My First Goose
My First Goose
Isaac Babel 1926
“My First Goose” appeared in Red Cavalry, Babel’s first collection of vignettes and stories—none longer than four pages. This interconnected cycle of stories, considered by many critics to be Isaac Babel’s best work, is also considered one of the most important contributions to twentieth–century Russian literature. The stories showcase Babel’s gift for disturbing imagery and complex philosophy. Containing his signature moral and religious ambiguity, they are characterized by an ironic and exaggerated tone. Red Cavalry initially gained popularity in serialized newspaper form and commanded international critical attention. The public was quick to respond to these new and shocking tales that were simultaneously beautiful and brutal, traditional and contemporary. However, Babel had political detractors as well as religious ones. The government became uneasy with his work, which did not appear to present exclusively socialist thought. “My First Goose” typifies the kind of writing that gained Babel this kind of varied and emotional response. The story contains the violence and passion typical of most of his work and concerns a deeply emotional narrator of ambiguous political, religious, and moral sentiment. Indeed, throughout his body of work and in his dealings with the government, Babel remained elusive about his actual political views.
The story contains a meticulous shape and acutely particular language. “My First Goose” contains one of Babel’s famous and suggestive descriptions—that of the Commander’s legs, “like girls sheathed to the neck in shining riding boots.” This detail, the first the reader encounters, is echoed in the story’s end, when the unnamed narrator sleeps with his legs entwined in the other soldiers’ legs, dreaming of women. The narrator, whose job as Propaganda Officer is to educate the troops on Leninist thought, tells of his first day of assignment to a Cossack troop. Babel makes much of the narrator’s physical frailties, including his eyeglasses. In fact this narrator resembles the author himself physically, and appears in many of Red Cavalry’s tales. In the story’s crucial moment, the previously weak narrator proves his strength by killing a helpless goose. Themes of violence run throughout the story, as well as erotic and religious themes. Swift, unsettling, and strangely elevated, “My First Goose” remains one of Babel’s most widely read and variously interpreted stories.
Russian writer Isaac Babel was born on July 13, 1894, and given the full name Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel. Though some of his writing implies that he was raised in a Jewish ghetto by a crazy family of drunks and criminals, Babel was in fact raised middle class in Odessa, which, nearly 50 percent Jewish by 1917, had no legal restrictions on Jewish living quarters. Babel’s father, who managed an agricultural warehouse, was not particularly observant of Jewish religious tradition. Babel attended the competitive Commercial School and studied violin. Anti–Semitic sentiment remained strong in the early part of the twentieth century in Russia, and it is believed that the young Babel witnessed violent anti–Jewish demonstrations, though not necessarily the pogroms he claimed to have seen. He was small, fragile, needed glasses, and suffered from asthma. Acutely aware of these weaknesses, Babel believed them to be caused by nerves—nerves further grated upon by persecution. Later in life, Babel once wryly excused his small literary output with a physical explanation, claiming that his asthma only allowed him to say so much with words.
After graduating from The Institute of Finance and Business in Kiev, a mediocre college he attended only because of limits on Jewish attendance at better Odessa schools, Babel moved to St. Petersburg (the city later known as Leningrad). There he published his first story, “Old Shloyme,” which was about a suicidal Jew, a character type he explored in many later works. In 1916 Babel met the influential revolutionary writer Maxim Gorky, who published two more of Babel’s stories in his journal Letopis. Early on, Babel’s writing contained shocking images and sexual overtones, and included vague details about the characters’ histories. Babel’s own personal history is equally vague, as he often told stories about himself that were later contradicted, either by himself or some revelation of fact. However, some details are known. Upon Gorky’s advice to gather material for his writing, Babel volunteered for the Russian army during World War I, serving on the Romanian front. He returned to Odessa after becoming ill. There Babel met his first wife, Evgeniya Gronfein, with whom he had a child. He did not live with his wife throughout much of their marriage, and he later had a child with Antonina Nikolaevna Pirozhkova, a Soviet engineer.
In a gesture central to much of his fiction, Babel volunteered to serve in the Red Army in 1920 on the Polish front—a strange choice for a Jewish intellectual. The Cossacks were a brute, illiterate force, known to hate Jews. Yet Babel survived the fronts much like the narrator of “My First Goose,” working as a propagandist and spreading the socialist word. During that time and in the years immediately following, Babel published work under the pseudonym “K. Lyotov,” and gave the name “Lyotov” to his narrator as well, suggesting that much of his fiction may be largely autobiographical. These publications established him as a writer popular with the Russian public. Red Cavalry (the collection in which “My First Goose” appears) was published in 1926, and is considered by many critics to be the most artistically significant Babel work. In this book he displays a remarkable gift for startling images (“Blue roads flowed past me like streams of milk spurting from many breasts”) and an ability to portray sensitively even the ugliest scenes. For example, in “The Story of a Horse,” Babel famously ends a tale of a man driven mad by war with the line “Both of us looked on the world as a meadow in May—a meadow traversed by women and horses.” Yet this story, like most of those from the Polish front, are full of blood and death.
After his next publication, a series of autobiographical sketches entitled Odessa Tales, Babel’s literary output slowed. He defended this silence with various excuses. He did not want to write only propaganda, as writers were increasingly pressured to do. He also claimed he was no genius, like his literary predecessor Tolstoy. He wrote two plays that were produced (Sunset and Maria), and one final story, “The Trial.” Many additional facts about Babel’s life remain uncertain even to this day. In part this is because he was evasive about his own history. He presented himself as a socialist yet there is no evidence that he ever joined the Communist party. His work was considered pornographic and not propagandistic enough by the Soviet regime.
Babel was arrested by the Soviet regime for unclear reasons in 1939. For many years it was believed that he was taken to a labor camp, where he died either from suicide or a heart failure. His second wife later revealed, however, that he had been beaten in prison until he confessed to spying against the Soviet regime. No proof exists that Babel in fact did spy; he did have anti–Fascist associations, which under Stalin’s regime were deemed a threat to Russia. Babel later recanted his confession, but in 1940 his fate was sealed: sentenced to death, he was shot.
The simple plot follows a narrator, whose name the reader does not learn, through the afternoon and evening of his assignment as a Propaganda Officer to a Cossack Division of the Red Army. The story takes place during the civil war which began in Russia in 1918. The narrator’s job is to spread Leninism throughout the Russian division at the Polish border. The story opens with the introduction of the narrator to Commander Savitsky, a man of significant military power. The narrator, small and bespectacled, finds himself transfixed by Savitsky’s commanding physique, from his long legs to his chest and even his perfumed scent. While signing a document ordering destruction of the enemy, Savitsky strikes his riding whip on his desk and smiles at the narrator. He commences to grill the narrator on his background, and, upon learning that the narrator is educated, mocks him, calling him a “nasty little object.” The narrator replies simply “I’ll get on all right.” A quartermaster then leads the narrator to a Cossack yard, carrying his trunk full of books and papers. Along the way, the quartermaster sympathizes with the narrator and offers him advice: to gain respect of the division, he says, the narrator ought to “mess up a lady,” that is, rape one. The narrator, typically, makes no comment.
Once at the yard, Cossacks immediately pick on the narrator, shaming him with toilet sounds and tossing his belongings out the gate, including all his papers. Yet the narrator remains unruffled, and admires the very lad who tossed his trunk (and made mocking toilet noises) with his “long straight flaxen hair” and “handsome face.” The Cossacks are the opposite of the narrator, who is Jewish, learned, and physically weak. While he cannot be one of them, he envies them. The remainder of the story concerns how he wins over the Cossacks.
He does so easily, in fact. Encountering the landlady upon whose property they are camped, the narrator begins to demonstrate his peculiar will. Though she seeks his help, confessing suicidal thoughts, he shoves her in the chest, exclaiming “Christ!” Seeing a goose nearby, he stomps its head beneath his boot. The goose dies surrounded by dung, its white wings twitching. The narrator again exclaims “Christ!” over its body; he notes the Cossacks as “stiff as heathen priests at a sacrifice” as they avert their eyes from the dead goose.
In this brief interlude the narrator accomplishes the task of winning over the Cossacks, without having had to rape a woman. The oldest Cossack acknowledges him, saying he’s all right. Ignoring Jewish custom, the narrator shares the Cossacks’ pork. Thus stripped of the stigmas of his education and religion, the narrator has cleared the way for work. He reads them Lenin’s speech from Pravda, the Russian newspaper. They rejoice, as does he, in the “straight line” of this writing. Entwined together they sleep, the narrator dreaming of women, his heart “stained with bloodshed.” The narrator has passed the test and proven muster, yet he, like the landlady, is depressed. His admiration of the army grows tainted with guilt and self–disgust. He knows he will have to kill again.
The near–blind landlady whose property the Cossacks infest approaches the narrator to tell him she wants to die. Weak and depressed, she sees the frail narrator as potentially sympathetic to her ugly predicament—hosting an unruly force of men. The narrator, however, shows no pity for her at all. He shoves her in the chest and steps on the head of her goose, which splatters. The landlady shuffles off to cook the goose, saying pathetically, “I want to go and hang myself.” Her pitifulness is loathsome to the narrator, who, though equally depressed, must display no affiliation with her at all. She is the narrator’s female foil, representing weakness in the face of war.
The unnamed quartermaster, who has been assigned to take the narrator to his squadron, is sympathetic to the narrator’s tough task ahead with the Cossacks. He knows the Cossack life is no “life for a brainy type,” or Jew. He suggests that the narrator “mess up a lady”—rape her—in order to win the Cossacks’ respect. This suggestion foreshadows the narrator’s killing of the goose. The quartermaster, seeming nervous, makes a hasty exit from the scene.
