She-Bear to Shuba: Pushkin's "Medvedixa": Sources and Meaning

James L. Rice, University of Oregon

Pushkin's "Skazka o medvedixe" (a title assigned posthumously) was probably written during the "fecund" (detorodnaja) Boldino autumn of 1830. It reflects his anxiety about marriage and procreation, on the one hand, and mortality (the cholera epidemic) on the other: "Okolo menja Kolera Morbus. Znaesh' li, chto eto za zver'? Togo i gljadi, chto zabezhit on i v Boldino, da vsex nas perekusaet—togo i gljadi, chto k [pokojnomu] djadju Vasil'ju otpravljus', a ty i pishi moju biografiju" (to Pletnev, 9 September 1830).

"She-bear" is an arcane, greatly condensed allegorical pastiche of folkloric formulas and genres, reassembled into an enigmatically idiosyncratic fable quintessentially Pushkinian. Once the design is perceived, by a kind of 'Sesame' we indeed gain entry to the poet's private biography. But the first business is to figure out the structural riddles of "She-bear" and the new symbolic meanings of each traditional trope—down to the cantankerous hedgehog who has the last word:

It may not be amiss to recall that young Grinev's father recommended handling him strictly, "v ezhovyx rukavicax."

The experimental allegory of "She-bear" recalls in conception the artistry, fundamentally Voltairean, of such emblematic compositions as "Podrazhanija Koranu" and "Anchar," private metapoetic incantations rather than messages that anticipate widely appreciative audiences. (Saitanov, 1986) Folklorists have identified sources in Russian oral tradition for many images and formulas in "She-bear," but its authentically formulaic language has yielded no clue to Pushkin's motive and plan.

Unnoticed sources more idiosyncratic yet deeply rooted in Russian verbal art are pivotal in "She-bear's" design. These include Krylov's popular verse fable, "Krest'janin i rabotnik" (1815), and two songs from the Kirsha Danilov songbook (edition of 1818 in Pushkin's library): "Pro Stavra-bojarina" (No. 15) and "Pro durnja" (No. 59). These provide keys to Pushkin's symbolic design in "She-bear"'s balladic central episodes (battle, death, lament), without which the larger biographical and historical allegory remains opaque. Explication of these materials and Pushkin's ending will be the first business of my AATSEEL NY talk. The ending has been shown to resemble the old satiric song "Pticy na more," but here too Pushkin's meaning has remained utterly resistant to interpretation. (See the productive round-table discussion by folklorists from Volgograd, Petrozavodsk, and Moscow: Medrish et al, 1994.) I bring new insight to this tangled semantic problem, based in part on the popular woodblock-broadside satires "Myshi kota pogrebajut" and "Povest' o Ershe Ershoviche syne Shchitinnikove." Pushkin's forest denizens gather not to help mourn the She-bear's death but to celebrate the end of her boyar dynasty. She has lost her hide which becomes a shuba. (The shuba theme can be profitably traced through other works—the Razin cycle, "Gorjuxino," Kapitanskaja dochka, leading ultimately back to Krylov's fable noted above.) Most of the lesser animals here are also routinely hunted for fur or meat or their menace to man, and (like people) they victimize one another. This rat race is the allegorical bottom-line—an allegory of Russia, of course. (See OED, second edition, "Bear" = "Russia," especially the citations (about Poland) from 1790 and 1831; and Byron's Don Juan, Canto VIII, 92, and Canto X, 26, published in 1822.) The hedgehog-barkeep lends closure and completeness to Pushkin's structure, with a loaded pun: ezh shchetinitsja ~ Ersh Shchetinnikov. This hedgehog is loaded for bear, and bristling with Aesopian language.

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