The world is all “in an uproar,” says Gogol. And yet here is peace and quiet: the house of the owners of a small village in the Ukraine, with its bright garden full of trees and hanging fruits, and the pleasant smells of cooking and delicious things to eat.
Even the barking of the dogs is peaceful, so lazy are they, basking in the large garden. Even the squeaking of the old doors of the house is pleasant, each one singing its own song as it opens and closes on its ancient hinges.
The peace here is so deep, how could anything disturb it?
Gogol teases us with different tragic ends the tale might take. What if the house burned down? the old man says. But he is just teasing his wife, who is horrified at the thought, and of course the house does not burn down.
Why shouldn’t I go to war again? says the old man. And his wife scolds him for saying such a thing: he would surely be killed immediately, an old man on the battlefield. And his ancient guns would surely burst before they would fire a shot.
But of course he is just teasing his wife again, and the old man will not meet his end in battle.
And then one day tragedy strikes. The old woman has a premonition that she will die, and soon she is buried. The old man cannot understand it. He lifts his eyes and looks about and asks Why? Why have you buried her?
And there is so little to tell after that. The old man weeps, and the narrator sees that these are no longer tears of passion, but signs of “a heart already growing cold.” And when the old man believes he hears his wife’s voice in the garden calling him to the grave, he almost immediately succumbs, and is soon buried in turn.
The What Ifs in any story are interesting: what if the house had burned down? Would the couple have found a new lease of life elsewhere? And what if the old man had gone to war? Would he have perished, and his wife been the one to die of grief? In these What Ifs are the seeds of new stories, new possible worlds that the writer might have created. But more interesting for me, in this story, is the certainty that the wife feels, at that crucial point in the story Gogol has chosen to tell, that she will die. The writer is able to make us feel that we are witnessing something inevitable, an action carried out by Fate upon a helpless mortal. How does he create this effect?
It is an incident with her cat that speaks as a sign to the old woman. The cat goes missing, running away to live with the wild cats in the wood nearby. And then days later the cat returns half starved. The old woman feeds it, but when she reaches down to touch the cat it runs off: it has become an entirely wild creature now. It is this that she takes as a sign that death has come for her.
I don’t understand why the cat is a sign of death in this story. Perhaps a Ukrainian or Russian reader of the time would have understood. What is important for me is the certainty with which she reads the sign: it speaks to her directly. And the seemingly arbitrary form that the sign takes heightens this effect for me: the message appears as something just for her, something unique. We have no option but to believe that the woman has read something of Fate in the incident. I imagine how much weaker the effect would have been if something that was to me more recognisably unlucky had happened, like a black cat crossing her path, or a mirror breaking. Her belief, in its dreary familiarity, might have seemed superstitious and ill-conceived. Comical even. As it was, she could only have read this highly original sign of the disappearing cat through some definite and highly personal means, written as it was just for her.
It’s this application of the unique and concrete that gives the story its power. The cat must be a sign: so the old woman tells us. I have nothing to compare it to, this unique event, and so it speaks for itself of the mysteries of the universe. And so the power of mystery is given concrete form in Gogol’s expert attention to detail.
(I’ve been reading “Old-Fashioned Farmers” in The Overcoat and Other Short Stories by Nikolai Gogol. The translation was published by Dover Thrift Editions.)