Savitsky is the Cossack Commander of the VI Division to which the unnamed narrator of the story has been assigned. His “giant’s body” emanates power and beauty. The description of Savitsky contains one of Babel’s most famous images: “His long legs were like girls sheathed to the neck in shining riding boots.” Savitsky exemplifies the strange allure violence holds for the narrator. In a brief verbal exchange, Savitsky takes great pleasure in mocking the narrator’s relative weakness. Upon discovering the narrator not only attended law school but can also read and write, Savitsky says, “Oh, are you one of those grinds?” Critics point out that this is a comment on the narrator being Jewish, though the narrator’s religion is not referred to explicitly in the story. Savitsky also calls the narrator “a nasty little object,” yet despite his own nastiness, Savitsky is depicted as enviable, containing the “flower and iron” of youth. The narrator admires his strength, which personifies the Red Army’s glory.
Platoon Commander of the Staff Squadron, Surovkov is the first Cossack to acknowledge the narrator kindly. After the narrator kills the goose, the “older” Surovkov winks at him and invites him to join the group. His wink at the narrator indicates the wry humor in the situation of an educated Jew among the brute Red Army. Surovkov listens avidly as the narrator reads a speech of Lenin’s from Pravda, the Russian newspaper. Just like the narrator, Surovkov is impressed with Lenin’s words, how he strikes at the truth “like a hen pecking at a grain!”
Unnamed Male Narrator
The narrator and protagonist of “My First Goose” remains nameless. He has recently been appointed to the Staff of the Division. The narrator is educated and Jewish, and a “Propaganda Officer,” or reporter. It would be unusual for a Jewish man to join the Cossack force, though not unusual for one to support the socialist cause. On the evening of this story, the narrator goes to the village to join the Cossack division to which he has been assigned. At first he is mocked by the soldiers. The narrator knows he must win them over in order to educate them on Leninism. To impress them, he kills a goose violently. Thus the outsider—a bespectacled, emotional Jew—gains the shallow confidence of the Cossacks. When the narrator goes to sleep that night, he warms his legs against those of the Cossacks. Dreaming of women, he sleeps. Yet his admiration of beautiful force is complicated by a gnawing sense of moral justice. The story ends as he states that his “heart, stained with bloodshed, grated and brimmed over” with the knowledge that he will have to kill again.
Ignorance and Knowledge
The physically small narrator of “My First Goose” possesses a law school education; he reads, writes, and wears glasses. Representing knowledge and culture, he is set in opposition to the Cossacks, who cannot read or write. Yet in this story Cossacks possess the greater power. Though the narrator knows Leninist politics, the very reason for the war, it is he who must prove his worth to those fighting for it. This theme relates to the complex political moment during which the story is set. The revolutionary cause for which the Red Army is fighting is not a factor on the front lines, populated by illiterate Cossacks merely willing to plunder. It is the narrator who must gain power and learn to kill and survive on the front. The narrator must suppress his intellectual and emotional sensibilities to have the power to forward the socialist cause. He must equalize the distance between knowledge and ignorance, power and weakness. This he achieves by bullying a near–blind old woman and stomping a goose to death. The contrast between brain–knowledge and body–power echoes the aims of this war, which was fought both for ideology (Communism) and physical boundaries (Russia’s border with Poland).
In other stories in Red Cavalry, the cycle of stories in which “My First Goose” appears, Babel reveals the Jewish faith of this unnamed narrator. However, the narrator of this particular story does not mention his own religion, nor does he mention that the Cossack army is primarily Russian–Orthodox Christian. Nevertheless, strong themes of Christianity, Judaism, and in fact paganism run throughout the story. The language is imbued with religious images and a certain religious tension. The Cossacks, who made up the Red Army, traditionally were anti–Semitic and often violent toward Jewish populations. Some critics have interpreted the Commander’s derogatory remarks about the narrator (“nasty object”) to be anti–Semitic. Yet the narrator envies him and tries throughout the plot to conceal or to downplay his Jewishness. The narration also presents Christian and pagan images. “Christ!” the narrator twice exclaims upon sacrificing the goose. Whether this is blasphemy or prayer remains unclear. The narrator also describes the Cossacks “stiff as heathen priests at a sacrifice.” Babel explores the connections between primitive
- “Jewish Short Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond,” hosted by Leonard Nimoy, was produced by National Public Radio with the goal of preserving a rich and diverse tradition of modern Jewish life through short stories. Authors whose work is read in this cassette series include Isaac Bashevis Singer, Cynthia Ozick, Isaac Babel, Grace Paley, and Philip Roth. The stories are read by Walter Matthau, Lauren Bacall, Alan Alda, Eli Wallach, Elliot Gould, Jeff Goldblum, Carol Kane, and other noted actors. The cassettes also feature music composed and conducted by Hankus Netsky, founder of the acclaimed Klezmer Conservatory Band. Available from NPR and the National Yiddish Book Center.
and Christian rituals, and draws parallels between these and the rituals of war. Socialist philosophy also cast doubt on God’s ability to save. Babel’s striking religious images, paired with the ambivalent religious ideas of the narrator, contribute to the political ambiguity of this story.
Innocence as a theme is most starkly symbolized by the “white” (thus clean or pure) goose in “My First Goose.” The only inoffensive creature in this story, it dies at the boot of a formerly innocent narrator. With the title Babel reveals that the narrator’s fall from grace will continue. Though initially presented as harmless, the narrator becomes increasingly cold. Even an old blind woman irritates him. He kills the innocent goose, a shocking thing. Immediately after killing the goose, the sullied narrator eats Cossack pork. This would contradict traditional Jewish dietary laws, indicating the narrator has become godless. His fall looks necessary and inevitable in the plot, because he must win over the Cossacks to do his work. Since the narrator believes in the war, he must become corrupt. The inevitability of this fall makes his heart bleed.
Topics for Further Study
- At the beginning of the story the narrator wonders at the beauty of the Commander’s legs and body; later he admires a handsome soldier’s face. From the way other characters comment on the narrator’s appearance, what does he look like? Is his envy of the Cossacks based only on his physical shortcomings?
- Babel ends “My First Goose” with a complicated series of images—legs, women, and blood. What do these images symbolize? Where else are these images found in the story, and how do they relate to the story’s theme of war?
- Research Lenin’s ideas during the Russian civil war and find a speech by Lenin from this time. Does the narrator present typical socialist views in this story? What do you think the Cossacks and the narrator mean when they praise the “straight line” of Lenin’s writing?
- During the initial walk to the Cossack camp, the quartermaster suggests to the narrator that he “mess up a lady,” which has been interpreted by most critics to mean he is suggesting the narrator commit rape. Research the treatment of women during the Russian civil war. Does this suggestion fit in with what you discover? From other details in the story, do you think Babel is actually advocating this kind of violence against women? Would you describe the story as sexist or not, and why?
Point of View
Told from the first–person (“I”) point of view of the unnamed narrator, this story remains very close to the action. The narrator offers his immediate reactions to the events of his day and little background information. The narrator of “My First Goose” withholds information from the reader, who learns only what the narrator wants to reveal— in this case, a limited amount of information. He tells that he attended law school and can read and write, and of what his job consists. He does not state whether he is Jewish or Christian. The narrator does not say exactly why he admires the Cossacks, though he does comment several times on their physical beauty. This kind of ambiguous narrator often appears in Babel’s stories, particularly those included in Red Cavalry. Critics often point out that even in his own diaries, Babel did not always tell the whole truth about his life, though this evasion could have been an act of self–protection as a writer and a Jew. Had Babel said what he really thought, he risked being censored or arrested. From a literary perspective the vague, yet intimate, first–person narrator of “My First Goose” helps to create a feeling of confusion and non–comprehension in the story. This kind of narrator is also sometimes referred to as “unreliable,” a form demonstrated in many works of fiction, and exemplified in British author Ford Maddox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier and American author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. This unreliable narrator complicates Babel’s story’s themes and effect.
“My First Goose” contains a simple plot. The narrator, also the story’s main character, recites the events of one day in his life, like a diary. The plot unfolds logically: The narrator is assigned to a Cossack division by a skeptical Commander. Once at the army camp he earns the Cossacks’ trust by shoving an old woman and killing her goose. He does this so he can try to spread political propaganda in the form of a speech by Lenin, which he reads to the troops at the end of the tale, full of pride. He goes to sleep sad and dreaming of women. This bare plot contrasts with the story’s complex themes. Although the plot is simple, the final moral or political ideas in the story remain difficult to pin down, even for accomplished literary critics. Babel tricks the reader a little with the “straight line” of his plot, which is like the “straight line” of Lenin’s speech, so highly praised by both narrator and Cossacks alike.
Critics consider Babel to be one of the great masters of figurative language—language that uses metaphors and suggestive imagery to convey ideas and emotions. “My First Goose” is packed with description. It also contains some of Babel’s most famous images, like that of the Commander’s “long legs” like “girls sheathed to the neck in shining riding boots.” This example of simile, when a writer compares one thing to another for effect, is particularly disturbing to critics, as it has a sadistic tone. Another famous example of Babel’s use of figurative language is when the narrator describes “the dying sun, round and yellow as a pumpkin” and “giving up its roseate ghost.” This sentence uses a simile as well as a religious reference—to the roseate ghost, or the ghost of Christ. This is what is known as a “mixed metaphor,” in which the sun is a pumpkin, but also has a ghost. This kind of entangled metaphor marks much of Babel’s prose. Later in this story, the soldiers are described as “stiff as heathen priests’’—again a religious simile. Babel favored colorful language and surprising details, which complicated his stories in order to deepen the thematic weight of the tale. He remains well known for this, though some critics suggest he overused this sort of descriptive flourish merely for shock effect, and risked writing flowery prose.
