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The Concept of Happiness in Ivan Bunin's Works

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In his short stories, Ivan Bunin frequently showcases the inability to attain earthly happiness. This reality is often manifested in his characters’ attempts to return to the past, when the evanescence of joy was still a mystery to the protagonists’ callow consciousness. In his story “Sunstroke,” the repeated contrasts between light and dark succeed in paralleling the protagonist’s psychological struggle. “Kasimir Stanislavovitch” on the other hand, exemplifies a man’s attempt to rediscover happiness by delving into the habits of his youth, as well as his unavoidable destruction by the realization that he lacks the power to manipulate both the unassailable passing of time and happiness’ capricious nature. In the narrative “The First Monday in Lent,” this theme is again reverberated through the juxtaposition of two very different attempts at happiness that are nevertheless connected by their shared failure. And so, the message that happiness can only be transitory is exemplified by the return to joy-filed pasts, either in thought or literal action.

In the short narrative “Sunstroke,” Bunin’s impressionist tendencies, those which lead him to qualify some of his characters with a single occurrence rather than with social or historical contexts, and time references, introduce the universal impossibility of earthly happiness and portray any efforts to believe otherwise as unavailing. The simplicity of the structural framework, which hinges only on three events the characters’ infatuation, their night together, and their separation, as well as the anonymity of the lieutenant and the woman he meets, reflects the generality of this concept (Woodward 182). Information about neither their separate pasts nor their divergent futures is provided, and no details about their physical appearances are present, even their names are excluded; in turn, this depersonalization clearly and trenchantly depicts the ineffable logic that makes happiness ultimately unattainable (184).

The somber symbolism that suffuses the piece pivots around the reverberated juxtapositions between dark and light and the extended metaphor of the “sunstroke.” These transitions parallel the lieutenant’s gradual realizations about the transient and unsubstantial nature of happiness, his attempt to forget them by reliving the previous day, and his eventual triumph over the irrational delusions Bunin condemns. From the onset, when the couple emerges from the “brilliantly lighted dinning hall” and both “darkness and lights” lay ahead of them, the tension between the rational and the irrational is evident. As the narrative progresses, phrases which mention the smell of sunburn, “the dimly lighted pier” in the night, the roads’ “infrequent light posts,” and the protagonists’ ascent through the “lighted doorway,” culminate in the consummation of desire in a “room still hot from the day’s sun” and “decorated with two unused candles.” It is only amid such stiffening darkness that man can allow himself to believe that happiness is an attainable goal, for only when blinded by the assaulting heat can he can delude himself into trusting the permanence of such a feeling. Bunin, by introducing light as a symbol of man’s awareness of the inevitable decline of joy, simultaneously casts darkness as the denial of such truths, a denial that may lead to even great despair.

Though the “sunstroke” itself is, as James Woodward, states, “a force capable of usurping the authority of reason,” its juxtaposition with darkness simultaneously develops the irony that it is this exaggeration of light and heat, which induces the lieutenant’s tragic fall from reason, a state that in all other cases is symbolized by the presence of light. Darkness victorious, the protagonist plunges into a state of dejection, one in which his discovery of the uncontrollable and unavoidable decline of human enjoyment drives him to seek refuge in the past. However, now the sun has evolved into a “wild furnace,” the river seems made of “glinting steel” explicit clues as to the metamorphosis of light into a searing and mocking reminder of his disillusionment. “Everything was drenched in the hot, flaming, joyous, seemingly aimless sunshine” as he wandered vanquished and mused on the opportunity to return to the simple and seemingly rational hours before she left him.

Faced with what to do when plagued by the notion that a day of exquisite and unparallel happiness has gone, fled forever, the lieutenant reiterates a frequent theme in Bunin’s writing: an awakening to reality impulses the protagonist to delve into his memories of ignorant times. In the case of the lieutenant however, light, and accordingly reason, are victorious, for he embarks on a literal and metaphorical journey as a changed man, one who, “having aged by ten years,” has acquired an invaluable insight into the human soul and his own psychological reality. Woodland agrees, “As the lieutenant boards his boat the following night, the symbolic sequence of the opening scenes is reversed. From the darkness of the irrational he passes into the comforting light of reason.” Once more, the alluded contrast between light and dark, reason and irrational denial, is presented this time in the image of the “steamer, ablaze with light,” as it approaches through the darkness thus dramatizing the poignant moment in the evolution of the human consciousness when the futility of enjoyment is internalized and transfigured into wisdom.

