(Foreword: This writeup is about Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov's short novel Fatal Eggs. It starts out as a purely literary analysis, however for those interested in the political/social background of the story as well as discussion of its plot, this is all available in the second part of the node. Thus, the background information is there and you will get to it if you persevere and read this node to the end.)
Gothic literature may have had its heyday in the middle ages. Graveyards spewing out the dead, voices from beyond the grave that curse the living somehow seem to fit in more with the middle-age milieu of castles
, meadows, and rustic villages with cliffs. However, some modern authors have successfully revived the genre
. Mikhail Bulgakov has accomplished the worthy feat on re-creating the gothic of old in a contemporary setting without making it seem kitschy or fake. While The Master and Margarita
may be his most famous work, the gothic motifs in that story are not as naturally integrated into the narrative as in Fatal Eggs. In that novel, the sources of mystical horror
come from the magical powers of the Devil
and his crew. That type of a narrative
asks the reader
to extend his imagination to incorporate a magical level of reality and therefore makes the horror and the gruesome seem fantastic and unreal.
However, in Fatal Eggs, the reader doesn't have to suspend his disbelief
as much because the gothic horror is caused by science. The source of evil in this case comes from a small part of the light spectrum whose red part, when amplified, can cause rapid the rapid growth and reproduction of frogs. A communist party hack who has little understanding of science decides to use the ray to speed up the reproduction of chickens. In classic gothic fashion, even before he gets down to work, nature starts to show ominous signs of the catastrophe
to come. Thus, the reader, not even knowing what is to follow, is lead to believe that something very eery is happening. The little village where the rapid chicken hatching is due to take place begins to be marked by signs of death. "The days got unbearably hot. One could clearly see the dense transparent heat shimmering over the fields. But the nights were marvelous, deceptive, green. The moon shone brightly."
So in this little paragraph, Bulgakov literally turns up the heat and makes the reader feel uncomfortable. Not only is it hot but the heat
is shining over the fields. The fact that the heat is visible makes it seem all the more threatening and menacing
. As Bulgakov says, though the night is marvelous, it is deceptive. Of course, this type of frightening yet beautiful description is a way of tantalizing the reader with the idea that something is off. Yet the beauty that persists despite the uneasiness charms away the worries. Bulgakov lulls us into false comfort by describing the way the sounds have subsided in the village of Knovka and the landscape
became filled with the charming, delicate sounds of a flute
. But of course, ever happy to make his reader uncomfortable, Bulgakov immediately drops the music and starts writing about howls
. "The concert was already drawing to a close when something.. interrupted.. it. The dogs
... suddenly burst into an incredible fit of barking
, which gradually turned into... anguished howling."
Does this have anything to do with the scientific experiment to replenish the chicken population by hatching eggs? Bulgakov doesn't reveal that in his narration but he does associate the the "uncanny, mysterious, witching night" with the idea that it may be wrong to use science to tamper with life. He uses the plain-talking cleaning woman Dunya to express that point of view in a conversation shortly following Feyt's lakeside concert. "You know Alexander Semynovitch.. The peasants in Kontsovka (a village close to Moscow
) are saying you're the Anti-Christ. Them are devilish eggs they say. It's a sin to hatch eggs by machine. They wanted to murder you."
After reading this conversation, the reader wants to see whether Dunya's prophecy will come true. Maybe some of us who have read Bulgakov's Master and Margarita are twitching our fingers while waiting for the Devil to show up and punish the sinners. (Yes in Master and Margarita it was the Devil who meted out the punishment, not God. A non-standard theology, what have you.) But Bulgakov, as any gothic-teller, wants to prolong the agony of anticipation
and thus instead of getting a quick resolution, we find the situation turning more dire and distressing. Bulgakov writes that "the woods had gone silent.. and the unpleasant and ominous absence of sound .. in a forest (meant) that all of the birds had cleared out of the.. years by midday. The famous roaring of the frogs.. died out.. This was astounding.. since the famous croaking of the frogs was well known to everyone... All of these events began to cause talk of the unpleasant kind.. behind Alexander Semyonitch's back."
At this point, the reader knows that something is wrong but not quite what.
Have the frogs
and the sparrows
left the scene because of Dunya's premonition of the anti-Christ? Is this tale turning into a religious allegory
? Or maybe it all really is no big deal. Perhaps the author is being creepy for the sake of being creepy: creating unpleasant feelings via nature without planning to do anything with it. With this uncertainty in mind, the reader moves on to the next scene, whose atmosphere switches back from disquieting and uncanny to magical and charming. In this scene, natural becomes breathtakingly beautiful. Feyt sets out for the lake: "He armed himself with a fluffy
towel, .. picked up his flute, intending to play at leisure over the unruffled water." Now the feeling of unease is still present in this scene but it is transformed into something aesthetically pleasing and marvelous.