Babel used his experiences in the Red Army, the socialist force that began to take power in Russia in 1917, as the basis for much of his fiction, including the story “My First Goose.” The socialist revolution emerged out of an already volatile political situation. After a revolution in 1905, Nicholas II, Russia’s last Czarist emperor, had been forced to establish a parliament. But the initial promise of freedom did not last at all, and the government quickly reverted to its repressive ways. Unrest bred revolutionary murmurs, which then caused backlash by a violent police force. Waves of anti–Semitism resounded, as non–revolutionary forces associated revolution with intellectual Jews. The revolution of 1917 led directly to a civil war and the socialist growth to power, so crucial to Babel’s writing.
A long Russian history contributed to the growth of the socialist cause. The revolution in 1905 had shifted the social structure in agricultural regions so that individual workers no longer were “owned.” But wealth did not redistribute, and hunger and poverty grew in agricultural regions. Additionally, populations increased in cities such as Moscow, newly industrialized, creating a labor force amenable to Social Democracy with its original ideals of shared wealth and intellectual freedom. The revolution of 1917—with intellectuals such as Babel behind it—led to the official proclamation of Russia as the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. This new, Leninist government was championed as holding great promise for Russia’s impoverished and ignorant masses, as well as its intellectuals. The unlikely partnership of the populace with the Bolsheviks worked for a time. Yet by March 1918, forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Brest–Lito vsk, a result of its actions in World War I, Russia lost land and lost face. In May 1918, a violent civil war broke out, and on July 16th of that year Czar Nicholas II and the royal family were executed.
Lasting from 1918 through 1920, the war between the Czarist Whites and the Bolshevik (Socialist) Reds was bitterly violent. Eventually the Reds prevailed, with the military guidance of Leon Trotsky. The exaggerated, shifting alliances of Russian politics were good fodder for the kind of irony and satire Babel used in his stories, even stories as “realistic” as “My First Goose.” When Stalin took control of the government and it grew increasingly controlling and censorious, Babel’s work, deemed not quite propagandistic enough, was suppressed. Arrested in 1939 for unclear reasons, Babel was first thought to be imprisoned, then to have died of either natural causes or suicide, finally, it was revealed that he had been executed after only the briefest trial. This kind of ambiguity marked much of his life and was not uncommon particularly in Stalinist Russia, which maintained a political atmosphere of distrust and fear.
On July 13, 1894, Babel was born in Odessa, and raised there after the age of eight. By the time he
Compare & Contrast
- 1920s: After the Revolution of 1917, Nicholas II, sets up a constitution and a parliament. However, his repressive government quickly ceases offering new freedoms to Russian citizens. This leads to the civil war in 1918. This civil war between the Bolsheviks, or “Reds,” who espoused socialist views, and the Czarists, or “White Czars,” who favored Russia’s old authoritarian regimes, ends in 1920. Believing violence to be necessary to establishing socialism, the Reds gain control, setting up the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. The country remains rife with conflict between the Czarists and the Reds, the two primary political groups.
1990s: Though hard–line socialism initially held great promise for a country rife with internal conflict and widespread poverty, it has not succeeded in eliminating Russia’s troubles. Repressive and corrupt government activities continue, breeding distrust within and among the Soviet nations, now known as the Russian Federation. While liberal leaders such as Boris Yeltsin espouse idealistic views, human rights violations persist under the current Socialist government. A range of political parties now co–exist in Russia, though Socialists maintain deep control. The parties include a special interest party called “Women of Russia” and several democratic groups. The Socialist party is divided among liberals and traditionalists.
- 1920s: Though Russia has a strong Jewish population, the Russian government and its predominantly Russian Orthodox people persecute Jews and others of non–Christian faith. Jews are prohibited from some educational institutions, positions of political power, and even from living in certain places. Pogroms flare up, continuing a tradition of violence against Jews and other “unpopular” ethnicities in Russia. Though often forced to work in support of the socialist movement, many writers are censored, arrested, or otherwise punished if they express even mildly unpopular views, just like other Russian writers also projecting opinions deemed “undesirable” by the government. Most of the population, except an elite, remains illiterate.
1990s: Anti–Semitism and other forms of ethnic discrimination remain great problems in Russia. In February of 1998, the Russian Constitutional Court abolished the need for residence permits, known as the propiska system. Police continue to detain individuals, particularly those of ethnic minorities, for not having such a permit. Some Jews, sponsored by American temples, emigrate to the United States to enjoy religious freedom. Demonstrations against Jews in Russia continue. In publishing, Samizdat, or “underground writing,” flourishes internationally as a forum for writing which would otherwise be censored. Ninety–eight percent of the population can read and write.
- 1920s: The civil war is fought by a male army, who also hold all positions of recognized power in the government. Socialist writings speak broadly of liberation of laborers, yet do not explicitly speak of the freedom of women. Along with the majority of Russia’s population, since education is a privilege of the financial elite, women are not educated beyond grammar school. It is not a crime to rape a woman. Rape is sanctioned as a necessary aspect of war and is a widespread practice.
1990s: Although women do hold political positions and continue to make advances for women’s rights, violence against women still persists in Russia. Some government statistics cite that 11,000 women reported rape or attempted rape, both now considered crimes, in 1996. Yekaterina Lakhova, President Yeltsin’s advisor on women’s issues, has estimated that 14,000 women in Russia are killed by husbands or family members each year. The government fails to afford victims of violence the protection of the law required by the international human rights treaties to which Russia is a party. During war times, major newspapers report that rape continues as a sanctioned “right” of soldiers.
began writing, Odessa had a large Jewish population: nearly 50 percent. Though during his formative years there was no legal ghetto in Odessa most of the Jewish families lived in a neighborhood known as the Moldavanka, which had close quarters and a family atmosphere. That Jews were banned from Odessa for a time, and that pogroms and anti–Semitic protests did take place in and around Odessa, certainly influenced Babel’s writing. His exploration of these themes in fiction contributed to the government’s extreme caution about his work. While not overtly critical of Russia’s anti–Semitic tendencies, it still did not conceal some of Russia’s harsh realities.
Known in Russian as Poputchick, “Fellow Travellers” consisted of writers in the Soviet Union who, while not opposed to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, did not actively support it with cookie–cutter socialist plots. This group recognized the artist’s need for intellectual freedom and maintained a strong respect for Russian literary tradition. Though Fellow Travellers were given official sanction in the early Soviet regime, they later became criticized for avoiding strict proletarian themes in their writing. In the 1920s some of the most gifted and popular Soviet writers, such as Osip Mandelshtam, Leonid Leonov, Boris Pilnyak, Isaac Babel, and Ilya Ehrenburg, were considered Fellow Travellers. The period during which they dominated the literary scene is now regarded as the brilliant flowering of Soviet literature. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the term was employed during the Cold War era as a political label to refer to any person who, while not thought to be an actual “card–carrying” member of the Communist Party, was in sympathy with its aims and supported its doctrines.
Social Realism and Structuralism
A movement begun by Maxim Gorky, the first person to publish Babel’s work, writing of the Social Realism movement asked that a piece of literature present exclusive socialist ideals. Its body of work was overseen by the Congress of Writers. Babel was not a social realist, though his writing bore some resemblance to their work. Babel also had no ties with his contemporaries in the Structuralist movement. Structuralists experimented with form, believing language to be writing’s most important feature, beyond description or plot. Babel stands out in Russian literature as anomalous in many ways—a socialist of ambiguous morality who maintained a distinct, personal voice.
After his first publications in Maxim Gorky’s Petrograd–based journal Letopis, Babel next wrote as a war correspondent. Following the Red Army, he wrote the stories and reports that were collected as Red Cavalry, published to an enthusiastic Russian audience in 1926. The first English edition came out in 1929. His next collection, The Odessa Tales, was published in 1931, but the English edition in which these appear, The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, did not come out until 1955, after Babel’s death. Babel’s work has received a complicated critical reception. Considered exemplary from a literary standpoint, his work was not strictly propa–gandistic. As a war correspondent, or “propaganda officer,” Babel was expected to use literature to spread socialist views. While full of political and moral motifs, the stories remain ambiguous as to any final opinion. Instead, they are atmospheric, intense and confusing; their narrators present an amalgam of seemingly contradictory ideas and emotions. Some have interpreted this as a cagey way for Babel to avoid speaking his true feelings as an unconventional Jew. The evasiveness strikes a peculiar emotional chord, as well. In his ambiguity, Babel seems to take the advice of one of his own characters in a very early sketch, a grandmother, who advises a young boy, “Don’t give them your heart.” In a later story, “In the Basement,” he describes himself as “untruthful . . . inflamed.”
Because of a failure to pursue the “straight line” of socialist ideology in his writing, Babel became unpopular with the Russian government and faced criticism and pressure from above. Rather than bend to restrictions on his work, Babel instead censored himself and ceased to produce for long periods of time. He had his defenders: Gorky championed Babel’s complexity from the beginning of his beleaguered career. In an early letter responding to a harsh newspaper critique by Cavalry commander Semyon Budyonny, Gorky wrote, “It is impossible under these conditions to make very strict demands of ideological consistency” upon writers such as Babel, that is, writers bearing
witness to the vast and violent. He also was referring to the “condition” of Babel’s acute sensitivity. Other critics have marveled at Babel’s strange ability to convey the dark passion of war without romanticizing it, and his ability to take an ironic stance without seeming unsympathetic. Revered literary critic Irving Howe, in an essay for The New Republic, recognized in 1955 that Babel was “the master of his genre.”
After the publication of his second collection, Babel entered a self–imposed silence, choosing to remain unpublished though he continued to write plays, sketches, and stories, and to keep a personal diary. Continued refusal on his part to comply with government demands on his writing, and accusations of espionage which have never been confirmed as true, led to Babel’s arrest. Though conflicting stories of his death still circulate, ranging from suicide to pneumonia, it is now known that he was executed after a short trial.
