The Stationmaster (Stantsionnyi Smotritel) by Aleksandr Pushkin, 1830
THE STATIONMASTER (Stantsionnyi smotritel)
by Aleksandr Pushkin, 1830
Generally recognized as the best of The Tales of Belkin (Povesti pokoinogo I. P. Belkina), "The Stationmaster" ("Stantsionnyi smotritel") typifies Aleksandr Pushkin's prose style at its finest. Though it seems to be merely a straightforward account of seduction and betrayal, its apparent simplicity actually masks a complexity of narration, composition, and theme.
The story begins with a prologue about the plight of stationmasters in early nineteenth-century Russia. After generalizing about these civil servants, the narrator turns to particulars and relates events surrounding the decline and death of one such stationmaster, Samson Vyrin.
On his first visit to Vyrin's the narrator meets a hearty fellow who lives at the travel station with his 14-year-old daughter, Dunia. The narrator soon focuses his attention on the girl, for she keeps order in the station and calms unruly travelers when they must wait for fresh horses. So charming is the girl that the narrator is reluctant to leave. But when he does, Dunia accompanies him and grants his request for a good-bye kiss.
When the narrator returns about four years later, he finds the travel station and Samson Vyrin in sad repair. A few glasses of rum punch loosen the stationmaster's tongue, and he tells the tale of how a young hussar carried Dunia away to Petersburg and how he went to the city to bring his daughter back. Failing to rescue his "lost lamb," he returned to live a solitary life. Upon his third visit the narrator discovers that Vyrin has died, most likely from trying to console himself in drink. He visits the stationmaster's grave with a "one-eyed little boy in tatters" who relates how a wonderful lady in a magnificent carriage, along with her three children, nanny, and dog, came to visit Vyrin, only to discover that he had died. On hearing this sad news, the fine lady went to the cemetery and threw herself upon the old man's grave, prostrate with grief. After hearing this account from the boy, the narrator says that he regrets neither the journey nor the seven rubles he spent on it.
Identified in the introduction to the tales only as Titular Councillor A. G. N., the narrator proves to be both highly manipulative and obviously unreliable. By muddling the dates of his story, he makes it impossible for the events to have taken place when he said they did. And if he had traveled as long as he claims, Belkin would have written down his version of A. G. N.'s account after his own death. Pushkin may have included such incongruities only to remind the reader that he indeed is reading a work of fiction by invented narrators, a form of romantic irony.
Such narrative play sets the tone for the entire collection, in which a publisher, A. P., edits the final text of the five stories and presumably adds the epigraphs to each tale, which Belkin has written down after having heard them from various people. These include A. G. N., who relates the events told to him by Samson Vyrin, the stationmaster himself. (Of all the Belkin tales only "The Shot" surpasses "The Stationmaster" in narrative complexity.) Belkin first allows Vyrin to tell his story in his own language, but he then switches over to A. G. N.'s own idiom, presumably because Pushkin himself disliked writing in dialect. We have no way of knowing, however, whether A. G. N. grew impatient with dialect and began to relate the events in his own way or whether Belkin decided to abandon the difficult task of writing in Vyrin's style. And because Samson Vyrin has taken to drink out of self-pity, his account is also implicitly unreliable and biased. In addition, A. G. N. remains sympathetic to Samson Vyrin and ready to take his side. In fact, he tries to manipulate the reader into doing the same thing by describing the stationmaster in the most pathetic terms. The more prosaic Belkin presumably undercuts the sentimental tone by drawing our attention to the fact that Vyrin has a fondness for rum punch, the most likely source of his copious tears.
On one level "The Stationmaster" parodies N. M. Karamzin's sentimental tales, especially "Poor Liza" (1792), which tells of a peasant girl who commits suicide after having been abandoned by Erast, a gentleman of much higher station. Like that story "The Stationmaster" begins with a prologue. A. G. N. comes close to mimicking Karamzin's narrator in his use of sentimental vocabulary and tone, and he even calls Vyrin's daughter "poor Dunia." The contemporary reader would have immediately recognized in this usage an allusion to the earlier work and would expect Dunia to end as badly as did Liza and all the poor damsels of sentimental tales who fell in love with men above their station. As Paul Debreczeny has noted, however, such a false assumption becomes the basis for the entire work.
Begun as a simple parody, Pushkin's story evolves into a more complex phenomenon—a parody with a twist. Unlike Liza, Dunia does not perish; instead, she lives splendidly in Petersburg with her three children. The second story does not completely reverse the first, however, for Pushkin retains some of the original elements.
The engravings on the wall that A. G. N. notices the two times he enters the station house provide the source for yet another incomplete reversal, a parody of the New Testament parable of the prodigal son. In spite of the fact that Pushkin rarely clutters his prose with unnecessary details, critics did not notice the engravings until 1919, when M. Gershenson discussed their significance. Once again the reader falsely expects Dunia to turn into a prodigal daughter and to come back to beg her father's mercy after having lived her life in poverty and degradation. But in this case the father, not the child, becomes the prodigal. Here Pushkin flouts sentimental and romantic conventions demanding that Dunia perish. Instead, the father, the apparent victim, dies of drink. Pushkin does not actually make the parable itself the subject of his parody, but rather the sentimental German verses that interpret the original text. This parody within a parody of an interpretation of the parable goes further and further from the original source, not unlike the series of unreliable narrators who deviate from the truth a little more with each retelling.
One more reversal reinforces the reader's false expectations. In the New Testament the parable of the lost sheep directly precedes that of the prodigal son, and when Samson Vyrin tells A. G. N. of his trip to Petersburg to bring Dunia home, he says that he went after his "lost lamb." The biblical shepherd returns and rejoices over the one lost sheep, but Vyrin returns home alone.
The narrator sets up false expectations in his method of narration as well as in the parodies. For example, A. G. N. begins by asking a rhetorical question about who has not cursed stationmasters. He then supplies a list of reasons why one would want to send them to the devil. And just when the reader expects a condemnation of stationmasters, A. G. N. begins an apologia for them in anticipation of his sympathetic introduction of Vyrin. The negative epigraph about the "despots of the posting station" confuses the reader even more.
The complexity of "The Stationmaster" raises it above the other stories in the collection, and its inherent ambiguity sets it apart from other works of the period. Although Dunia appears to be married, no concrete evidence in the story points to such a conclusion. When A. G. N. asks if she is married, Vyrin does not respond. By ending his story with an unanswered question, Pushkin creates a modern story in spite of its sentimental roots.
—Christine A. Rydel