Society versus the Individual
Alexei and Mamochka live in a cramped and noisy communal apartment in Moscow. They must share their bathing, toilet, and cooking facilities with all of their neighbors—none of whom seems to like the mother and her son. Mamochka instructs Alexei to make sure he doesn’t touch anything in the bathroom when he goes there upon waking, and she urges him not to make a mess. Their interactions with their neighbors and with society are tentative, as if they are walking on eggshells. Even though they are surrounded by many people in their apartment, Alexei and Mamochka are not close to anyone.
Society has dictated to Alexei that he is an outsider. He does not behave as others do, and he frightens those around him with his odd behavior and occasional angry outbursts. People keep him at arm’s length and often call him such names as “retard.” His work gluing cardboard boxes earns money, but Mamochka handles the transactions; he longs to take coins and bills like the other people he sees and exchange them for ice cream, but that is not to be. Any possible connection to society is thwarted by the fact that he simply can’t comprehend the role of women and why they smell and sound and look different. Whenever he sees a woman—except his mother—he finds the experience “unsettling.”
Because Alexei does not understand the complicated “rules” with which everyone else in the world is familiar, he must wait for his mother to tell him how to behave properly. The world is filled with traps into which Alexei could fall at any moment without his mother’s assistance, making his existence fearful and anxiety ridden.
When Alexei wakes, he must wait for Mamochka to tell him when it’s time to get out of his bed, and when he goes into the bathroom, he must take care not to touch anything or make a mess—otherwise the neighbors will complain. Traveling through the communal kitchen looking for his mother, Alexei feels as if he has stumbled on a gaggle of witches in the woods, cackling over their iron pot of bats’ eyes and toad lips: “Old ladies grumble at the hot stove, they’re stewing poison in pots, they add the roots of terrible plants, follow Alexei Petrovich with bad looks.” With that, Alexei calls out for his mother. Other people frighten Alexei, especially the Sea Girl. She is “the most dangerous creature” because she produces urges and feelings in Alexei that he does not understand.
When Alexei decides to try his luck beyond his mother’s care, the results are frightening and confirm his vision of the world as a dangerous place. He steps outside their apartment to search for Mamochka and is compelled by an open door to steal money sitting on a table. His realization that he is carrying stolen money pushes him out of the building and further into the city night, where he forgets the rules of conventional behavior and is beaten bloody. Only when he is back in his apartment with Mamochka does he feel safe.
Dreams and Perception
Alexei lives his life removed from the world. When he sleeps at night, his dreams transport him to another world filled with mushrooms and dragons. In fact, he even feels that he splits into two people at night, one of whom almost completely disappears while the other grows so large that he bumps up against the night sky and stars.
Even when Alexei is awake, he views events through a fairy-tale looking glass. He compares the typical morning ritual of bathing and eating to navigating a map where each twist and turn exposes a lion, a rhinoceros, or a whale that “spouts a toylike fountain.” Thankfully, though, Mamochka is there as the “experienced pilot” to guide him on his way. The woman who winks at him in the hall is the Sea Girl, and people standing in the street at night are wolves.
After Alexei has been beaten up in the street for taking off his clothes and running after women, he begins to believe that now he understands “the Rules, grasped the laws of connection of millions of snatches and of odd bits and pieces.” In short, he believes that his bloody and painful brush with the real world has provided him with a picture of “the newly acquired truth” and that this will renew him.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Tatyana Tolstaya, Published by Gale Cengage Learning.