While his small literary output is in part the result of his resistance to spouting political dogma, it also reflects Babel’s fragile nature. In late interviews and speeches he explained his silence by claiming that he had little to say, adding that he did not want to punish his readers with bad writing. Critics noted that while giving these speeches, he appeared weak and resigned. Yet many contemporary writers continue to lament his fate and consider his writing some of the most important and haunting Russian literature. He continues to influence writers today. As facts about his life and eventual arrest continue to unfold and as new works are discovered and translated, Babel remains of serious interest to literary scholars worldwide.
Bernheimer has a master’s degree in creative writing and edited Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales (Anchor/Doubleday 1998). In the following essay, she discusses symbolism in “My First Goose.’’
When the disconsolate narrator kills a goose in Babel’s story “My First Goose,” he is not merely getting himself a nice supper. It is true that the narrator is miserably hungry, and that the Cossacks have denied him a share of their food. And the goose, waddling about innocently, makes an easy
What Do I Read Next?
- Russian Fairy Tales, collected by Aleksandr Afanas’ev and translated by Norbert Guterman (1945), is a collection recommended by respected Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer that includes 200 traditional folk and fairy tales and is full of important Russian literary motifs that were influential on Babel’s work.
- Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1979) by Grace Paley, an American writer, is a short story collection marked with irony and wit that sketches tales in the lives of several characters, most particularly Faith, a young woman getting divorced. The stories draw upon a Yiddish tradition of humor and tragedy. This collection was adapted into a popular film of the same title, which stars Ellen Barkin.
- The Collected Stories (1983) by Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Yiddish writer, contains magical elements and a deeply moral sensibility and explores the Jewish immigrant experience in America.
- Arrested Voices: Resurrecting the Disappeared Writers of the Soviet Regime (1996) by Vitalii Shentalinskii is a non–fiction book that looks at the KGB (Russian police) files on Russian writers repressed during Stalin’s reign. Until glasnost, the fates of Soviet Russia’s most prominent writers were not known. Shentalinskii inspects detailed KGB reports describing how these writers—including Babel and his friend Maxim Gorky—were arrested, tortured, falsely accused of crimes, imprisoned, and even executed.
- The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (1998), a collection of stories by 52 Jewish writers and edited by Ilan Stavans, begins with a tale by the Hasidic Rabbi Nakhman (1772–1811) of Bratzlav, Poland. This collection includes the writing of such celebrated authors as Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Grace Paley, Cynthia Ozick, and Philip Roth. The stories were written originally in about a dozen languages, and the authors are from around the world. The variety of themes include anti–Semitism and the Holocaust, but also domestic affairs, biblical subjects, and interreligious and ethnic relations.
enough meal. Nonetheless, this goose serves several other functions in the story. Significantly, the goose is the story’s very first image, found at the very beginning—in the title. Even in the title, the image of the goose is symbolic and exceeds the boundaries of Babel’s plot. It is only the first goose; there will be others after the story ends. And by the end of the story, we can guess that those “others” will not be only geese. Babel makes the goose stand for several other things, through the use of symbolism. Charles Baudelaire, a nineteenth–century French writer of the Symbolist literary movement, defined symbolism as the use of “evocative bewitchment”—language that elevates details to mean more than just their physical parts. One of Babel’s favorite literary devices, symbolism, appears prominently throughout this short, disturbing tale.
The goose is central to the story’s plot, in which a weak narrator wins over the brute Cossacks, whom he must educate on socialism. Bespectacled, Jewish, learned, and small, the narrator demonstrates his own kind of strength by crushing the head of the goose to win over the brute Cossacks. According to The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, a widely used resource that defines critical literary movements, one of the most popular symbols in literature was the swan, “a code word with shifting frames of reference representing pure beauty and the poet’s alienation from his surroundings.” Babel’s goose, a sort of ugly and awkward swan, works this way. Babel describes the unfortunate goose as “inoffensive,” while all the other characters—even a pathetic old woman— irritate the narrator. The goose, white and preening,
“More explicitly, at one point in the story, as the narrator walks to the Cossack camp, the old quartermaster advises him to ’mess up a lady.’ Yet the bespectacled narrator does not choose to rape. Instead, he shoves an old woman and stomps on hergoose. . . . Throughout this sequence of exchanges, the goose comes to stand in for ’a lady’ and symbolizes the female. The goose and the feminine thus become associated with weakness or victimhood. . . .”
stands in contrast to the nasty military camp, but eventually dies in “dung.” Its innocence cannot survive the filth of the camp on the physical level, or the “dung” of war on the symbolic level. Likewise, the narrator, identified with the goose and alienated from his surroundings, will lose his innocence to the war.
At the beginning of the story, the narrator admires the boots of Savitsky, the Cossack Commander, which are described as threatening yet seductive. When the narrator encounters the goose, he crushes its head beneath his own boot. Thus he identifies himself with the Cossacks in his violence.
The narrator’s difference from the Cossacks is crucial to the story’s symbolic weight. Other characters often mention the narrator’s spectacles and his frailty. Critics have agreed that the narrator of this story is Jewish, based on descriptions from other Babel stories in which this character appears. The fact that the narrator will not kill a human or rape a woman can be interpreted as symbolic of the morality of his Jewish faith. His faith prevents him from partaking in the kind of human cruelty required in this socialist, godless war. Instead, the narrator performs a symbolic sacrifice—the killing of the the goose. Just before killing the goose, the narrator exclaims “Christ!” and he shouts “Christ!” again immediately afterward, connecting the death of the goose with the sacrifice of Christ. The meaning of this connection, however, is unclear. Is the narrator embracing the ideal of Christian sacrifice, or does he reject the notion of Christian sacrificial beauty, stomping it with his boot? The ambiguity of this moment typifies the story and much of Babel’s prose.
Drawn throughout the plot, in an equally complex manner, is an association between eroticism and brute force. The narrator tells of the Commander’s legs, sensuous “like girls sheathed to the neck in riding boots.” Later in the story, the narrator sleeps with his legs entwined in other men’s legs, “dreaming of women.” More explicitly, at one point in the story, as the narrator walks to the Cossack camp, the old quartermaster advises him to “mess up a lady.” Yet the bespectacled narrator does not choose to rape. Instead, he shoves an old woman and stomps on her goose. (The landlady confesses to the narrator her suicidal thoughts, which would be considered a crime under Russian Orthodoxy. In this way the narrator becomes a sort of priest, in fact a “heathen priest,” as he is a non–Christian.) Throughout this sequence of exchanges, the goose comes to stand in for “a lady” and symbolizes the female. The goose and the feminine thus become associated with weakness or victimhood, yet the narrator also glorifies femininity and dreams of women romantically. In this way, the story strikes a disturbing but sensuous chord.
Babel’s use of the goose in “My First Goose” shares historical literary significance with William Butler Yeats’s famous poem “Leda and the Swan,” which was written at nearly the same time. In that poem, using the swan as the central symbol, Yeats also explores the themes of war and religion. Yeats begins the poem with following lines:
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
In this poem, Leda is raped by the god Zeus, who has taken the guise of a swan. Leda gives birth to Helen of Troy: consequently, this act leads to the sack of Troy, and the foundation of Greek civilization, and, according to some critics, the establishment of Christianity. In Babel’s story, one also finds images of thighs, twitching wings, and women. Yet while Yeats’s swan is unequivocally “great,” though violent, Babel’s goose cannot survive. Rather, the goose, despite its goodness, is actually completely helpless, like its blind female owner. As a Jew in a country where Jews were traditionally persecuted, Babel’s narrator identifies with this victim. He cannot brutalize anything without disturbing his conscience. Thus the goose can here be seen as yet another symbol—a Jew. Yeats’s swan is his poem’s protagonist, masculine and terrible. Babel’s goose is his story’s victim, feminine and hapless.
Russian folklore had a great influence on Babel’s writing, both syntactically and formally. The story of “My First Goose” bears resemblance to a well–known Russian folktale called “The Wondrous Wonder, The Marvelous Marvel.” In the folktale, an unhappy husband finds a magical goose. Whenever the goose is killed and roasted, it comes back to life, symbolizing eternal wealth. However, the goose also contributes to the destruction of the marriage. In the husband’s absence, the goose witnesses the wife’s infidelity. The goose sticks the wife to her lover and drags them to the town square. There they are discovered by the disillusioned husband, who beats his wife. The goose is finally crushed. Here the goose symbolizes goodness and an inevitable fall from grace. The sad husband in the folktale exclaims, “How can I help being sad?” Likewise, the narrator in “My First Goose” is “depressed,” and his heart brims over.
The goose bears the weight of eternal sadness just as it embodies eternal beauty. Such is the way of socialism, which is so glorified, flying a straight and lovely line, yet causes violence and cruelty in the war. The propaganda officer knows this, and folds into himself with fear. The goose will come to life in other forms, and meet a similar fate.
Source: Kate Bernheimer, for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2000.
Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she discusses the narrator’s dual personality in “My First Goose.’’
Red Cavalry, Isaac Babel’s 1926 collection of 35 stories, drew on the author’s experience as a war correspondent for the Red Army during the tumultuous Russian Civil War. From the start, Babel conceived the collection as a larger whole composed of individual parts. In fact, he referred to the stories as “excerpts” or “chapters” of a book. Writes David McDuff in the Reference Guide to World Literature, Red Cavalry “marks the pinnacle of Babel’s literary achievement.” In his study Isaac Babel, Milton Ehre further commends the collection, finding it the “most important fiction to come out of the Russian Revolution.” Most of the stories are told from the point of view of Lyutov, a Jewish war correspondent, as he travels with the Cossack army on their 1920 campaign in Poland. Lyutov, educated and possessing a poet’s sensibility, is juxtaposed against the violent backdrop of war and the coarseness of the soldiers.