In the description "The rustling ceased; the unruffled surface of the pond and the gray roof of the bathhouse flashed invitingly beyond the burdocks.. several dragonflies darted past," we still get the sense of deadly stillness
and the disappearance of wildlife
but this scary fact is made to seem peaceful. The pond is still and even the leaves stop to rustle. The gray roof flashes invitingly because the quiet atmosphere somehow enhances the color, makes it stand out more and shine brighter. That is, if gray can shine at all. This is the irony of the description: how can grayness shine and invite? How can the deadness of a lake deprived of its wild life suggest peace
? When the birds leave and trees stop to rustle, does this absence of noise calm the heart?
This paradox proves that Bulgakov has captured the essence of gothic: the frightening has a mysterious aura
that makes it seem miraculous. The course of nature comes to a standstill
and the lake
and the trees
become something totally different. The surprise of this transformation brings about a feeling of astonishment and makes the reader revel in the new sensation of nature enchanted and transmogrified. It's as if a witch cast an evil spell that is sure to bring doom, but we are still breathless and swept away by the magic of it.
So, it is no surprise, that when horror breaks, it is magic too. Something begins to move in the lake and its movements are graceful. "A grayish and olive-colored log
began to rise from the thicket, growing before his eyes. (It) was splotched with moist yellowish spots
.. and began to stretch, flexing and undulating, and it stretched so high that it was above the scrubby little willow."
Think about this scene. Something tall is stretching out of the water. Threatening? Certainly. But the narration makes it seem elegant. Stretching, flexing, and undulating? These are keywords that describe the motion of this object in quite some detail. It moves in a wavy motion and its movement is a reference to the flute
playing from before. The sweet sounds of the flute lull the reader into a happy state of oblivious contentment. It's like a warm bath
. The wavy motion of this creature/object has a regular rhythm
that shakes us back and forth like a rocking chair
In the penultimate scene of this increasingly growing atmosphere of unease, Feyt responds to the creature's "lidless open icy narrow eyes gleaming utterly infinite malice by lifting the flute to his lips, squeaking hoarsely, and gasping for breath every second, while playing the waltz from Eugene Onegin
." If hoarsely playing an opera melody in rhythm to the wavy motion of an evil-eyed snake
seems to be the perfect combination of charm and horror, this combination intensifies yet again when "a sickening scream
pierced through (the field) and expanded and flew up into the sky. The snake swept towards the white blouse down the road, its teeth caught "(Feyt's wife Manya) by the shoulder and jerked her above the earth." Feyt heard her bones
snapping and her head swept over the earth. Blood splashed from Manya's mouth."
The reader might ask why Bulgakov hadn't treated this death scene in a more straightforward fashion. He could have had compassion for the suffering of the married couple Alexander Semyonich and Manya Feyt. Instead of telling the story from a perspective that had the reader sympathize with them and their fears, he turned the whole scene into something somewhat beautiful and sensuous. Allowing the reader to enjoy a death scene is a cruel way for an author to show that he has very little compassion for the characters.
All that is somewhat true and in fact illustrates the broader thematic concerns of the story. Feyt is a Politburo
hack who decided to use a reproduction-accelerator to produce lots of chickens to remedy a recent chicken epidemic that reduced their numbers. Instead of getting his chickens, he ends up producing a boatload of rapacious predator snake
s that terrorize the wildlife and eventually the population of Moscow. That's why though he is a victim, Bulgakov also treats him as culprit that deserves to get what's coming to him.
It is the culprit angle that Bulgakov emphasizes. The confident bureaucrat unleashes a plague by his excessive self-confidence and the death of his wife is a fatal event that serves as some kind of divine punishment
for his insolence
. As the cleaning woman Dunya's association of artificial chicken production
and the Anti-Christ shows, Bulgakov's mind works in a religious context. Those who have read Master and Margarita and witnessed the Devil Woland and his crew prancing around Moscow to punish pompous, greedy, and embezzling bureaucrats
know that Bulgakov holds his characters accountable for their shortcomings and everyone of them gets their comeuppance.
One of the most fascinating things about this short novel is that it was a veiled satire against 1930s Stalinist Russia. The scheme of collectivization
, thought up by bureaucrats from above, decimated the population and brought about millions of deaths. Anyone who resisted converting their private farms to collective farm
s was brutally murdered. The same fate met people who had the least objections or were suspected of either hoarding profit
s or conspiring against the program. The best thing about this story is that manages to bring that horrible situation into a gothic context of horror. Nature takes on a mystical appearance and spells out the provenance of a divine condemnation of petty bureaucracy.
There is quite a bit of vitriol
in Bulgakov's demeanor when he writes of snakes swallowing up one hapless bureaucrat and going down to Moscow to drag down the bureaucrats in power into utter confusion. In the context of a strict censorship, Bulgakov could not openly condemn these people in his writing. Describing nature and snakes that cause so much pain to officials in terms of beauty, charm, and magic was his way of siding with the predators and laughing at Soviet officials. His lengthy novel Master and Margarita is filled with episodes where Moscow officials are interrupted from their fancy dinners and conferences and theater performances to be either freaked out by vampire
, or to be treated to horrific visions
that make them go insane. In true gothic style, the characters of this novel are brought out of their modern context of economics
, and exploitation of natural resources
for material benefits to see nature as a living creature, capable of being hurt by scientific experiments but also able to take subtle but vicious revenge on their perpetrators.