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Matrena's House (Matrenin Dvor) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1964

MATRENA'S HOUSE (Matrenin dvor)
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1964

One of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's most memorable pieces of short fiction is "Matrena's House" ("Matrenin dvor"). The time and setting of the story are the summer of 1953 in rural Russia. The first-person narrator is a man returning from prison and exile to teach mathematics. Much like the author, the narrator has experienced life in prison camps and exile in the desert. Wanting to start life anew, he heads for a teaching post in Torfoprodukt, a settlement among peat bogs. Over the hill is a village called Talnovo that holds the "promise of backwoods Russia."

Framing the tale with his personal views and perspective as an outsider, the schoolteacher's moving eye focuses on Matrena, an elderly, unattractive woman who reluctantly accepts him as a lodger in her house. She is ill—"yellow and weak." Besides her decaying house, she owns only a lame cat and a goat. Matrena functions as the prototypical Russian peasant, following in the tradition of Dostoevskii, Chekhov, and Tolstoi, especially in his portrayal of the serfs. She illustrates a spirituality that eschews greed and self-interest.

In contrast to the acquisitiveness of her fellow villagers, Matrena is singularly selfless. She finds it impossible to say no. When she finds herself being asked to work by the kolkhoz, even though she is no longer officially attached, she joins work parties to plant gardens. She helps feed the herdsmen with delicacies she denies herself. Although she is exceedingly poor, she never asks for pay.

Matrena's only possession of value is her home, yet she loses it through her generosity. Before World War I Matrena became engaged to Faddy Mironovich, who went to war and returned several years later to find his betrothed married to his brother Effim. Faddy curses Matrena and marries another woman of the same name. After Matrena loses the six children she bears for Effim, both she and her neighbors believe her to be cursed. When Effim is called up in World War II and never returns, Matrena is left alone in her house. In the time of the present narrative Matrena is asked to give her top room to her foster daughter Kira, Faddy's daughter, whom she has raised as her only child.

The devastation to Matrena's home, symbolized by the removal of the top room, points to her exploitation by her family. Even before she is dead, her family covets her house. In her zeal to help out, she accompanies the moving party and, along with her nephew, is killed by a train. The ill-fated top room serves as the culmination of Faddy's threat 40 years earlier: "If it wasn't my own brother, I'd chop the two of you to bits." At the end Matrena is mutilated and literally chopped to bits by the train. Although she has placed little stock in earthly goods, her sisters and her brother-in-law wage a bitter fight over the remains of the house. They descend to the level of dogs fighting over a bone. Solzhenitsyn shows their greediness and pettiness in his relentless description of the funeral wake.

At the end of the story the narrator, who realizes the true worth of Matrena, recites an epitaph:

She was misunderstood and abandoned even by her husband. She had lost six children, but not her sociable ways. She was a stranger to her sisters and sisters-in-law, a ridiculous creature who stupidly worked for others without pay. She didn't accumulate property against the day she died.

Further, he judges her to be the "righteous one" whom no village or country should be without.

Only the schoolteacher, having lived through the horror of the camps, is able to discern Matrena's spiritual depth and beauty in the face of a materialistic society. The logical moral is that Russia would be redeemed if there were more Matrenas. Moreover, the narrator implies that people do not appreciate the righteous among them until they are dead. The villagers take Matrena's goodness for granted. Since the narrator acts as the observing consciousness, he sees what the villagers do not see—the intrinsic worth of the heroine.

The narrative style of the story is realistic, simple, and direct. At times the descriptions are stark and serve to indict the thoughtless and self-serving villagers. In contrast, the schoolteacher and Matrena are kindred souls. Like Kostoglotov, the released prisoner in The Cancer Ward who meets a kind functionary at the novel's conclusion, the narrator of "Matrena's House" finds in Matrena's character and deeds a cause for optimism. Like her, the narrator is happy to have food, shelter, and company. He appreciates the smile on her round face. Like her, he has risen above the petty occupations of a society fixated on property. His relationship to Matrena is that of a surrogate son. She cooks and cares for him as for the son she never raised to manhood. Their lives exist in an equilibrium until her untimely death. Thus, the author juxtaposes the themes of materialism and spiritualism, selfishness and selflessness, and greed and love. Harkening back to Dostoevskii's The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Solzhenitsyn might agree that Alesha's all-encompassing love is the only corrective to the evil wrought by humankind.

—Shirley J. Paolini

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