McDuff further writes that Red Cavalry “demonstrates the duality of his [Babel’s] nature most forcefully and vividly. .. his personality splits in two.” Lyutov wavers between what he is—the “bespectacled, bookish, and sensitive” war correspondent—and what he wants to become—“a true revolutionary and Bolshevik solider with no fear of blood and killing.” Indeed, “My First Goose”, which Babel placed eighth of 35 stories, depicts a Lyutov drawn to the trappings of the war and wanting the respect of its major players. Savitsky, Lyutov’s new commander, becomes an object of admiration that appeals to Lyutov on multiple sensory levels. Lyutov views “the beauty of his gigantic body” and notes the details of his costume—the purple breeches, the raspberry cap, the medals on his chest. Savitsky assails Lyutov on an olfactory level as well as a visual one. Lyutov smells Savitsky’s “unobtainable scent and the sickly sweet coolness of his soap.” These few words are meaningful, for they demonstrate at the same time that Lyutov inherently understands he will never truly be like the Cossacks (“unobtainable”), he also recognizes that their characteristics are not those to which a person such as himself should aspire (“sickly sweet”). Yet, Lyutov concludes the opening paragraph by affirming again the attractiveness of Savitsky in his comparison of the commander’s “long legs” to females. Lyutov’s inner conflict, succinctly set up in these opening sentences, is at the core of “My First Goose” and many of the stories in Red Cavalry.
Savitsky’s ensuing actions immediately demonstrate his masculinity. Even before uttering a word, he hits his riding–switch against the table. Only after such physical assertion does Savitsky return to everyday matters, pulling Lyutov’s order toward him and completing it. Savitsky’s initial and
“The goose is Lyutov’s stand–in for the pure woman whose rape the billet officer had advised would alter the men’s opinion. Indeed, Lyutov describes his killing of the goose in sexually violent and degrading terms. ’I caught up with it and bent it down to the ground; the goose’s head cracked under my boot, cracked and overflowed. . . .’”
accurate assessment of Lyutov is recognized in this order, for Savitsky allows Lyutov to serve anywhere the army goes except at the front. Savitsky’s assessment of Lyutov must be based solely on Lyutov’s physical appearance. Lyutov’s glasses immediately symbolize his sensibility; Lyutov is not a true soldier. Savitsky is even more derisive when he finds out that Lyutov studied law at the university and calls him a “milksop.”
Savitsky turns Lyutov over to the billeting officer, who sums up the prevailing attitude that Lyutov is sure to face: ”‘Our lads here have a stupid thing about glasses, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Your man of distinction—he’s not to be found here.” The officer further illuminates that the Cossacks value violence and pillage; ‘“But lay a finger on a lady,’” he says, ”’the properest lady that ever there was, and our fighting lads will give you a fond caress...’”
Lyutov, however, cannot hide his true self. The Cossacks immediately dislike him. A young soldier even picks up his trunk and hurls it through the air. When it spills open, further, if unnecessary, evidence of Lyutov’s nature reveals itself in the form of manuscripts that fall on the ground. The young soldier then “turned his posterior to me and. . . began to emit some disreputable sounds.” Although Lyutov recognizes the crudeness of the action—and that the soldier’s only real accomplishment is just a “simple knack,” not really a “special” one— Lyutov’s inner harmony is still disturbed. His attempts to calm himself by reading a speech of Lenin’s in the newspaper do no good, for “the Cossacks tripped over my legs, the lad mocked me tirelessly, and the welcome lines of print approached me by a thorny road and were unable to get to me.”
Seemingly without thought, Lyutov takes definitive action that will win him a place among the Cossacks. Significantly, he “put down his newspaper” before demanding of a peasant woman that she feed him, an action that symbolizes his rejection of his truer refined self. When she ignores his request, he “gave her a shove in the chest with [his] fist” and then grabs a white goose from the yard. The goose is Lyutov’s stand–in for the pure woman whose rape the billet officer had advised would alter the men’s opinion. Indeed, Lyutov describes his killing of the goose in sexually violent and degrading terms. “I caught up with it and bent it down to the ground; the goose’s head cracked under my boot, cracked and overflowed. The white neck was spread out in the dung, and the wings began to move above the slaughtered bird.” Then Lyutov sets about “delving into the goose with the sword.” Lyutov’s actions mimic on a minute level those of the Cossack soldiers, feared in Eastern Europe for their destruction of Jewish villages as well as their attacks on the women who live there. He chases the fleeing goose, harshly subdues it, forces it to open itself to his superior physical presence, and then penetrates it with a sword, or phallus. That the sword does not belong to Lyutov—who, it must be remembered, is a Jew—demonstrates that he is only borrowing the violence of the Cossack soldier, but that he does not own such a characteristic. Indeed, to become a Cossack would be to act against his own people.
At first, the Cossacks seem not to notice him, for they “sat unmoving, straight as priests, and had paid no attention to the goose.” One Cossack, however, shows that they did witness Lyutov’s actions. He says, “‘The lad will do all right with us,’” and winks Lyutov’s way. Despite this gesture of acceptance, Lyutov demonstrates his unease with what he has done. He “wiped the sword dry with sand,” but he can’t wipe away his actions or his guilt. He remains “in torment” and views the tawdriness of his physical surroundings. Yet, his interior debate is ever present. At the same time that he sees the moon hanging in the sky “like a cheap earring,” he also watches the Cossack eat their supper with “restrained elegance.”
Lyutov is soon rewarded for his behavior. All of a sudden, the “most senior of the Cossacks” invites Lyutov to join the men and share their supper until the goose is ready. Surovkov extends his welcome to Lyutov along with the spare spoon stowed in his boot. Earlier, Lyutov had experienced “loneliness without parallel,” but now the men set about “making a place” for Lyutov, both literally and physically. The young soldier who had previously mocked Lyutov moves over so Lyutov can sit down and the men listen eagerly as Lyutov reads Lenin’s speech aloud. Now the men value his literacy. It can be assumed from Savitsky’s previous words that the men cannot read themselves, and this inadequacy on their part shifts the balance of power. Lyutov reads “loudly, like a deaf man triumphant,” asserting his new sense of belonging, even his superiority. The night also welcomes him, tucking him up “in the life–giving moisture of its crepuscular sheets” and placing “its motherly palms on my burning forehead.” Significantly, Lyutov’s acceptance comes with twilight, and the blackness of the sky seemingly reflects the dark turn of his soul. Lyutov, however, ignores the symbolism inherent in his own narrative.
Lyutov also deliberately rejects the obvious differences between himself and the Cossacks. While his pleasure at his acceptance is reflected in his ability to enjoy Lenin’s speech, he again takes pleasure in its intellectual puzzle; “I read and rejoiced and watched out, as I rejoiced, for anything crooked in the Lenin straightness.” The Cossacks, by contrast, admire the directness of Lenin’s words. ‘“The truth tickles every nostril,’ said Surovkov, when I had finished, ’and how is a man to pull it from the pile, yet Lenin hits it at once, like a hen pecking a grain of corn. . .’” The importance of Surovkov’s statement—the indication that it reflects the Cossacks’ unquestioning view of the world—is underscored by Lyutov’s narration: “Surovkov, platoon commander [italics mine] of the staff squadron, said this [italics mine] about Lenin.”
At the end of the story, Lyutov joins five other men sleeping in the hayloft. There, though “our legs tangled together,” Lyutov is still not one of them. For he “had dreams and saw women in my dreams.” What happens in these dreams is not made clear, but it would seem that continued violence takes place, for Lyutov narrates’ ’only [italics mine] my heart, stained crimson with murder, squeaked and overflowed”—the implication being that his brain, the organ of intelligence, rejects any notions of compassion; no matter how he tries, he will remain at heart a sensitive, thoughtful person. The end of the story, however, forecasts the ongoing anxiety that will meet Lyutov’s attempts to insert himself into the Cossack regime.
Source: Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2000.
In the following essay Andrew compares the first impressions drawn on reading Babel and themes that evolve from a closer examination of the story.
Babel’s short stories provide excellent material for structural analysis. He is a self–conscious, cerebral writer, often to the point of opaqueness. The story chosen, My First Goose is particularly dense in texture and on first reading may well mystify the reader as regards its meaning. It is hoped that the daylight shed on the story in the following pages will remove this obscurity. My First Goose now forms part of the Red Cavalry cycle of stories which deal with the Civil War period of Soviet history, but was originally published separately. It can quite legitimately be studied in isolation, as can most of the stories of the cycle. Nevertheless reference will naturally be made to the overall themes and conflicts of the cycle, where necessary.
First impressions of any work of art involve a perception of the totality of the overall themes of the work, and these will be considered first. In My First Goose the central theme concerns a kind of initiation into a group, into a new world. This theme implies two main themes: the individual in relation to the group (with the specifically Russian variation of the intelligentsia and the people) and the fate of innocence and beauty in a harsh world. Among other side issues are the latent sexuality of many of the actions, and the violence inherent in the everyday world. (These themes can be derived from a ’first–reading’ response to this particular story but are of course common themes in the Red Cavalry cycle). The analysis will be an attempt to see to what extent these first impressions are correct, and at the same time to discover how far Babel was concerned to make us aware of these themes.
As we have seen in the Introduction, the three main Formalist concepts for structural analysis are fable, plot and narrative structure. In certain types of
“The basic function of the structure of any work is both to motivate the action, to reveal why things happen, and, even more importantly to dispose the material of the work for the maximum effectiveness.”
fiction, for example, detective and mystery stories the contrasts between fable (the actual events) and the plot, or syuzhet (the way the reader learns of the events) may be highly important to the structure and effectiveness of the work. Here there is no such disjunction. The fable is deceptively simple: from a mere retelling of events we learn little of what ’really’ happened. It seems to be, quite simply as follows: a (presumably) newly–arrived officer is roughly treated, firstly by his divisional commander and then by his new ’comrades’. He wanders off disconsolately, decides he wants to eat, attacks an old woman, kills a goose, and now is accepted by those who had treated him so brutally before. Clearly we must look more deeply. This is the disposition of events, but it is their exposition that will perhaps reveal rather more.
