Silence is Golden: A Biblical Reading of Turgenev’s Mumu

Miranda Lupion


Examining Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev’s 1854 short story Mumu, critics traditionally assert that the mute Gerasim doubles for a prophetic figure, such as Saint Christopher or, more generally, a Holy Fool. However, what if we take this analogy a step further by comparing the virtuous peasant Gerasim to God, and his puppy, Mumu, to – dare I say it – Christ?

Taken from the 1959 Soviet screen adaptation of Mumu.

The virtuous and larger-than-life Gerasim exhibits traits of the Old and New Testament God. Both the Old Testament God and pre-puppy Gerasim intervene in society to punish and reward certain subjects (i.e., other peasants). Gerasim is particularly ruthless in damning the story’s archetype of sin, the shoemaker Kapiton. As a “sad drunkard…[who] regarded himself as an injured creature whose merits were unappreciated,” Kapiton parallels the Old Testament sinners who believe they are superior to all others, such as the Garden of Eden’s Adam and Eve or Egypt’s Pharaoh. Just as God punishes those individuals, Gerasim rebukes Kapiton, hitting him with a shaft. Gerasim, like God, also intervenes to bless those who are righteous, most notably protecting the deserving and meek Tatiana.

Tatiana’s leave-taking and Gerasim’s rescue of Mumu marks a turning point in the story. Shifting to the New Testament, God sends baby Jesus into the world, and Gerasim brings the struggling puppy, “not more than three weeks old,” into his community. Now, preferring to interact through their respective kin, God and Gerasim retreat from direct intervention in the day-to-day lives of their subjects. God speaks only twice to the general public during the New Testament affairs, but directly and deeply converses with Christ. This parallels Gerasim’s relationship with Mumu. In fact, Gerasim’s muteness reflects the New Testament God’s distaste for direct communication with humans other than Christ. Mumu, the Christ figure, is the lone individual with whom Gerasim, the God figure, can vocally interact because “mumu” is the only meaningful sound Gerasim can articulate. Recognized by the other peasants, Mumu helps to combat Gerasim’s alienation from his peers, just as Jesus aids God in better connecting with his people.

The second half of Mumu mimics the crucifixion story. Like Christ, Mumu is sentenced to death on trumped-up charges, after the old woman demands to know “what dog was barking all night in [her] yard.” Although the responsibility for the noise is never clarified, the old woman blames the dumb man’s dog. The gospel of Matthew 57:59 parallels this episode: “Now the chief priests [the old woman] and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus [Mumu] that they might put him to death.”

Gavrila, “a person in authority,” invokes Pontius Pilate in that both men defer to the public’s judgment on the ultimate act – Christ’s crucifixion and Mumu’s death. Matthew 27:22 describes how Pilate asked spectators, “what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” Upon arriving at Gerasim’s hovel, Gavrila too had consulted the other peasants. When Gerasim initially fails to make his appearance, Gavrila asks the serfs, “what are we to do?” The lack of specificity in the inquiry means it can be interpreted in both a literal (i.e., how can I get the deaf man’s attention?) and figurative (i.e., do we kill the dog?) manner, strengthening the connection between Pilate and Gavrila. Facing the pressure of the masses behind him and the mistress’s decree, Gavrila tells Gerasim that the dog must be killed. His own opinion on the matter is ambivalent, but he must avoid the outrage of his superior and his inferiors. Matthew 27:24 shows that Pilate faced similar circumstances, recalling that he “saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning.”

In Mumu’s ultimate demise, Gerasim, like God, fulfills a covenant he made with humanity, which, in Gerasim’s case, refers to his fellow peasants. Gerasim and Mumu first set out for a final meal of soup and bread at the cook shop, a nod to the Last Supper recorded in three of the four Gospels. They then proceed to the river. There, Gerasim follows through on his word to the other peasants, as God makes good on his promise to the world. The serf Stephan had earlier emphasized Gerasim’s trustworthiness, assuring the others that Gerasim will “do it [kill the dog] if he’s promised…if he makes a promise, it’s a certain thing. He’s not like us others in that. The truth’s the truth with him.” This reflects the unbreakable nature of Gerasim’s word and God’s covenants. As Gerasim fulfills his promise to the peasants and kills Mumu, God keeps his promise to humanity – forgiveness of sins and eternal life in exchange for his son’s life, “a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:25). In his article, “Turgenev’s ‘Mumu’ and the Absence of Love,” Edgar Frost calls Mumu “the supreme symbol of unselfish, loyal love in [Turgenev’s] story” (179). The same could be said of Jesus in the New Testament story.

After Mumu’s death, Gerasim flees Moscow to his village, mirroring God’s withdrawal, after Jesus’s resurrection, from intervention in this world. The contrast of the two landscapes – the urban and the rural – follows a common Russian literary trope: Moscow as an earthly and corrupt hell, the village as an ideal and virtuous place (Brouwer 117). Gerasim’s initial journey to Moscow as well as his return “are depicted as movements between qualitatively differing spheres” (Brouwer 125). Gerasim’s loss of language cements this idea. Like God after the loss of the Christ figure, Gerasim returns to the state of complete muteness (Somoff 514).

The Bible primarily tells of revelations, promises, and their completion, and Turgenev’s Mumu can be read in a similar vein. In the Christ story, the fulfillment of the prophecy (i.e., God sacrificing his son) means the meek will inherit the Earth. Mumu’s drowning echoes this, satisfying an implicit covenant. The last section of Mumu supports this interpretation, demonstrating the author’s belief that some prophecy has been realized, and thus the sun is setting on serfdom. As Gerasim hurries home, “the summer night…was just drawing in…on one side, …on the other side a blue-gray twilight had already risen up.” As Matthew 11:5 pronounces, the covenant of Christ means “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear.” To Turgenev, Russia’s figuratively mute and deaf peasants were also on the verge of finding their voices.

Works Cited

Batson, Trent, and Eugene Bergman, eds. Angels and Outcasts: An Anthology of Deaf Characters in Literature. third. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet College Press, 1985.

Brouwer, Sander. “Mumu.” Character in the Short Prose of Ivan Sergeevič Turgenev. Vol. 25. Atlanta, Georgia: Rodopi, 1996.

Frost, Edgar. “Turgenev’s ‘Mumu’ and the Absence of Love.” The Slavic and East European Journal 31.2 (1978): 171–186.

Somoff, Victoria. “No Need for Dogs or Women: Muteness in Turgenev’s ‘Mumu.’” Russian Literature 68.3/4 (2010): 501–520.

The Holy Bible. The English Standard Version. Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2011. Kindle ed.

Turgenev, Ivan Sergeyevich. “Mumu.” Translated by Constance Garnett, 1854.

Miranda Lupion graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in international relations and Russian language. This fall, she will be a first-year graduate student at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.



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