The short story “Kasimir Stanislavovitch” includes elements analogous to those of “Sunstroke” the search for happiness, the failure to obtain it but unlike the previous story, the protagonist in unable to rise from the depths of his misery. The detailed descriptions of Kasimir Stanislavovitch’s conduct, his lack of communication and dilapidated appearance, as well as the contrasts drawn between that which presently surrounds him and the life than enveloped him in his youth, establish the impossibility of attaining his goal, for he seeks, above all, to find a link between himself and the days gone by (Dunaev 839). Bunin explicitly exposes Kasimir Stanislavovitch’s plan to revive his spirit by fusing the past with the present, hoping to return some of that long-lost happiness. For instance, he disregards his monetary condition and revisits restaurants, cafes, even brothels, “From the cinema he drove to a restaurant on the boulevard which he has also known in his student days.” And yet, as Woodward affirms, “the pathos of the struggle is consistently less striking that its total futility.” From the onset, examples of the irreconcilable nature of past and present are evident, for the very opening of the narrative introduces Kasimir as one who lives in the succession of memories of his mind, trapped by the desire to relive such moments. He introduces himself at the hotel “Versailles” with an identification card from his youth, one with a “nobleman’s coronet.” When contrasted with the detailed descriptions of his physical appearance, which qualify him as wearing a worn overcoat, “cheap boots…a very old black top hat,” and having the hands of “an habitual drunkard, and an old inhabitant of basements,” the present value of the identification card is disproved. The diction is controlled, meticulously expressive, and hints at Kasimir Stanislavovitch’s impending failure. In the “grey and dim” compartment of his train, he is filled with a “sensation of comfort and luxury,” and once in Moscow, on the morning of his daughter’s wedding he rejoices as though “once more there was somewhere in the world joy, youth, happiness.” Clearly enough, “he was overwhelmed by the idea that he was in Moscow,” but it is the underlying and imminent threat of the inescapable failure which looms before the delusional old man, that introduces a sense of irony to the narrative. Moscow is filled with signs of spring, and yet as the new season is approaching, the protagonist embarks on a parallel journey of discovery and rebirth, a quest that undeniably and ironically drives him to despair (Woodward 21).

Kasimir Stanislavovitch arrives in Moscow a poor drunkard, but leaves shattered by the reality that his attempts to reconcile his present state with a past in which he was young, wealthy, vibrant, are a colossal failure; his efforts to produce an amalgam from two very different moments in time, to reconstruct past happiness, leave him cold and aware of his foolishness for believing such a conglomeration was possible. Woodward supports this assertion in his analysis of Bunin’s treatment of the nature of man, “Reducing the concept of individuality to a complex of irrational drives and instincts, he methodically strips from his characters the outer layers of culture, nationality, and professional expertise and reveals the savage lurking behind the facade, ever ready to burst our and transport the personality to the heights of bliss of the depths of despair…Their self deceptions are starkly exposed.” The shift in the protagonist’s diction exemplifies this transition, for the elegance and politeness of his manner when he addresses the cab driver, “I have known that hotel, my good fellow, since my student days” provides a suggestive contrast with his later begging, “For God’s sake…I am in a desperate position.” Bunin has thus successfully shown a man buckling under the weight of reality.

The central theme of inescapable failure and the flight into the past that it generates is also present in one of Bunin’s most well known short stories, “The First Monday in Lent”; in this instance the delivery is two-pronged. This dualism generates an equally important connection between the futility of happiness and those features of reality that seem irreconcilable spirituality, history, and failure (Dunaev 837). The male protagonist, nameless, trusts that he is in one of the most exciting moments of his existence and obdurately denies the possibility that happiness will not prevail, admitting that, “Something held me back the whole time in a unbroken tension, in a painful state of foreboding and none the less I experienced indescribable joy for every hour I spent with her.” And yet, amid the humdrum comings and goings, the habitual outings of Moscow’s upper class, his hope is subdued; however, even as he seeks, years later, to revive a spiritual connection with his lost love by reliving one of their nights together, the conclusion of the narrative once more brings about his failure. He finds her but “turned around and quietly went out the gates.”

On the other hand, according to Woodward, “the disenchantment with the present impels the enigmatic heroine to seek refuge in a nunnery and in restored spiritual contact with Russia’s ancient past.” She too attempts to alleviate the burden of realizing happiness is unattainable and, for a while, she does. However, when her presence in the Martha-Mary Convent is examined in the context of the narrative’s single historical reference, that which alludes to the year 1914, her claim to happiness, though certainly more spiritual and substantial than her companion’s, is also vanquished; most, if not all, of the nuns who inhabit the renowned convent will be killed in the turmoil of the first World War (Dunaev 837) (Woodward 32-33). As the narrative progresses, Bunin parallels the two tries at happiness to showcase the inalienable failure that follows any attempt at earthly happiness, and his characters’ proclivity to, in turn, seek refuge in the past. Agreeing, the young woman voices Bunin’s believes in a moment of insight, “Happiness, happiness…Our happiness, my friend, is like the water in a drag-net; if you pill it, it swells, and if you draw it out there’s nothing left.”

In his short stories, Ivan Bunin establishes the futility of searching for happiness as a central theme. His characters often exemplify this harsh reality by returning to a past in which they weren’t plagued by the understanding of the futility of their quest. He was indeed, as Woodward says, “an artist whose concern for man was less compelling than his conception of the human condition,” constantly striving to qualify man’s need for happiness and the effects his inability to attain it has on his persona. In “Sunstroke,” the sensual contest between of light and dark mirrors the lieutenant’s descent into depression and finally, the victory of reason. The story “Kasimir Stanislavovitch” exemplifies a man’s unavoidable destruction by the realization that he lacks the power to manipulate the unassailable passing of time and merge his past happiness with his present self. Similarly, in “The First Monday in Lent,” two attempts at prolonged contentment fail, supporting the central idea that failure is inalienable from man’s quest for happiness.

Works Cited

Dunaev, M.M. Faith in the Crucible of Doubt: Orthodoxy and Russian Literature (Vera v Gornile Somnenii). Moscow: Russian Orthodox Church Publishing, 2003.

Woodward, James B. Ivan Bunin: A Study of His Fiction. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Stories obtained from

Sansom, William. The Gentlemen of San Francisco and Other Stories. London: Chatto & Windus, 1922.

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