Indeed, an analysis of the plot does indicate rather more. Neverthless, whereas from an analysis of the plot elements we normally discover the chain of causes and effects, that is, what the story is all about, here we learn remarkably little, as will be seen. This is perhaps principally because the narrator almost never reflects or comments on what is happening—and we will have to look to other levels of analysis to tell us more fully the truth about this particular work. Nonetheless, it is useful to interpret the story on this level: we do discover important aspects of the theme, but perhaps even more importantly it highlights the curiously oblique way in which Babel creates his effects.
The story, then, considered in more detail, opens with a description of the Divisional Commander Savitsky. There are odd notes in this description, with emphasis laid on physical details. Savitsky welcomes the narrator though in a very ambiguous way, and then sends off his order using rather violent terms. Physical violence is further suggested (but no more) in a short conversation between the two, and the narrator is sent off to meet his comrades. On the way there is again a seemingly unmotivated reference to the impending fate for such an intellectual. It should be noted that after none of these suggestions is there the conventional aside of “I was disturbed’, ’This struck me as odd’, as for example Lermontov’s hero Pechorin comments in a similar situation in Taman. By the very mode of narration Babel creates a certain atmosphere. The narrator then meets the other Cossacks, and is totally, and physically rejected. For the first time he is alone, and also for the first time he reflects on his situation, summing up as it were what has happened, although there is nothing like an explicit statement of why he feels as he does.
The second part of the story continues in a similarly enigmatic fashion. The narrator approaches an old woman, asks for food, and receives a bewildering and unexpected answer; he then pushes her away, sees the goose and kills it. No reason is given. Suddenly, his Cossack enemies become friendly: he joins them, eats with them, reads to them, and is relatively happy at the unexpected reversal of his situation. They all fall asleep and he sees bittersweet dreams: the last two lines recapitulate the overall ambiguous, unexplained quality of the story.
Such then is the plot, the ’structure of causation’. The above account is not an excessively ’naive’ recounting of events: it does seem that from the actual events we learn only this much—that is rather less than we might expect from such an analysis. However, the very ambiguity is revealing, and there are various clues as to the central meaning, which can be more fully discerned from the other levels of analysis. Moreover, what the plot analysis does reveal is that the killing of the goose is the central episode (as we suspect from the title). This is the point of peripeteia, after which there is a reversal of the previous situation. Just how complete this reversal is can be seen from a discussion of the narrative structure.
There are a number of aspects to such a discussion. The basic function of the structure of any work is both to motivate the action, to reveal why things happen, and, even more importantly to dispose the material of the work for the maximum effectiveness. Oulanoff succintly expresses this idea: ‘The narrative structure is the totality of motives presented in the very sequence which appears in the work. What matters is the introduction of a given motive at the moment when this motive achieves the greatest aesthetic effect’. Also important, however, is the arrangement of the material to disclose the theme more clearly and fully to the reader. In the present instance a close examination of the narrative structure enables us to see that Babel was extremely careful to place the killing of the goose structurally (as well as thematically) at the very centre of the work, and thereby he seems to imply all the more strongly that we should look to this event for the meaning of the work.
The killing of the goose is formally marked off in a very clear fashion. Immediately before, and immediately afterwards, two phrases occur: ‘I wish to hang myself (the old woman) and ’Oh Mother of God!’ (the narrator) which serve as a simple framing device to isolate the killing off from the rest of the story. This mirror–image effect is highlighted by two references, immediately before and after the killing, to the woman’s blindness, and perhaps even more significantly by the fact that the woman appears only immediately before the killing, and disappears immediately afterwards. The formal symmetry is not only satisfying aesthetically, but clearly serves a vital structural function: we are to treat the killing separately, as something set apart. Elsewhere, the narrative structure serves the function of comparing the narrator’s situation before his central experience, and the new state of affairs. The parallels are striking and most successful in Babel’s concentration on unity of effect. For example, at the beginning stress is laid on the fact that the author is literate: both Savitsky and the quartermaster point out the potential dangers of such a condition, yet is it precisely because he is an intellectual, and reads to the Cossacks, that he has his greatest success with them. (This is further deepened by the two references to Lenin’s speech in Pravda: immediately before the killing the words mean nothing to him—afterwards he is exultant as he reads to them.) Originally, the Cossacks as a group (while shaving each other) reject him; later it is precisely in the group activity of a meal that they welcome him. This parallel, too, is underscored by the twin references to the Cossack with flaxen hair it is he who emits the obscene noises which so crush the narrator and it is precisely he who asks for the reading. Clearly, any of them could have performed the second function, but Babel highlights the dramatic change by using the same character twice.
The change is indeed dramatic, involving as it does the crucial, central peripeteia. In general the story follows the traditional pattern of exposition –complication – crisis – denouement, each of which takes place principally on the psychological level of the narrator’s changing experience of the situation. The sequence is: exposition – narrator introduced to Cossack milieu, which is simultaneously sketched in; complication – he is rejected by them; crisis – his feelings of desolation, the killing of the goose; denouement – acceptance by the Cossacks. As has been shown, the denouement symmetrically matches the complication, which adds greatly to the power of the central episode. This power is also deepened by the absence of any general prologue or epilogue. As Oulanoff points out, this is typical of the short story, because it only has one ’knot’ to be unravelled in order to end dramatically or unexpectedly.
However, one must beware of oversimplification. The actual moment of peripeteia here may seem obvious enough (the killing of the goose), but perhaps the real turning point is a little earlier—that is when the narrator lays aside the newspaper and approaches the old woman. It is then that he makes a decision even more crucial than to kill the goose. Indeed, one can point to several ’turning–points’ in the story. When the narrator leaves Savitsky’s office, he enters the wider world to meet his test; the threatened violence builds up, and then becomes actual violence (when the Cossacks throw him out), and immediately afterwards he is alone, for the first time. Then comes the psychological peripeteia: he lays aside the newspaper, and speaks and acts like the others had done, brutally and cruelly, which leads immediately to the actual killing. So, in one sense this event is only the culmination of a whole series of climaxes, each marked off by being a particular ’first–time’ event. The extremely skilful use of the narrative structure by Babel not only serves to emphasise the reversal element, but marks off the series of climaxes leading to the central one.
A closely connected level of analysis is the use of recurrent ’key–words’, which often play an important structural role. For example, if the same adjective is used to describe two characters, it seems that some thematic link is being made between them; the same is true, of course, if contrasting adjectives are used. In “My First Goose” the recurrent words are mainly terms of violence. Clearly these create a particular atmosphere, but also serve a structural function, of binding certain characters or events together, making certain inferences about their relationship to one another which otherwise would not be so apparent.
Savitsky is described by, and uses, a whole series of terms of violence. All of them are verbs, which reinforces still further his brutal dynamism. They are:
‘he cut the hut in two’; ‘struck with his whip’; ‘I’ll crush it on the spot’; ‘yelled’; ‘but here they’ll cut your throat for wearing glasses’
The narrator also says of him: ’he yelled, laughing’ and a little later we read: ’The elder Cossack shouted to him, and began to laugh’. This close textual similarity binds the two together as an aggressive, threatening unit. Even more significant are the words used of the narrator’s first aggressive action: ‘I pushed the old woman with my fist’. The construction and words remind us of Savitsky’s action ’struck with his whip’ and the narrator is clearly linked with Savitsky. Again the change is noted for us by Babel, but the specific link with Savitsky is particularly interesting. Another significant point about the use of semantically identical or related words as a structural device is that no words of violence occur after the apotheosis of violence in the killing of the goose. Once again this central event is marked off as being special. There is, however, one last repetition of the words ’cracked and bled’ (when the narrator kills the goose) and ’creaked and bled’ (about his own heart), at the very end. This is a kind of ’lyric recapitulation’ of the whole mood of the story, recalling as it does the central episode. Recapitulation is perhaps a more apt assessment of the denouement of this story than the term ’epiphany’. Many writers indicate the use of this device in Red Cavalry, but as has been constantly shown, there does not seem to be here a single point of ’revelation’, of something that was unknown before. The ending is rather a reminder of the awareness reached in the killing, but the specific psychological truth is implicit almost from the beginning.
Because we have to look for the meaning of the central theme in indirect elements, the analysis of setting and of the similes used to convey it is particular important. N. Stepanov described the general tendency to exoticism in Babel’s landscapes, the fact that everyday things seem to take on a new appearance, without however, attempting to reveal what structural or thematic function such descriptions play in the Babel short story. In My First Goose the treatment of setting not only has the typical function of creating or deepening a particular atmosphere, but plays a vital structural, thematic part in the revelation of the narrator’s experience. The role of setting is clear from its very absence at the opening of the story: there is no conventional ’setting of the scene’; the first reference to the setting comes only after the narrator has left Savitsky’s office, after he has already been exposed to the latter’s verbal assaults. That is, the description of the setting is reactive, it acts as a kind of lyrical commentary to the narrator’s emotions.
The first reference is even more revealing if we consider it in detail: ’The village street lay before us, round and yellow like a pumpkin, while in the sky the dying sun gave up its pink ghost’. This description is foregrounded against the surrounding narrative background because after the relatively bare prose preceding this (apart from the description of Savitsky) the double image strikes us very forcibly. The first simile, of the street scene, is extremely opaque and cannot be fully interpreted on a realistic level: that is, the street is ’made strange’. More importantly, Babel not only reveals to us the new vision of a dirty street, but, because it is described through the narrator’s eyes, it reflects his feelings of alienation and spiritual distortion. The image of the setting sun further reveals the essential purpose of the setting in this story. It is another dense image, each part of which is precisely chosen. The very fact of setting, of decline, reflects feelings of depression, but the actual image of ’giving up the ghost’, that is, of death, not only reflects the emotional atmosphere but also hints at the later killing. A third layer of meaning emerges from the precise wording of the idea of death. That is, these are the words used to describe the death of Christ on the cross. There is, in fact, a later reference to Christ’s agony: ’The lines came to me along a road of thorns’’ an image suggesting the crown of thorns. Through the imagery, then, Babel suggests to us ideas of martyrdom and religious suffering, which is further exploited on other levels, as we shall see.
