Leveling the Field: Observations of Bezhin Meadow


Nature is an incredible force in Turgenev's story, "Bezhin Meadow." The narrator is under the impression—at least in the very beginning—that nature is completely tamed, that nature is here for his benefit, and that he can prance about comfortably in nature, without a care, hunting alone with only a dog and a gun for any means of protection—as if the necessity of 'protection' from either the elements, or beasts, or even bandits were even an issue worthy of consideration. Nature plays such an important role, that by the end of the story the reader realizes that nature itself is the actual protagonist—vice the narrator—and all other characters are merely pawns in some grand plot or scheme on the part of this force.
Ivan Turgenev spares no effort in his descriptive technique of nature, which will impose itself at will, as our traveler is forced to interact with this force and its 'agenda.' From the very first line of the story, the author provides a detailed description of our narrator's surroundings:

"It was a glorious July day, one of those days which only come after many days of fine weather. From earliest morning the sky is clear; the sunrise does not glow with fire; it is suffused with a soft roseate flush. The sun, not fiery, not red-hot as in time of stifling drought, not dull purple as before a storm, but with a bright and genial radiance, rises peacefully behind a long and narrow cloud, shines out freshly, and plunges again into its lilac mist" [p. 134].

This sets the stage for nature's role as a unifier and as a leveler (breaking down social, "unnatural" barriers). One must note the repetition, which is a common utility in this tale, as Turgenev relays every aspect of what is—and even what is not ["not dull purple as before a storm," etc.]—present, in what we assume from the beginning of the story to be the "narrator's day." The author even ascribes this level of detail upon the young peasant boys whom our narrator will befriend: "his whole face was small, thin, freckled, pointed at the chin like a squirrel's; his lips were barely perceptible; but his great black eyes, that shone with liquid brilliance, produced a strange impression..." [p. 140].
Again one note's the repetition, and prolific use of metaphor, simile and adjective. Clearly, some direct relationship, supernatural or realistic, exists between these characters and nature, and by the end of our reading we realize that the narrator has recognized this correlation, making the connection prior to reflecting on this tale. The narrator does not speak in such a manner that suggests he requires a reading or listening audience, and his voice is informal and personal. Much of his language suggests that this tale may in fact never have been written down on paper—or if it was, then perhaps it was written as a private reflection in the form of a personal log or diary.
The narrator tells us about his day out "grouse hunting," which should have been like any other normal, relaxing day out in the fields. But as the narrator attempts to return home that evening, the force of nature unveils itself (as if with a conscious effort), and overwhelms him with unfamiliar territory and forms—we are abruptly informed that this is truly "nature's day." These actions of nature appear capricious, as if man were in fact the one being tamed (contrary to the narrator's original assumptions):

"I did at last reach the end of the wood, but there was no road of any sort there; some kind of low bushes overgrown with long grass extended far and wide before me; behind them in the far, far distance could be discerned a tract of wasteland. I stopped again. "Well? Where am I?" I began ransacking my brain to recall how and where I had been walking during the day" [p. 136].

Nature, as depicted by Turgenev, therefore, attains the tremendously powerful role of "leveling the field." Nature is actively involved in this tale, and though the narrator might as a human (who is supposedly of the "highest order of creation") take responsibility for getting himself lost in the first place, we as the readers become aware of the subtle manipulation taking place:
"A strange sensation came over me at once. This hollow had the form of an almost perfect cauldron, with sloping sides; at the bottom of it were some great white stones standing upright—it seemed as though they had crept there for some secret council—and it was so still and dark in it, so flat and mute, so dreary and weird seemed the sky, overhanging it, that my heart sank" [p. 137].

Nature as such is actively involved in the situation at the expense of the narrator, who is reduced to a position of indebtedness to his new-found friends, the young peasant boys. They offer him a fire, food, a safe place to camp, and even a form of companionship—if just in the ambient sense of allowing him to listen in on their "ghost stories."
Our introduction to the peasant boys is almost with the reverence and respect of a formal foreign relations meeting. There are certain social rules which need to be followed in order to maintain the sense of status, although the narrator is clearly in their territory. One might question whether this would also be the case for any stranger—but I doubt that they would have treated a peasant stranger in a like manner. The boys cease their story-telling, providing a formal "quietness" in the midst of someone of a higher status. The narrator reciprocates, and in order to allow them to continue their entertainment, he leaves the circle and pretends to fall asleep, all-the-while noting their individual descriptions and interactions.
Over the next few hours, the narrator develops a specific and intimate, long-lasting bond with each of these peasant boys (we know this is long-lasting because the tale is being recalled from a diary of sorts), to the point where, other than the reference [p. 138] at their first meeting, they will not be remembered merely as "peasants." Considering our narrator has made the effort to keep such a detailed recollection, it could be argued that at times during this event, he might even have believed himself to be an equal with these boys, regardless of their status or age—and specifically as a result of nature's intervention, which was felt by all in and around that circle of firelight:

"The dark unclouded sky stood, inconceivably immense, triumphant, above us in all its mysterious majesty. One felt a sweet oppression at one's heart, breathing in that peculiar, overpowering, yet fresh fragrance—the fragrance of a summer night in Russia" [p. 139].

