales—and along with the boys is the foregrounded material of the sketch. By the time we begin to hear the boys' supernatural tales, we have already seen actual nature in two guises—the Edenic July day and the eerie, haunted landscape through which the lost narrator wandered—both of which are vastly more evocative than what passes in the story for being beyond or above nature. And during the taletelling the focus moves, often very rapidly, between the two arenas of imagination. Pavel's practical errand to fetch water from the river modulates quickly into concern over the peril he faces from the water goblin, then into a fanciful story (based on actual unhappiness in love, however) of a woman driven mad by that goblin, then into the more realistic story of Vasily and his mother, Feklista (another woman driven mad), then back into the supernatural as Pavel tells us that Vasily has called out to him from his watery grave, and finally into a cry that, naturalistically enough, Pavel identifies as coming from curlews.

A final irony emerges in the last sentences, following the description of a world awaking to a fresh, exhilarating new morning: after this we learn that Pavel died in a fall from a horse. We are not privileged to hear either a ghost story version of that death from the boys nor the narrator's version, despite his professed admiration for Pavel. We can hardly help wanting more by way of explanation of the boy's end than we get in the understated last words of the sketch. And what our curiosity demands is not a ghost story but a human account.

—Brian Wilkie