In the first blog on The Cossacks I delineated the central character Olenin, an overly sophisticated, disillusioned, even cynical young man who decides to leave his Moscow life for a military stint in the wilds of the Caucasus. On the second blog I delineated his contracting character, Lukashka, a young Cossack man who is heroic and at one with the nature of his upbringing. Both these characters fall in love with the beautiful Cossack girl, Maryanka, and so the novel forms a triangle. Lukashka and Maryanka are betrothed by their parents in a traditional arrangement, but besides the arrangement there is a true, youthful attraction, and they are presented as a natural and likely couple. Olenin is the outsider, the rich man from Moscow, from the big and sophisticated city. He has denied that love is possible or even real, but once in contact with the natural elements and natural people, his outlook is challenged and he starts to change. He becomes drawn to Maryanka, at whose parent’s home he is a lodger. Here is a passage when Olenin first meets Maryanka.
Olenin ran up the steps of the porch and pushed open the door of the hut. Maryanka, wearing nothing but a pink smock, as all Cossack women do in the house, jumped away from the door, frightened, and pressing herself against the wall covered the lower part other face with the broad sleeve of her Tartar smock. Having opened the door wider, Olenin in the semi-darkness of the passage saw the whole tall, shapely figure of the young Cossack girl. With the quick and eager curiosity of youth he involuntarily noticed the firm maidenly form revealed by the fine print smock, and the beautiful black eyes fixed on him with childlike terror and wild curiosity. 'This is SHE,' thought Olenin. 'But there will be many others like her' came at once into his head, and he opened the inner door. [chpt 10]
Love at first sight, love from contact through the eyes is a motif in several of Tolstoy’s works. (It happens with Lukashka and Maryanka later on as well.) There is a magic when Tolstoy brings two people’s eyes in contact as they fall in love. Such a moment happens here to Olenin: “'This is SHE,' thought Olenin.” But notice how in the very next thought that moment of love becomes warped: “'But there will be many others like her' came at once into his head.” He has choked off the feeling of love with the thought of sexual objectification. It isn’t the “she” he embraces, but the sexual object. Let’s compare Lukashka’s interaction with Maryanka. A group of girls including Maryanka are talking about the lodger at Maryank’s house when Lukashka walks over and listens. Finally Lukashka feels a pang of jealousy.
Lukashka rose and raised his cap.
'I expect I had better go home too, that will be best,' he said, trying to appear unconcerned but hardly able to repress a smile, and he disappeared behind the corner of the house.
Meanwhile night had entirely enveloped the village. Bright stars were scattered over the dark sky. The streets became dark and empty. Nazarka remained with the women on the earth-bank and their laughter was still heard, but Lukashka, having slowly moved away from the girls, crouched down like a cat and then suddenly started running lightly, holding his dagger to steady it: not homeward, however, but towards the cornet's house. Having passed two streets he turned into a lane and lifting the skirt of his coat sat down on the ground in the shadow of a fence. 'A regular cornet's daughter!' he thought about Maryanka. 'Won't even have a lark--the devil! But just wait a bit.'
The approaching footsteps of a woman attracted his attention. He began listening, and laughed all by himself. Maryanka with bowed head, striking the pales of the fences with a switch, was walking with rapid regular strides straight towards him. Lukashka rose. Maryanka started and stopped.
'What an accursed devil! You frightened me! So you have not gone home?' she said, and laughed aloud.
Lukashka put one arm round her and with the other hand raised her face. 'What I wanted to tell you, by Heaven!' his voice trembled and broke.
'What are you talking of, at night time!' answered Maryanka. 'Mother is waiting for me, and you'd better go to your sweetheart.'
And freeing herself from his arms she ran away a few steps. When she had reached the wattle fence of her home she stopped and turned to the Cossack who was running beside her and still trying to persuade her to stay a while with him.
'Well, what do you want to say, midnight-gadabout?' and she again began laughing.
'Don't laugh at me, Maryanka! By the Heaven! Well, what if I have a sweetheart? May the devil take her! Only say the word and now I'll love you--I'll do anything you wish. Here they are!' and he jingled the money in his pocket. 'Now we can live splendidly. Others have pleasures, and I? I get no pleasure from you, Maryanka dear!'
The girl did not answer. She stood before him breaking her switch into little bits with a rapid movement other fingers.
Lukashka suddenly clenched his teeth and fists.
'And why keep waiting and waiting? Don't I love you, darling? You can do what you like with me,' said he suddenly, frowning angrily and seizing both her hands.
The calm expression of Maryanka's face and voice did not change.
'Don't bluster, Lukashka, but listen to me,' she answered, not pulling away her hands but holding the Cossack at arm's length. 'It's true I am a girl, but you listen to me! It does not depend on me, but if you love me I'll tell you this. Let go my hands, I'll tell you without.--I'll marry you, but you'll never get any nonsense from me,' said Maryanka without turning her face.
'What, you'll marry me? Marriage does not depend on us. Love me yourself, Maryanka dear,' said Lukashka, from sullen and furious becoming again gentle, submissive, and tender, and smiling as he looked closely into her eyes.
Maryanka clung to him and kissed him firmly on the lips.
'Brother dear!' she whispered, pressing him convulsively to her. Then, suddenly tearing herself away, she ran into the gate of her house without looking round. [Chpt 13]
Their courting is youthful, natural, even impulsive. Lukashka’s jealousy sets up the love triangle, the conflict, and the narrative tension. Olenin, on the other hand, courts Maryanka at Beletski’s party. Prince Beletski is an acquaintance of Olenin’s from Moscow society who is a rising officer in the army and has arrived during the summer to participate with Olenin’s troop. While in the Caucuses he arranges evening parties, a sort of meat market gathering where Beletski lures women and then brags about his conquests. He has brought the Moscow sophistication to the country, and when he hears about Olenin’s attraction to Maryanka, he brings them together at his party. Here Olenin notices Maryanka at the party.
