The Gentleman From San Francisco (Gospodin iz San-Frantsisko) by Ivan Bunin, 1915
THE GENTLEMAN FROM SAN FRANCISCO (Gospodin iz San-Frantsisko)
by Ivan Bunin, 1915
Ivan Bunin's story "The Gentleman from San Francisco" tells of a 58-year-old man who has become wealthy exploiting Chinese immigrant labor and who, determining to "enter the stream of life's pleasures," takes his wife and daughter on the grand tour of Europe. He is never named—indeed, no one is able to recall later what his name was—nor are his wife and daughter. The only characters identified by name are minor ones, servants, for example, and two dancers, a fact indicating that they are more human than the protagonist. The anonymity contributes significantly to the symbolic quality of the gentleman and his story, for the author is obviously criticizing the lifestyles and business practices of the robber barons of the United States during the early twentieth century. In some respects the gentleman is reminiscent of one of the best known of those American tycoons, the banker J. P. Morgan.
The gentleman and his family sail to Europe on the opulent steamer Atlantis, and their itinerary includes Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Palestine, Egypt, and Japan. In addition to rewarding himself for his years of accumulating a fortune by seeing the world, the gentleman is intrigued by the possibility of experiencing the sexual favors of girls in Naples as well as marrying off his daughter to a prince or a multimillionaire. Described as being like "the most expensive European hotel," the Atlantis brings to mind the ill-fated Titanic, which sank only a few years before Bunin wrote this story. The first-class passengers, "all people of consequence," indulge in the hedonistic life of the ship, sating themselves with sumptuous meals and expensive wines and liquors. They are waited on by an attentive staff trained to provide for their every need. In the evening the gentleman gathers with other wealthy men, who smoke Havana cigars, become intoxicated, and "settle the destinies of nations on the basis of the latest political and stock-exchange news."
It is in Naples, which proves to be much less romantic than the gentleman had imagined, that the enchantment of the voyage begins to dissipate. The protagonist has always assumed that "those whose duty it was to receive properly the Gentleman from San Francisco" were sincere and devoted to his needs, but he begins to think of the Italians as "greedy bugs, reeking with garlic." The weather is marred by showers and storms, the streets become muddy, and the gentleman and his wife begin to quarrel and the daughter to suffer from headaches and shifts of mood. Displeased with their experiences in Naples, they determine to sail to Capri, the island on which the Roman tyrant Tiberius had lived and died centuries before. The seas are rough, the small steamboat is rocked incessantly by the waves, and the gentleman and his wife are overcome with seasickness.
The Island of Capri proves to be as damp and uninviting as Naples, and the gentleman is unimpressed with the other tourists, who seem to him to be people of no consequence. At the hotel the family is greeted by the owner, whom the gentleman recognizes as having appeared in his dream the night before. Because he has no sense of the mystical, the gentleman soon forgets the strange, portentous experience. In the hotel his seasickness subsides, and he begins to relish the prospect of a rich meal and the performance of two tarantella dancers, Carmella and Guiseppe. Having seen Carmella's picture on a postcard, the gentleman feels a growing sexual desire at the prospect of observing her in the flesh.
When he is dressed, he retires to the hotel's library to wait for his wife and daughter to come down for dinner. As he sits reading a newspaper, full of news of another Balkan crisis, the gentleman is suddenly stricken and falls to the floor. The only other person present is a German tourist, who rushes about the hotel notifying people of the collapse. The hotel owner, who would have preferred to keep the matter secret, refuses the wife's request to return her dying husband to his own room and installs him instead in "the smallest, worst, dampest, and coldest room" on the ground floor, where he subsequently dies. In death the gentleman, who has been described as overweight, unattractive, and yellow skinned, takes on a kind of "luminous" beauty. Since there is no coffin available, the body is placed in a packing box used to ship soda water from England. Some of the hotel employees, whom he had assumed to be full of goodwill toward him, make fun of the gentleman as he lies dead in his isolated room, such a contrast to the opulence he had previously enjoyed.
Following the man's death, Bunin writes at length of the Roman emperor Tiberius and of the atrocities he committed, drawing parallels between that tyrant and "those who now rule the world," including the gentleman from San Francisco. Clearly, the author sees the robber barons and the title character, who is symbolic of all of them, as modern tyrants, using less fortunate people to achieve their own selfish purposes.
As the Atlantis, that giant ship "created by the arrogance of the New Man with the old heart," makes the return voyage to America, the body of the gentleman from San Francisco rests in a coffin coated with tar in the hold near the engine room. There the giant shaft that propels the vessel revolves "with a punctuality and certainty that crushes the human soul." This passage suggests yet another theme, the dehumanizing quality of the modern age of mechanization. Meanwhile, in the first-class area the passengers dance and enjoy the pleasures of their existence, while a pair of young "hired lovers" carry on a phony courtship designed as part of the entertainment. Those enjoying the ship's luxury are blissfully unaware that in the bottom of the ship one of their own kind, deprived of life, lies dead on his voyage home.
The tone of "The Gentleman from San Francisco" is unrelentingly ironic, as when Bunin refers to the gentleman and the privileged class to which he belongs as "the society upon which depend all the blessings of civilization," which he proceeds to list as style in clothing, the endurance of monarchy, declarations of war, and "the prosperity of hotels." The irony is not only verbal but situational as well, as when the gentleman becomes almost beautiful in death, when his body is treated like a worthless object now that his money is no longer able to provide for his needs, and when his body rests at the very bottom of the great steamship, hidden and forgotten by those who still enjoy the pleasures that he was once able to command.
—W. Kenneth Holditch