The next reference to the setting is also in simile form: ’It [the pork] was smoking like one’s home in the village, when seen from afar.’ This is a much more straightforward simile, perhaps a deliberate cliche: again it serves as an indication of how the narrator feels, precisely because the landscape is seen through his eyes. The setting is the main mode through which we understand his experience: at the same time setting acts as a key structural element in that descriptions of it are placed at crucial moments—after his ’rejection’ by Savitsky, now after his rejection by the Cossacks (and the same later) and reflect his changing experience more exactly than any other element. Moreover, because the setting is foregrounded by being almost always in simile form (in a story where there is little imagery) Babel asks us to pay particular attention to the setting, and therefore it has particular importance in the story.
The last reference to the setting before the killing of the goose is not a simile, yet still has an odd ring: ’The sun was falling upon me.’ Perhaps Babel deliberately reverts to a more simple description to convey the nadir of the narrator’s fortunes. The whole world does indeed seem to be falling in on him. The killing now occurs, and one might expect the description of the setting to change— from the narrative structure we have seen to what extent the killing marks a turning point: the Cossacks immediately gather the narrator into their fold. However, the next reference to the setting is very revealing: ’The moon hung over the courtyard like a cheap ear–ring.’ Again a simile reveals the disturbed perception of reality: all is not yet well in our narrator’s heart, he is not yet at one with himself or the universe. It is particularly important to use the word ’universe’ here: almost all references to the setting involve celestial bodies—the sun twice, now the moon, and later the stars. Babel’s choice is, I feel, deliberate, and is meant to show precisely that the narrator feels the whole cosmic order is out of joint as yet. (Incidentally, this also serves as a shorthand reference to the passing of time.)
The two final descriptions of the setting reveal to us more precisely the moment of change. When the narrator has read to the Cossacks, nature absorbs him in a womblike embrace: ’The evening enfolded me in the life–giving moisture of its dusky sheets, the evening pressed its motherly palms to my flaming brow.’ The images are still extravagant, exotic, and distorted, but nevertheless reveal a shift in the narrator’s response to the external world, in that the image reflects that the narrator has at least regained his former well–being. This change is confirmed in the final paragraph when the Cossacks and the narrator sleep together, ’beneath a roof, full of holes, which let through the stars.’ This, then, at the very end is the first undistorted representation of the outside world, the first which reveals a ’normal’ perception of reality. The implication of the last three descriptions of, or references to, the setting would seem to be that it is not so much the killing of the goose, the ability to act which restores the narrator’s sense of reality: nor even is it the Cossacks’ invitation to dinner. Only when he performs his own independent role, as an intellectual, and reads to them does he feel that the world looks kindly on him. One could perhaps extend this process even further: the final image of the evening enveloping him still acts as an extension of his inner state: that is, he is not yet fully integrated into himself, not yet fully autonomous. Only at the very end, when he establishes physical contact with the Cossacks can he describe nature as itself and not as part of himself. Be that as it may, it remains clear how important the setting is in this story: firstly as a lyrical commentary, and secondly as a structural element, revealing again the very gradual assimilation of the narrator into the Cossack milieu. It reveals the complexity of the story: the main turning point at first seems to be quite obviously and dramatically the moment when the narrator kills the goose, and thereby acts like the Cossacks. The narrative structure, however, indicates that a more important point is his decision to act (when he discards the paper). But now the setting reveals two further moments of peripeteia: after the narrator has read to the Cossacks (thereby acting as an intellectual), and when he sleeps with them (sexual fulfilment?). A final statement of theme (or themes) can really only be made when all levels of analysis are completed.
Symbolism in modern literature is rather more problematic than in, say, medieval literature when often one knows the function of Christian (or pagan) imagery. As Wellek and Warren point out it is often possible to work out a symbolic system for certain modern writers, and this undoubtedly exists for Babel, if one examines the cycle of stories as a whole. In the context of the present story, however, what is most striking is the use, admittedly the non–explicit use, of traditional symbolism. This level of analysis is rather more susceptible to subjective intuitions than others, but there seems to be sufficient evidence, both internal and by wider reference, to suggest that Babel means us to see certain actions or things in symbolic terms. Such an analysis illuminates, in fact, events which otherwise would remain obscure or inconsequential.
Reference has already been made in the discussion of the setting to overtones of Christian symbolism. Many of the events seem to reinforce this element, in particular the ritualisation of the process of rejection and acceptance. When the narrator first meets the Cossacks they are shaving one another—an irrelevant detail of ’local colour’ perhaps. However, it is important to realise that this is, firstly a communal activity, which establishes their identity as a social group from which the narrator is excluded, and secondly that it can be seen as a ritual event. This implicit suggestion is immediately reinforced by the narrator’s reaction to them—he gives a correct salute, which in the circumstances is somewhat ludicrous (certainly the Cossacks hardly appreciate it); but in itself, it can be interpreted as a ritualised response. Later, when he is accepted by them the ritual aspect is even more apparent: they share a meal together (a very common cultural ritual of acceptance and community, as in the Catholic Mass). This time Babel not only makes the ritual aspect more explicit, but reinforces the specifically religious connotations, already implied in the imagery. He describes the Cossacks: ’They sat motionless, erect as high–priest.’ They are the high–priests of his initiation into the world of violence and experience. The implication is clear: although the killing itself is not ritualised, the overall pattern is. The narator has to undergo certain initiation rites, fulfil certain rituals in order to join their exclusive world. And when he is finally integrated, at the end of the story, Babel is again very careful to describe the event in terms of a communal activity—they all sleep together. Once more one must look at the precise formulation: ’We slept there, the six of us, warming ourselves from each other, with out legs intermingled.’ They do not simply sleep in the same room, they all share the activity. Analysing the action in terms of the symbolism adds an important element to the understanding of the action. For the narrator the experience is profound enough to be perceived of as an intensely religious sensation. Furthermore in such an analysis, we are able to appreciate, firstly the power of the experience, and, in aesthetic terms, the remarkable integration of all the various elements on Babel’s part to create a unity of effect. As one proceeds with the analysis one is increasingly aware of how one level deepens another, how everything is interconnected to quite an extraordinary extent.
In the discussion of setting one of the main factors that was stressed was the role it played in revealing the narrator’s inner life: that is, everything was seen from his point of view. As is generally recognised, point of view is an essential element in understanding how we perceive and interpret any piece of fiction. Carden emphasises Babel’s search, from his earliest stories, to find the right ’voice’ for each story. It is precisely the point of view that provides the unity of the individual stories, and of the Red Cavalry cycle as a whole. As she says: ’The voice becomes the story. We attend to its tone more than to what it is saying. It is the cement that holds the fragments together, that gives a surface to the story’. It is perhaps generally true that with a ’first–person narrator’ type of story point of view must be regarded as a key factor in understanding the story. How far is he objective, how clearly does he see things, what does the way he describes other characters and events tell us about him? As we have already seen, the way he describes the setting tells us at least as much about the narrator as it does about the object described, if not rather more. That is, the narrator reveals his point of view precisely by his manner of description indirectly rather than by explicit statements. The same is true of character description: the representation of Savitsky, for example, tells us more about the narrator than about the proud Cossack. Because everything is so coloured by the narrator’s subjective experience, we apprehend the power of events all the more intensely, because we feel a clearly identified human psyche undergoing, suffering these emotions. There is something of a paradox here: as already indicated the story is curiously oblique and impersonal in its mode of narration and we are really never told explicitly what it feels like to be in this situation. But this is surely proof of the power of Babel’s concise art. He never needs to be explicit because, if we read his words carefully, they tell their own story, and perhaps this gives the story greater power—Babel is acting on our nerves and sensations without our quite realising what he is doing. As Trilling indicates, the sensation on reading Red Cavalry is almost one of shock: partly because of the nature of the subject matter, but also because of the mode of narration. It is intense and ambiguous, and we can only attempt to resolve this ambiquity by examining the stories in great detail. But to return to the present discussion: the stories are so ambiguous because of the handling of point of view, which enables Babel to leave so much unexplained, and yet to imply so much by the way in which his narrator describes events.
Another important point concerning the narrator is his role in the story as a character, which is at least as importnat as his role as narrator: he is both the ’sentient centre’ and the main character. His importance as a character will be more fully discussed in an analysis of the structural relationships between characters. For the moment certain details may be usefully emphasised. He is at first curiously passive, even inert, but then attempts to take his fate into his own hands. He wears glasses, he is gramotnyy, he is interested in politics and is isolated from the milieu in which he finds himself. All these details are commonplaces of Babel criticism, but their precise function in this story has nowhere been fully discussed. For the moment they are merely mentioned, to be returned to later.
There would seem to be three central elements in Babel’s use of characterisation: the way in which it reflects point of view, the methods of description used, and the recurrent motifs. As a general principle one must first state the fairly obvious: virtually the only approach to character found in the stories is physical description. All the characters are approached from the outside and as with all else in the story we have to look most carefully at the precise formulation of description in order to discover what Babel is attempting to do.
