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“You a doctor? Don’t want one! I’m giving my soul up to the devil right now.”

August 19, 2014

Browsing through A. Gattsuk’s Gazette I found a story by Sof’ia Engel’gardt (apparently 1828-1894, though one source says 1808-1882), a.k.a. Ol’ga N. Last year a Languagehat post inspired me to read a longer story of hers from 1854. This one was “Martha: A True Story” (Марфа. Быль, 1876), and you can read it here and here.

We learn Martha’s story through a series of visits the blandly sympathetic, male, first-person narrator pays to a priest his mother knows, Father Vasily. The beginning of her biography combines the commonplace of the female peasant elevated above her station, who suddenly returns to it when her benefactress dies, with that of the peasant girl seduced and impregnated by a nobleman. (“Peasant” may not be exact. The narrator thinks she resembles neither a peasant nor a house servant, and the priest explains only that she was left on the hands of the noblewoman of a neighboring village.) These two misfortunes aren’t the end. The noblewoman leaves Martha 50 rubles, so unlike others she is not hurled into want and ignorance with nothing but her education.

The pregnancy starts to show us the personalities of Martha and Father Vasily. She keeps declaring she will kill the baby, and he tries to convince her not to, extracting a promise that she will breast-feed it three times first. This has the desired effect, but the child dies before turning four. Engel’gardt has the narrator’s first visit take place in the summer of 1864, and the child is already gone, so Martha must have been seduced before the 1861 emancipation.

Her reaction to the child’s death is the real story: repentance, voluntary suffering, life as a wandering preacher and then folk healer. (Her name is significant: there’s apparently a tradition in the Orthodox Church that Martha the sister of Lazarus was involved in “the proclaiming of the Gospel in various lands.”) She becomes revered as a healer and prophet. Then the fall: Father Vasily tells her she isn’t humble enough, she fails to cure a blind girl and is publicly humiliated, and she dies slapping away the cross in Father Vasily’s hand as she calls, before a crowd of horrified peasants, for Satan to take her soul.

Here the priest describes the failed cure:

I saw the people run after her myself, but she wasn’t explaining the Gospel to them, she was giving herself out to be God’s Chosen One, and the people believed her! Then, unfortunately for her, one woman brought a blind girl to her, threw herself at her feet, and started pleading with her: heal my daughter! Martha put the girl in front of her and started making different signs over her. She laid her hands on her head, raised her eyes toward heaven, and muttered words you couldn’t understand. And she was wearing nothing but a chemise, with bare feet, her hair down, she looked like a madwoman. The people are standing there, watching, waiting for the girl to gain her sight.

Suddenly Martha asks her, “Can you see?” and the girl answers, “I can’t!”

Then a young lad made a joke at Martha’s expense, and a lot of them laughed. Martha heard this, turned toward them, and shouted, “For your lack of faith God will not send a miracle. You are scoundrels, fools!” But the lad didn’t back down: it’s not as clear as all that [надвое бабушка сказала], he says, who the fool is here.

Martha got mad and picked up a stone and hurled it at him. Then the people threw themselves at her, and she barely got away with her life. [near the end]

The reference to John 8:7 seems heavy-handed if we take it as showing Martha’s pride: she actually believes she is without sin. But maybe there’s a reversal, where the woman caught in adultery gets to pick up a rock and throw it at a man condemning her? The reference to that story also reminds us that peasant society did not condemn Martha when she had a baby out of wedlock, which Father Vasily finds remarkable.

I think the story is as interesting as the Father Vasily character. Initially I thought Vasily and the narrator were both, from the author’s point of view, always to be trusted. And I still think that reading may be the most plausible; Martha’s story is then the straightforward parable about pride that Father Vasily makes it out to be.

On the other hand, throughout the story Father Vasily gives Martha explicit commands, which she first obeys, then stops obeying. When she starts to become a famous faith healer, he sings her praises; when he thinks she has risen too high, he takes her down a peg. Should we see him as jealous, threatened, controlling? Are we supposed to imagine that Martha’s side of the case would be worth hearing, if only we could? Probably not — reading the story this way means brushing aside the descriptions of Vasily’s generosity and love of gardening — but it would be more complex.

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