So good, so joyous, so pure was everything at home; and in his soul everything was filthy, foul, and terrible.
During life's course we are told many things about the Devil, most of which have been dismissed by science as the reflection of our unsavory thoughts and desires. Indeed, it might too much to impute the wickedness of the world to one being – after all, we are also informed by the same unswerving sources that attributing the goodness of the world to one entity is equally nonsensical. Yet if what motivates our emotions and ideas are chemicals, how are we then to explain the premonitions of good and evil that children have always felt, children, mind you, bereft of the sexual and violent notions that plague adults? Children have always believed in the fantastic creatures of holiday time because there is immediate gain; but they also sense things that cannot be explained by selfishness and economics. They will look upon a rosy sunset cascading upon the ocean and understand, if but for a fleeting moment, that such beauty could not be the product of chance; they will be told of the decease of a relative and recognize that their relationship with this person's soul will stretch forever into the future; and they will nod in assent to every exploit of Old Nick because, in a way, the Devil's work is more patently obvious. When some of these children mature, they will forget the insights that stole upon their consciousness and mock the supernatural; others will continue undeterred in their wonder and intuition; and still others will look upon the world puzzled but convinced of the famous adage about the Devil in this story. And sometimes perfectly rational adults with countless opportunities at their fingertips will be nonplussed by the lust that overcomes them, as befalls the protagonist of this longish tale.
Our protagonist is Evgenii Irtenev, a beloved son and landowner who has inherited his father's fine beets and atrocious credit. He is also the keeper of another family trait, that of a roving eye. While his family digs itself out of debt, Evgenii goes about the business of a young man with a bright future in local government – indeed, the story's opening line claims that "a brilliant career awaited" him – and errs neither toward caution or excess. In fact, his prepossessions of conduct are classically bourgeois with the slightest hint of a rake, if only by virtue of his geniality:
He was twenty-six years old, of medium height, a strong build and the developed musculature of a gymnast; at the same time, his red-cheeked complexion and sanguine disposition rendered his bright teeth and unthick, soft, curly locks all the more attractive .... As it were, his personality helped him greatly in his business dealings. A creditor who would have refused someone else believed in him. The amicable impression with which he afflicted a salesman, village elder, or farmhand who would have pulled dirty tricks on someone else made them all forget all about chicanery as they interacted with such a good, straightforward, and, most importantly, sincere person.
We all know men just like Evgenii. They are smart, pleasant, and well-meaning, all of which makes them quite physically attractive. They are also rather conservative in their thoughts and methods because they already have so many advantages. Under some circumstances, these same young men so set in their ways "imagine a life that once was because they do not have the time to think about how to live," the severe price of too much success, even success in a small village like Evgenii's, at too early an age. Since professional success often leads to a more interesting private life, Evgenii has little trouble finding female attention, and considers himself "not a debauched lecher, nor, as he liked to say, a monk." And the inherent difficulty with success in a small village, public or private, is that it all becomes public in the end. Hence the introduction of the ostensible title character, Stepanida.
Stepanida is described at various junctures, and at no time does she ever resemble the Classical or Romantic concept of beauty. That is, one suspects, precisely the point. She is a married charwoman, not educated in her speech or manners, but imbued with something inexorably nubile. The urges that besiege Evgenii are never satisfactorily elucidated, but one can imagine that in his mid-twenties he has both reached his sexual peak and developed enough intellectually to know something about the offerings of the world. Their trysts are brokered by a mutual acquaintance, and their secrecy becomes all the more vital once Evgenii's family escapes the legacy of debt. Pressure comes for Evgenii to marry and Stepanida, who appears more as a prop than a real person, is never an option. Instead, Evgenii chooses Liza Annenskaya, wife material in every sense of the word but also of a particular hue:
Liza was tall, thin and long. Everything about her was long: her face, her nose, which didn't so much go forward as drop along her face, her fingers, her steps. The color of her face was delicately white, almost yellowish, with a faint blush; her hair was long, red, soft, and curly; and her eyes were trusting, beautiful, clear, and small.
Despite Liza's implied resemblance to a collie, she lives and breathes throughout the text. It is she whose eternally teenage heart "can only be happy when it is in love," it is she who cannot but fall in love with the very eligible Evgenii, and it is she who decides shortly after their marriage that "of all the people in the world, there was no one greater, smarter, purer, or more noble than Evgenii Irtenev." How ironic that a man who can select such an ideal spouse against the wishes of his immediate family would at the same time nurture in his bosom a craving for a rather unwholesome wench. A wench who happens to find employment at the very estate on which he and Liza live in clover – which is where our soap opera begins to bubble (if you know something about Slavic folklore, you will be able to guess the source of Tolstoy's inspiration). Only once in the work's entirety is Stepanida's personal interest in the Irtenevs' marriage expressed, which might be less of an oversight than a glimpse into what drives human beings to make the decisions that feed the annals of tragedy. Or at least what drives those beings in human form.