This set-up between the characters was no accident on the part of nature, for even the narrator recognized nature as "triumphant." And one can not overlook that our narrator not only became, within this context, an equal, but specifically a fellow Russian with the boys—these characters all had a sense of commonality as Russians, under the same, dark, uniquely "Russian sky." Under different circumstances, say in a city or a crowded environment in which the narrator would be more comfortable, he would have hardly noticed the peasant boys, let alone reach a connection with them.
Turgenev introduces the peasant boys in two ways. First, the narrator describes each of them, in exquisite detail (as related above). But it is important to note that he describes all of them in a single paragraph, not separately as one would normally expect. This, I believe, gives the reader the sense that the boys are being depicted much like the scenery was—again supporting the notion that the boys are not independent of nature itself. Such a device is another form of repetition for Turgenev.
It would not be respectful, however, for our narrator to leave us with a simple description, for each of these boys also deserves recognition as individuals—for they can not be assumed in any sense to be his equal if they do not first share with him the very basic quality of individuality. So, upon the foundation of their initial meeting, and of their brief physical descriptions, and against the premise that nature is containing them all in a dark atmosphere of mystery, Turgenev provides the narrator "ghost stories", which he heard that 'frightful' night, and which he can now repeat and remember them by.
Thus, we have the second utility presented for the boys' description, as Turgenev now relates their way of telling stories, as well as their reactions to these stories. Further, it becomes apparent to our narrator, and to us the reader, that distinction between fact and fiction on this cloudless night is not as important as the effect of the ghostly tales. We note that the boys react not just to sounds in the night, but also to references of the locations of certain "natural" phenomena in their midst as well—the river specifically is provided a foreboding essence via the recollection of a drowning, giving it a near life-like and evil quality; the river becomes an abominable force. Just the mention of an otherwise common entity, the river, on that particular night was scarier for the boys than the "ghost stories" themselves:

""There's one thing, though: the river's near."
All were silent. Suddenly from out of the distance came a prolonged, resonant, almost wailing sound, one of those inexplicable sounds of the night, which break upon a profound stillness, rise upon the air, linger, and slowly die away at last. You listen: it is as though there were nothing, yet it echoes still...The boys looked roundabout shivering..." [p. 143].

It is from that very paragraph that we finally get the full understanding that nature's scheme, to "level the playing field" as such, is in progress—that the narrator is not only imprisoned by nature and sharing a commonness with the peasant boys, he is in fact completely drawn into their way of thinking. Were he on his own, or perhaps hunting with fellow mates of his own status, he might have readily dismissed the above "sounds of the night" without so much as a thought. And yet, it is not the boys, but the narrator himself who says, "You listen..." [p.143]. In fact, this is the narrator telling himself to listen, and listen he does: "it is as though someone had uttered a long, long cry upon the very horizon..." [p. 143].
This thoroughly established connection with the peasant boys was most definitely formative, and became a permanent fixture—an imprinting event—upon the narrator's intellect and personality, for he has gone through a definitive change in character. Thus, the entire story itself becomes more than a mere recollection, if not a milestone in his life.
But Turgenev does not stop there. He utilizes repetition once again, via the telling of more "ghost stories" to reinforce and fully set this established connection for our narrator. Also, the theme of "fear of drowning" is not only introduced in these dark tales, but is itself repeated in many forms: "Trishka's" ability to vanish in a bowl of water; the water-pit within the walnut wood; the grave of the drowned man near the dam; Ilyusha's cry to Pavlusha to "take care you don't fall into the river"; "Akulina," who supposedly threw herself into the river; and the specific reference to the boy Vasya, "who was drowned." These references all play an integral part not only in the continuity of the piece, but also as a specific footnote [drowning] for our narrator at the end of Turgenev's story.
In a sense, within the scope of this tale—the narrator's recollection—he has paid off his "debts" to the boys for his positive change in character. He has collected memories of the boys and their respective values, their respective "intra-caste" levels of status (within the boundaries of peasantry), their intimate fears reflected through story-telling—and he has made a determined effort to understand them through their eyes and their value system. The narrator will remember these particular boys not just as "peasant-acquaintances from a hunting trip," but indeed as "near-comrades from a formative event in his life"—his trip to Bezhin Meadow that fateful day.
Further, our narrator has kept track of their progress after this event, for he knows when his favorite boy, Pavlusha, dies—and under which circumstances. In fact, the narrator even relates this instance back on the moments described during his stay with the boys, back to the very "ghost stories" they depicted, and back to that particularly important theme (drowning), for he says: "he [Pavlusha] was not drowned." This specific reference, though brief, captures the entire mood of his duration with them at the meadow, and as such becomes a fitting end to the story.
But the narrator also had a debt to nature—a force he once took for granted. He has paid back this debt, not by merely saying "I got lost in the woods one day," but in fact by keeping a mental record of this viable "character" of nature with incredible detail, which is why we as readers come to understand the meaning behind that level of respect, every aspect of which is depicted from the very first line of the story thru to the end: "On all sides thick drops of dew sparkled in glittering diamonds; to welcome me [my emphasis], pure and clear as though bathed in the freshness of morning, came the notes of a bell..." [p. 153]. Indeed, nature completed its agenda—one which no man, no matter his status, could escape from—to capture our narrator and instill within him certain values he otherwise may never have developed. Having done, nature then sets him free.
What a masterful tale by Turgenev, as he utilized repetition and detail to weave in numerous themes of status, values, relating, understanding and change. Further, "drowning" is used to reference Pavlusha, and set in stone the narrator's fixed connection to all the boys through their tales against the formidable backdrop of the scary night. And all references point back to the first "character" to whom we are introduced: nature. As such, nature, the grand manipulator, is the true protagonist of this story—and in the end, "triumphant" indeed.

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Published on Wednesday, July 2, 2008.     Filed under: "Essay"
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