The Ending of "The Singers"

Turgenev's “The Singers" is discussed here by Daniyal Mueenuddin. Mueenuddin comments “when writing short stories, the hardest part is the ending," and raises the question of why “The Singers” ends the way it does. Charles May suggests an answer here, adding, “I think just about any educated person can read a literary novel if he or she is willing to process the words and keep at it long enough. I am not convinced that any person, no matter how educated, can read a literary short story without some knowledge of the form’s techniques, conventions, and devices. Now that knowledge can come from a teacher or it can come from experience of reading lots and lots of short stories until the conventions and devices become internalized...”

Now accepting that to understand short stories you need a professor to explain them to you would be the same as accepting that the short story is not a vital popular art-form -- a conclusion that for emotional reasons I just can't accept. And isn't the knowledge of how to read a novel likewise honed by reading lots of novels? If I hadn't read short stories for pleasure when I was growing up, would I now need someone to explain them to me? How is is that I understood – at least on some level -- the first novels and short stories that I read?

In “The Singers” we get the description of a dreary village, then some character studies. The main action is a singing contest in a tavern, with a pot of beer as the stakes. All the singers are extremely eccentric in remarkably different ways. One of them wins the pot of beer. Up to this point the story's content is essentially journalistic, even though the tone is lyrical and despondent.

What happens next is such a change of mood as you might find in the final movement of a concerto. The hunter naps in a hayloft, wakes up feeling disoriented, observes how drunk the singers have become, and while leaving the village, overhears a faraway plaintive call and response between two brothers:

"‘Come here, devil! woo-od imp!’
‘What fo-or?’ replied the other, after a long interval.
‘Because dad wants to thrash you!’"

After which the other boy, strangely, does not reply... May's interpretation of this ending, broadly speaking, is that the yearning for artistic transcendence is short-circuited by an awareness of the inevitability of corporal punishment – a fair enough comment, but hardly exhaustive of the story's effect.

I don't agree that we know how to read this story because of our knowledge of “the form’s techniques, conventions, and devices,” for the simple reason that I can't think of another short story that has a structure analogous to “The Singers.” We know how to read this story because of our experience of drunkenness and summer evenings, childhood suffering, and so on.

Stories contain their own operating instructions. Throughout “The Singers,” voices respond to other voices. A hunter learns about birds by listening to their calls, and in the same way this hunter learns about people.

One thing he learns through the juxtaposed events in “The Singers” is that Russia is filled with tremendous unfocused yearning, but kept in line by physical force. Hanging in the night air is the question of where such a society is headed. Sketches from a Hunter's Album was widely read as an attack on serfdom, and not only by people with formal training in literary criticism. There are many reasons why the ending of “The Singers” is good -- if there weren't, it wouldn't be. But what comes first is its haunting effect – the story stays with us, as it stayed with Mueenuddin, compelling us to analyze it further and further.
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3 thoughts on “The Ending of "The Singers"”

  1. I disagree that "accepting that to understand short stories you need a professor to explain them to you would be the same as accepting that the short story is not a vital popular art-form" – though I guess it hinges on the definition of "popular." Lots of art requires some background for appreciation, even if it's just looking at the body of the artist's work to see chronological flow. But maybe that art isn't popular.
    But here's another example. Among those so educated (and few people can become so educated without the aid of a few professors), mathematics reflects inherent elegance on a scale difficult to match with ink, paint, or even bits. So viscerally elegant, I would argue, that were more people so peculiarly educated, it would merit "popularity". Watching Newton's laws emerge from the Principle of Least Action, or the first law of thermodynamics from Noether's theorem is a spiritual experience unlikely to be matched by any but the best of the best among rival art forms – whether you watch it as your own hands perform the miracle, or if you're in the back of an auditorium, it's stunning to see pure abstraction reflect absolute reality.
    Of course, I could be wrong.

  2. I wonder what May means by the activity of "reading" when he says that "I am not convinced that any person, no matter how educated, can read a literary short story without some knowledge of the form’s techniques, conventions, and devices."
    This is not literally about the activity of deciphering words on paper (or screen), is it? Is this about the pleasure of the encounter with text? About the level of comprehension? the (Both depend on one's level of education). Is this about appreciating a value of a text (what's the point of it ever being written)? Is this about reading a text within a certain tradition?

    My friend who teaches community college was complaining the other day that her students found it impossible to understand Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado." They had trouble understanding the whole notion of "unreliable narrator." I don't think this is about education (they've read Poe in junior high, although a different story); I think this is about education within a certain tradition (realist). Hence, yeah, without my friend's guidance, these students are having trouble not only deriving pleasure from but also seeing the value (i.e., "reading"?) of Poe. In the same session, they LOVED "Everything That Rises Must Converge."

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