The description of Savitsky opens the story (and is strikingly foregrounded). Although he is to play no active part in the story, far more attention is paid to his description than to anyone else’s. We are to take note. In his description his beauty in particular is mentioned and it is a curiously feminine sort of beauty, with his perfume and long shapely legs. The comparison here is of great interest: ’His long legs were like girls, encased up to their shoulders in gleaming boots.’ In any simile or term of comparison the second element obviously implies something about the first; it is not a simple comparison but implies something qualitative or evaluative. Savitsky’s legs are like girls, not like girls’ legs as one might have expected. Again there would seem to be strong sexual overtones in the narrator’s attitude to him. Savitsky’s behaviour is also important as part of his character description. He is aggressive, almost violent, as the verbs used for him clearly imply— udaril, shylopnu, brosil (struck, will crush, threw). He produces a very strong impression on the narrator who, for once, makes an explicit comment on his feelings: he answers Savitsky’s question: ’Envying the iron and flowers of this youthfulness.’ This reaction is typical of the narrator in many of the Red Cavalry stories. The narrator, as an intellectual feels the power and vitality in the Cossacks, responds to it, envies it, and ultimately tries to emulate it. Furthermore, as Maguire has pointed out the violence has an almost sexual hold over the narrator, and in the remark quoted above the sexuality of Savitsky, and specifically this aspect, attracts the narrator.
The young Cossack, although only briefly sketched, also strikes the narrator by his physical beauty: we are told only of his flaxen hair and fine face. All men, or at least all Cossacks, seem to appear physically beautiful to the narrator, and the sexual overtones are clearly reinforced by the obscene behaviour of the Cossack. On the other hand, the old woman, as the first female character is presented in a strikingly different way. For the first time physical ugliness enters the story: she is not described directly, but only en passant when the narrator remarks on her blindness. The shift in approach and emphasis is slight, but in this story we have to notice even the most inconsequential detail, and the change is significant. The old woman is even more emblematic and mask–like than the other characters, and she fulfils a purely symbolic role in the story. It is rather difficult to be precise as to what she symbolises, but we can point to one or two significant details. She appears immediately before the killing, and then vanishes; she is central to the narrator’s fate, almost as if she were a supernatural being, meeting the hero at the symbolic cross–roads of his life. Moreover she represents some sort of archetypal victim figure—even the weak, passive, inert narrator pushes her around.
In a sense the goose must also be seen as a dramatis persona. Certainly it is presented in a manner strikingly similar to the terms used for the more human characters; that is, through purely physical description. Precise details are again important: the goose is strogiy (severe); it has a white neck. Both details seem to echo back, to link up with the previous remarks. Its ’severity’ in some ways recalls the majestic, stern Savitsky, while the belaya sheya (’white neck’) seems an obvious reference to the advice given to the narrator on how to succeed among the Cossacks: ’And if you despoil a lady, a most pure lady. . .’ (p. 54). The goose is his purest of ladies, and in these terms too the killing takes on obvious sexual implications.
But what exactly do all these links and hints at cross–reference tell us? The overall themes of the story now seem obvious and generally accord with the accepted critical opinion of the conflicts involved in the Red Cavalry stories as a whole. However things are rather more complicated in Babel than is generally recognised, even if most critics do indicate an awareness of his ambiguity.
Ultimately it is perhaps impossible to know all the levels of meaning together, to discover the ’final truth’ about this exceeding complex story, but an examination of the structural use of characters, an unravelling of the various links in the chain should enable us to see more clearly what “My First Goose” is all about.
There exists many ways of forging thematic links between characters in fiction, the most common being kinship, or identity of life situation. In this story all the Cossacks can be seen as one group because of their ethnic identity, but as always we have to look below the immediate surface to see what inferences Babel is making about structural or thematic links between characters. Some of these are obvious but other less so. The important aspects of these links are that the narrator is faced with a series of choices, between opposite ideals or modes of being, although it is not quite as simple as the Jew/Cossacks confrontation. All the important characters can be divided into ’static’ and ’dynamic’ characters. Savitsky is the most obvious static character, but another is Lenin, to whom five references are made in the story: in a subtle way the two seem to be connected, by their very ’stasis’ by standing outside the action. The narrator, the young Cossack, the old woman, the goose are the principal ’dynamic’ characters. What structural links, then, are made between and among these various groups, and what are the implications of these links?
Savitsky as we have seen, is linked with the goose: he is described in terms of straight–lines (he cuts the room like a standard), he is stern—the goose is ’severe’. The narrator, then, in killing the goose is implicitly ’killing’ Savitsky. The narrator and the old woman are quite clearly linked: they both wear glasses, they are both pushed around, the narrator is rejecting what he sees of himself in her, he is deciding that he will not be an eternal victim. The narrator and the goose are also linked. Savitsky describes him as parshiven’kiy (’mangy’), an attribute usually applied to animals; when the Cossacks throw his case out, he crawls on the ground like an animal. Most directly they are linked by the use of lexical repetition. As already mentioned, when the narrator kills the goose, its neck ’cracked and bled’: later when the narrator sleeps and dreams, his heart, bloodied by the ’murder’ (as he terms it himself) ’creaked and bled.’ In killing the goose, then, he is also by virtue of these structural links killing part of himself. That is, he breaks his own ’white neck’, his virginal innocence. If he is to join the Cossacks he must reject his past, his ’softness’ and this he attempts to do. Savitsky and Lenin, as we have seen, are linked structurally by being the two main static characters: a further structural link would seem to be made in the curious ambiguous remark the narrator makes about himself while reading Lenin’s speech: ‘I read, and rejoiced, and caught, as I rejoiced, the mysterious curve of Lenin’s straight line’. It is perhaps difficult to elucidate fully this highly elliptical remark, but for present purposes it is important to note the reference to Lenin’s ’straight line’—a covert allusion, or linking to Savitsky’s ’straight lines’? However, Savitsky has no mysterious curve, and just what this means we can see in a moment. Let us first sum up what now appear to be the implications of the killing, implications made specifically by these structural links. The narrator kills the goose, and thereby he kills a symbol of purity (the white neck), because this has no place in this world; he rejects the elements in himself which had linked him to the old woman, because he is not going to be an eternal victim; he becomes like Savitsky, acting with aggression and brutality (the sabre perhaps echoing Savitsky’s ’iron’). That is, he reluctantly accepts the need for the iron hand, the ’straight line’, rather than the glasses of the old woman. However, because of the structural links made in the story, the theme implies more than initiation, attainment of psychological maturity. Here the link between Savitsky and Lenin is important: the narrator becomes a ’straight–line’ man, like Savistky and Lenin, but like Lenin, and unlike Savitsky, the narrator too, has a ’mysterious curve’, by the very fact of being an intellectual. Clearly, even after he has acted, he remains an intellectual, by reading politics to the Cossacks; in a sense he does not finally reject his intellectual ’softness’ but tries to integrate the two values of action and reflection. This, then, would seem to be the meaning of the ’mysterious curve’ which Lenin too retained, despite his ability to act. In this story, at least, the ’irremediable rift’ between the two worlds, which Terras describes is bridged, in the symbol of Lenin.
And so the killing of the goose, at first an ambiguous and startling action, can be interpreted on four major levels. In psychological terms it acts as a kind of sexual initiation, the narrator loses his virginity. In religious terms, he is initiated into the secret rites and mysteries of life. In human terms, the outsider joins the group, and finally, and perhaps most significantly, the story has an essentially political ’message’. The intellectual joins the people, he takes power into his own hands, he throws off his oppression, without descending into sheer brutalism, without losing the power to reflect and interpret events and his own actions. Ultimately, perhaps, the narrator tries to emulate Lenin, at least by implication, rather than Savitsky, as it first appears. Yet in the final analysis the ambiguity remains. The conclusion is optimistic in that the narrator acts and overcomes his alienation, but the underlying sadness remains. We remember the goose’s white neck lying crushed in the dung (indeed Babel reminds us of it with the final word of the story) ’teklo’ (bled), referring back to ’potekla’. The last lines to indeed act as a ‘Iyric recapitulation’: the narrator is happy, yet guilty.
Source: Joe Andrew “Babel’s ’My First Goose’” in The Structural Analysis of Russian Narrative Fiction, edited by Joe Andrew, Keele University Press, 1984, pp. 64–81.
Ehre, Milton, A discussion of Red Cavalry, Isaac Babel, Twayne ’s World Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.
Gorky, Maxim, Letter dated 1928 to Semyon Budyonny, translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew, Isaac Babel: The Lonely Years, 1925–1939, edited by Nathalie Babel, translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew and Max Hayward, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964, pp. 387–89.
Hallett, Richard, Isaac Babel, quoting “Childhood: At Grandmother’s,” an early Babel sketch, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1973, p. 15.
Howe, Irving, “The Right to Write Badly,” in The New Republic, Vol. 133, No. 1, July 4, 1955, pp. 16–18.
McDuff, David, A brief overview of the major themes expressed in Red Cavalry, in Reference Guide to Short Fiction, 2nd ed., Edited by Lesley Henderson, St. James Press, 1995.
Yeats, William Butler, “Leda and the Swan,” in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 3rd ed., Edited by Alexander W. Allison et al., W. W. Norton and Company, 1983, p. 523.
A much–awaited translation of Babel’s diary, which contains many sketches that helped form the content of Red Cavalry. The diary contains the kind of surprising and contradictory details that are often seen in Babel’s fiction.
Carden, Patricia, The Art of Isaac Babel, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1972.
A well–regarded critical study of Babel’s fiction, offering a substantial look at the historical, cultural, and personal influences on his work, as well as acute literary analysis of the writing.
Hallett, Richard, Isaac Babel, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1973.
A thorough, brief introduction to the life and work of Babel, which serves to sort through many conflicting stories about his life and the history of his time.
Pirozhkova, A. N., At His Side: The Last Years of Isaac Babel, Grace Paley, foreword. New York: Steerforth Press, 1996.
A memoir by Babel’s second partner, one of the first woman engineers in Russia who helped build the Moscow subway. Like Babel, Pirozhkova remains vague about certain details from his life. Yet this well–written, lyrical memoir does shed light on the socialist perspective and personality of the time during which Babel wrote. While it is not full of definitive biographical or historical information, it offers an emotional portrait of an elusive man.
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My First Goose