Isaac Babel’s “The Story of My Dovecot” begins almost entirely in summary, allowing the necessary background information to be revealed prior to the latter half of the story that is depicted in a long scene involving the protagonist’s life-changing experience of the death of Shoyl. As stated in his title and first line, “In my childhood I very much wanted to have a dovecot,” the summarized details and the scenic action centers on this singular desire from which relevant characters, social complications, details of setting emerge like spokes on a wheel. This beginning line determines Babel’s subsequent organizational method of “revealing and concealing” information in order to follow that line of character desire through to the end, when the “want” has played out and the protagonist has reaped the consequences. Since the catalyst for the epiphany comes from the scenically drawn-out events beginning at the hunter’s market and following, the summarized build-up prior to those moments of live action carries a heavy responsibility in order to render a significant emotional weight at the conclusion.

The first paragraphs set the stakes by giving the relevant information about the protagonist’s family situation in relation to the ethnic community and the era, the statistics for entrance into the school and his fondness for learning. As the details build in importance, surrounding the first significant event, that of his taking the entrance exam, Babel moves from exposition into the moment when the protagonist must prove what he has learned: “I knew by heart the section about Peter the Great from Putsykovich’s book and the poem by Pushkin. I recited that poem in a violent sob; florid human faces suddenly rolled into my eyes and shifted about there like the cards from a new pack. They were shuffled at the bottom of my eyes, and in these moments, trembling, straightening up, in haste, I shouted Pushkin’s stanzas with all my might.” The transition from summary to scene occurs subtly; Babel moves from relaying the study habits and relationship with an influential teacher to grounding the story on the day of the exam. From there he moves inward, to the state of the protagonist as he faces his task, and then uses clear language to signal the shift to precise action taking place, “in these moments, trembling, straightening up…”

The short schoolyard scene which shows the protagonist learning of his admittance follows as a necessary pause in the story, an earned dramatic moment after all the summarized detail given about the difficulty of making it into the school. Babel’s scene pays off the suspense of taking the test before launching again into summary and had he skipped over this moment and summarized, an opportunity to further build the story by scenic, emotional layering would have been lost, the story gone flat.

Next, the numerous reactions of family members and the community is given in summary, largely due to the happy, unproblematic conditions for the characters in this part of the story. Babel returns to the focus broached in the beginning: the dovecot. Once again he transitions carefully into the scene, using his final opportunity to give critical relevant historic information at this last point before jumping off into action, where such information would bog down and interrupt the playing out portion of the story. We learn that Tsar Nicholas I was giving the Russian people a constitution. What follows are external images coinciding with the political situation: “At night there was the sound of shooting, and Mother did not want me to go to the hunters’ market.” The scene starts when the protagonist runs to the market and describes the people there.

The rest of the story unfolds rapidly, and Babel uses the scene to slow down and focus on the events as the protagonist encounters and reacts to them. While buying the doves he hears of his grandfather’s supposed death, and the cripple Makarenko crushes the dove against the boy’s face. The moment, drawn out with precise details, shows the process by which his childish hopes end as he must now face the reality of the world around him. Babel writes,

“Soft dove guts crept over my forehead, and I closed a last unstuck eye so as not to see the world that was spreading about before me. That world was small and horrible….I closed my eyes so as not to see it, and I pressed myself against the earth that lay beneath me in calming numbness.”

By slowing down the action nearly to a stop in the passing seconds as the boy lies there, Babel can then transition from the external happenings inward to give us the psychological effect. To stay with the protagonist as he continues his inward transformation of seeing the world differently, the scene continues in the same vein. The following details of sensory perception are rendered precisely, in order to show the psychological effect of each: “My earth smelt of moist entrails, of the grave and of flowers. I smelt its odour and began to weep without any fear.” Babel uses the external to render the internal. In contrast, the absence of providing such scenic detail by summarizing over the event, or by giving too much exposition on the protagonist’s abstract, inner state, would cause the story to lose its impact almost entirely with the reader. The connection of how the event caused the catharsis within the character would not be clear, e.g., shown and felt emotionally.

The impact of this event, its dramatic payoff, is largely the result of the story stayed focused on the tension/desire presented in the first line. The character’s desire builds up the expectation of the eventual childhood dream of the dovecot coming to fruition, the achievement of his place in the world, his identity thus far, is rendered largely through the summary and short scene concerning the school exams. The initial desire driving the story line places importance on the attaining of the dovecot so when the moment comes, Babel lets it play out in scene, using external details, so that the extreme loss is felt.

Looking backwards over the story from the resolution, the necessity of the exposition of his life prior to going to the hunters’ market becomes more clear; without an intimate knowledge of his childhood world, the gravity of its fall in the moment the dove is crushed so gruesomely, and all it represents, would have little effect. Furthermore, the summary anchors the story in the overarching facts of time and place that makeBabel’s world a more believable one socially, economically and politically. This scope gives the boy’s experience added significance by placing his life in larger communal context. While the scenes enable it to probe the innermost human depths, the summary within “The Story of My Dovecot” gives it breadth and allow the story to achieve dramatic unity.

 

 

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