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In Turgenev's "First Love", the father of the narrator Vladimir had been having an affair with a young woman Zinaída. After Vladimir's mother discovers the affair, the family moves to town, apparently to break off the affair.

But near the end of the novella, Vladimir observes another encounter between his father and Zinaida:

my father ... was leaning his breast on the window-sill [outside the house], while in the house, half concealed by the curtain, sat ... Zinaída.

... My father appeared to be insisting upon something. Zinaída would not consent. .... Then the words became audible: “Vous devez vous séparer de cette.”... Zinaída drew herself up and stretched out her hand.... Suddenly, before my very eyes, an incredible thing came to pass: ... my father raised the riding-whip...and the sound of a sharp blow on that arm, which was bare to the elbow, rang out. ...Zinaída started, gazed in silence at my father, and slowly raising her arm to her lips, kissed the mark which glowed scarlet upon it.

The French “Vous devez vous séparer de cette.” translates as "You must separate yourself from this." I can imagine three possible interpretations:

  1. The father is reaffirming to his former mistress that the affair is over. "This" is their relationship.
  2. Zinaida has found a new love, or at least companion, but the father wishes to continue the affair. "This" is Zinaida's new relationship.
  3. One webpage suggested that Zinaida had become pregnant from the affair. So perhaps "this" is the baby; the father is insisting that she not keep it. (The webpage suggestsed only the pregnancy, not this interpretation.)

If (1) is right, then why did the father go see Zinaida at all? If (2), then why the blow with whip? This seems calculated to drive her away. And why would she kiss the welt? (3) relies on the assumption of the pregnancy, for which the webpage offers this evidence:

Shortly afterwards Vladimir’s father dies suddenly of a stroke, following which his mother sends a large sum of money to Moscow, the implication presumably being that Zinaida had a child as a result of the liaison.

Plausible but not definitive. Also, I don't see Zinaida kissing the welt in these circumstances.

Was this scene meant to be ambiguous, or does the text (or other evidence) more strongly support one of these interpretations---or maybe another one entirely?

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    It's actually an incomplete sentence. It translates as "You must separate yourself from this (female noun) ..." where the sentence breaks off before the noun.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 21:52
  • Thanks. That seems to make things even more ambiguous. Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 21:58
  • Yes — you can probably easily find a feminine French word that fits any of these interpretations.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 22:00

1 Answer 1

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We don't know, but we can guess (pretty easily). There are enough hints in this novella about what happened.

The reader can imagine that his father asks Zinaida to get rid of the baby.

'Vous devez vous séparer de cette...' - for example, pensée.

'Also, I don't see Zinaida kissing the welt in these circumstances.' It’s understandable actually in these circumstances.


Answer # 1:

I tried to answer honestly. First of all, I wrote that 'we don't know'.

Now what we have:

  1. Alexey Vdovin has the same point of view. And he is not just random guy from the Internet who writes down his opinion.

(See Алексей Вдовин. Биографический и политический подтекст повести Тургенева 'Первая любовь')

  1. In XXI we read:

After his death my mother sent a very considerable sum of money to Moscow.

Матушка после его кончины послала довольно значительную сумму денег в Москву.

Translator: Isabel Florence Hapgood

What does it mean? What do you think?

  1. (I think) that Turgenev opposed Vladimir's clear platonic love against adult love. ...adult love I mean with all those complexities. For example, remember the first money which Zinaida (obviously) asked after they slept together. Here she took advantage of the situation.

The words 'Vous devez vous séparer de cette...' must not be too specific and that's why I thought (as any average reader of that time) the following word is pensée. Next we have the interpretation...

I don't believe that this is such a complicated riddle. The reader doesn't have to rack his/her brains.

P.S. By the way, I'm Russian.

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  • This isn’t actually evidence, or a new interpretation to consider. Just your opinion that you like (3), and that you disagree with my objection to it. Commented Jun 20, 2023 at 13:54
  • I answered above
    – AndrewL
    Commented Jun 20, 2023 at 15:18

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