‘A Cold Autumn’ by Ivan Bunin: Short Story Analysis
‘A Cold Autumn’ is a short story by Russian writer Ivan Bunin and is considered an heir to two stalwart Russian literary figures: Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy. He was the first Russian writer to win the Nobel Prize and was an anti-communist. The story is set during the time of the First World War. The narrator of this story is a woman who remembers her engagement with a young man before he went out to the war-front to fight. She recalls him with fondness. She remembers his youthfulness and his tender love for her. It has been thirty years since the First World War broke out in the year 1915 (sic) with the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo. She looks back on her past with a sad, reflective eye. She sees her life as ‘useless’ except for that early autumn evening when she was with her fiancé bidding him goodbye for the last time. He would go out to war never to come back.
Apart from the father of the woman and the assassination of the Duke, which caused so much political turmoil in the world, no one else is mentioned in Ivan Bunin’s short story. The woman’s father’s name is Peter, and he celebrates St. Peter’s Day. On the 16th of June, he informs those at the dinner table with him: his wife, the women, and her fiancé, that war has broken out. The father seems a broadminded man-of-the-world with a sharp intellect and highly practical. His wife is silent, prayerful, devout Christian, and domesticized. Both mother and father knew that the woman, who is our unnamed narrator, needed her space and privacy to say goodbye to her love. They were engaged on St. Peter’s Day, which could either have been June 29th according to the old calendar or July 12th as per the new calendar. By the time it was the 19th of July, Germany had declared war on Russia. Her fiancé was soon to leave to fight on the war-front.
The soldier spends his last 24 hours with the woman and her family. Autumn had set in early, and there was a nip in the air. By the time it was evening, it was cold in the garden and dark except for the night sky’s twinkling stars. The soon to be separated couple went out into the garden to bid each other a final farewell. Notice now that the young soldier becomes sentimental. The cold autumn air intoxicates him. He is bewitched by it and becomes romantic. He tenderly indicates in words to the woman that he would remember this evening for the rest of his life. The woman is like her father: unsentimental, frank, blunt, and practical. She is not overly affected by the weather but promises that she too would not forget this evening. The soldier in a very affectionate but haunting manner makes the woman promise never to forget him even if he happened to die. She then should linger on in the world for a while and then come to him in the other world.
The woman remembers this haunting promise full of a strange mystical devotion after thirty years. She realizes that even after a lapse of thirty years, she could not forget her young fiancé. When she kindly promised him, almost indulgently, that she would indeed come to him after his death, she was not sincere. She had said it to make him feel happy. However, the turmoil in her life after his death would make her remember their promise. She would then realize that all these traumatic thirty years, she had only been ‘lingering’ or ‘existing’ in this world. Now she feels so spent in energy and emotions that she is ready to return to her young fiancé, who was killed in Galicia most probably in the Battle of Galicia in Spain. She remembers her old love and feels that what she felt then was more beautiful and meaningful than anything else that later happened in her life.
As mentioned before, the woman was a practical young lady. When on that cold autumn evening, her fiancé recited Fet’s words, a Russian poet, from the poem ‘What a Cold Autumn’ she was not moved by them. In fact, she mocked them, saying that she didn’t have a bonnet so she could not feel one with its theme. Afanasy Afanasyevich Fet, later known as Shenshin, was a renowned Russian poet regarded as the finest master of lyrical verse in Russian literature. The young fiancé narrated a few lines of the poem ‘What a Cold Autumn’ which I am reproducing here in full for your reference:
What a cold autumn!
What a cold autumn!
Put on your shawl and bonnet.
Look: beyond the pines
It’s as if a fire is rising.
Close to you, I always remember
The radiance of an autumn night;
Its phosphorous eyes still shine,
But they no longer warm me.
In Bunin’s time, the Russian readers who were familiar with Fet’s poetry must have known from the quoted lines that death was in store for the young soldier. After the soldier’s death, the war continues. There is a mention in the story that people in Europe thought that the war would end soon. However, it only ended on the 11th of November, 1918. With the war came the Russian defeat, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil War, which had disastrous effects on the people of that region. By the end of 1918, the practical woman had lost her parents and was left on her own, and penniless.
Thus, she starts her ‘lingering’ as she finds herself in 1918 living in Moscow, working for a heartless woman in the fur and coat trade. She moves on in her life, never directly thinking about that cold autumn evening when the ‘autumn’ of her life descended upon her for good. She later would take up the trade herself and marry again, this time an elderly soldier with a kind nature. She cares for the elderly soldier’s nephew, the nephew’s wife, and infant baby girl. In the tussle of political turmoil between the Ottoman Empire and the USSR’s formation, she lands up as a refugee in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in Turkey. Her elderly soldier husband dies of typhus, a disease that was then common among the refugees. Now a widow, the woman also loses the nephew and his wife when they go missing in Crimea due to the tension after the Crimea Operation. She is left with only one family member to call her own, the little infant girl.
There is mention of the many countries that the woman travels to, to escape oppression and death, and to build a decent life for herself. This was the situation that many people in the old Austria-Hungary Empire and the Russian Empire had to go through. She lingers and exists, going from one place to another, scrounging in the dust for her own life. We are told that she doesn’t even receive due love and acceptance from the little girl she cared for. The girl goes on to become a French citizen and works there in a confectioner’s shop. You can see the woman searching for love throughout this period. She is displaced and all alone, building up her life from scratch.
At the end of the story, she lives in Nice, which is in France, scraping to make a living. That’s when she remembers her young fiancé of old and feels that his ‘romantic cold autumn evening feeling’ was indeed real. It was at least more real to her than the thirty years she had spent traveling to different places and struggling to live. One can see the author’s own life reflected in this short story because he, too as an émigré. An émigré is a person who has left their own country to settle in another, typically for political reasons. The woman has lived a life of wandering in search of her true home and true love for far too long. Now it was time for her to go home.
Indeed, as Ivan Bunin mentioned, as time passes, we easily forget the things of the past. But certain moments will never leave our memory even when all else does because the human mind and heart are of that nature. This short story titled ‘A Cold Autumn’ by Ivan Bunin is realism at its best.
I have always loved Ivan Bunin’s works. I have a soft corner for Russian writers, both Marxists, and anti-communists. I also love short stories which deal with realism because it’s more in tune with the books I write. This short story was a very moving piece on the aftermath of the First World War and its consequences, which we have still not yet understood. I hope to analyze more short stories by Ivan Bunin soon.
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