Olenin noticed Maryanka among the group of girls, who without exception were all handsome, and he felt vexed and hurt that he met her in such vulgar and awkward circumstances. He felt stupid and awkward, and made up his mind to do what Beletski did. Beletski stepped to the table somewhat solemnly yet with confidence and ease, drank a glass of wine to Ustenka's health, and invited the others to do the same. Ustenka announced that girls don't drink. 'We might with a little honey,' exclaimed a voice from among the group of girls. The orderly, who had just returned with the honey and spice-cakes, was called in. He looked askance (whether with envy or with contempt) at the gentlemen, who in his opinion were on the spree; and carefully and conscientiously handed over to them a piece of honeycomb and the cakes wrapped up in a piece of greyish paper, and began explaining circumstantially all about the price and the change, but Beletski sent him away. Having mixed honey with wine in the glasses, and having lavishly scattered the three pounds of spice-cakes on the table, Beletski dragged the girls from their comers by force, made them sit down at the table, and began distributing the cakes among them. Olenin involuntarily noticed how Maryanka's sunburnt but small hand closed on two round peppermint nuts and one brown one, and that she did not know what to do with them. The conversation was halting and constrained, in spite of Ustenka's and Beletski's free and easy manner and their wish to enliven the company. Olenin faltered, and tried to think of something to say, feeling that he was exciting curiosity and perhaps provoking ridicule and infecting the others with his shyness. He blushed, and it seemed to him that Maryanka in particular was feeling uncomfortable. 'Most likely they are expecting us to give them some money,' thought he. 'How are we to do it? And how can we manage quickest to give it and get away?' [Chpt 24]
It ‘s in that setting that Maryanka, now become mesmerized with the social scene, and begins to feel tempted to Olenin’s entreats. It comes to a head one day when Olenin is drunk.
Olenin drank with Eroshka, with the other Cossack, and again with Eroshka, and the more he drank the heavier was his heart. But the two old men grew merry. The girls climbed onto the oven, where they sat whispering and looking at the men, who drank till it was late. Olenin did not talk, but drank more than the others. The Cossacks were shouting. The old woman would not let them have any more chikhir, and at last turned them out. The girls laughed at Daddy Eroshka, and it was past ten when they all went out into the porch. The old men invited themselves to finish their merry-making at Olenin's. Ustenka ran off home and Eroshka led the old Cossack to Vanyusha. The old woman went out to tidy up the shed. Maryanka remained alone in the hut. Olenin felt fresh and joyous, as if he had only just woke up. He noticed everything, and having let the old men pass ahead he turned back to the hut where Maryanka was preparing for bed. He went up to her and wished to say something, but his voice broke. She moved away from him, sat down cross-legged on her bed in the corner, and looked at him silently with wild and frightened eyes. She was evidently afraid of him. Olenin felt this. He felt sorry and ashamed of himself, and at the same time proud and pleased that he aroused even that feeling in her.
'Maryanka!' he said. 'Will you never take pity on me? I can't tell you how I love you.'
She moved still farther away.
'Just hear how the wine is speaking! ... You'll get nothing from me!'
'No, it is not the wine. Don't marry Lukashka. I will marry you.' ('What am I saying,' he thought as he uttered these words. 'Shall I be able to say the same to-morrow?' 'Yes, I shall, I am sure I shall, and I will repeat them now,' replied an inner voice.)
'Will you marry me?'
She looked at him seriously and her fear seemed to have passed.
'Maryanka, I shall go out of my mind! I am not myself. I will do whatever you command,' and madly tender words came from his lips of their own accord.
'Now then, what are you drivelling about?' she interrupted, suddenly seizing the arm he was stretching towards her. She did not push his arm away but pressed it firmly with her strong hard fingers. 'Do gentlemen marry Cossack girls? Go away!'
'But will you? Everything...'
'And what shall we do with Lukashka?' said she, laughing.
He snatched away the arm she was holding and firmly embraced her young body, but she sprang away like a fawn and ran barefoot into the porch: Olenin came to his senses and was terrified at himself. He again felt himself inexpressibly vile compared to her, yet not repenting for an instant of what he had said he went home, and without even glancing at the old men who were drinking in his room he lay down and fell asleep more soundly than he had done for a long time. [Chpt 34]
And so what Tolstoy has set up through the triangle is a decision point for Maryanka, and then the culmination of the struggle between Olenin and Lukashka. You would expect the resolution of that struggle, perhaps a life and death fight between the antagonists, to be the climax of the novel. However, it isn’t, and it never takes place. Maryanka, in effect, does make a decision, though not a considered choice. Tolstoy projects a culminating conflict but it never happens. An event, which I won’t spoil for the reader here, occurs that changes the trajectory of the narrative.
To be forthright, I can’t claim I understand why Tolstoy ended the novel in this fashion. I can’t say if it holds together. Intuitively it seems off. But I’ve only read this once and I would need at least another reading—especially now that I know how it ends—to see if Tolstoy has found a sparkling and fitting, though original, ending or one that is forced and flawed. Perhaps in the future I will read this novel again. It’s worth a second read. This is definitely an enjoyable novel, especially if you like Tolstoy. In the meantime, anyone that has read the novel, I would appreciate your thoughts, especially on the ending.