M. Bulgakov's Heart of A Dog
M. Bulgakov's Heart of A Dog
Mikhail Afanasevich Bulgakov (1891-1940) considered M.E. Saltykov-Schedrin, the grim satirist, as his teacher and N.V.Gogol remained his favourite writer. No wonder then, that his writings were a blend of harsh satire with a jovial, fantastic, mocking laughter in the beginning which becomes sad, melancholy, grim towards the end. This is strikingly true of Bulgakov’s early satirical prose which he created during 1924-1926 i.e., during the years of NEP. Well known among his works of this period were two collections of short stories – Diaboliad and A Treaties on Housing – and two novelettes – The Fateful Eggs and Heart of a Dog.
Though The Fateful Eggs was published in the Soviet Union in 1925, Heart of a Dog saw the light of the day in the author’s country only in 1987, although Bulgakov had read it many times, in parts, to his friends. Thus, the text of this novelette was known to a section of people and a few others had access to it as well, after it was published abroad.
On the surface both these novelettes narrate the misuse of scientific experiments in the hands of unworthy people and the subsequent disenchantment of the inventors. A careful reading of these works would provide clues to many startling realities such as the repression of individuals by the state, high-handedness of bureaucrats, censorship, etc. These facts have now, after the disintegration of former Soviet Union, become known to people, but at that time only writers of Bulgakov’s calibre could depict them using fantasy, satire, irony, elements of science fiction and the like.
The plot of Heart of a Dog is as follows:
Professor Preobrazhensky, a “leading light” in medicine, as the narrator describes him, is an expert in rejuvenating people. He continues his research in this field even after the Great October Revolution. In order to create a better variety of human race he conducts an experiment: he replaces the brain and the testicles of a street dog by those of a man who was killed in an accident. The results of this transplant were strange. The dog, Sharik, started walking on two feet, his skin threw off its fur and became as smooth as the skin of a human being; he began to exhibit other human traits and skills: he began to speak, understand, enter into arguments and was able to read.
Till this point, the narration progresses smoothly, but suddenly, the satirist in Bulgakov gives it an interesting turn stating that the strange aspect of Sharik’s metamorphosis was that he acquired only the negative traits of the human species. He started stealing, arguing for his rights, learned to tell lies, come home completely drunk. He also started working as a sub-inspector for sanitation whose main job was to liquidate stray animals. But Sharik not only used to drive away stray cats, but he preferred to kill them. As a mark of inherent loyalty to his original race he never so much as touched a stray dog. He even planned to marry a girl, who was working in his office, hiding his true identity from her. He bluffed her saying that the ring like mark on his forehead (a reminder of his brain transplant operation) was from wounds received during the Civil War. Interestingly enough, Sharik’s uncivilized behaviour seemed repulsive only to the culturally refined Professor. While showing the evolution of Sharik into Sharikov, BUlgakov points out the basic cultural difference between the intelligentsia and proletariat. It is remarkable that Bulgakov does not criticise the negative traits in Sharikov’s character; he tries to highlight that these were the very peculiarities and glaring properties of the fast emerging proletariat which had captured power.
All this was tolerated in Philipp Philippovich Preobrazhensky’s house with great patience, but when Sharik tried to rape the caretaker Zhinochka and attempted to kill Doctor Bormental, the Professor’s assistant (who was in fact looking after Sharik, his needs, trying to educate him), some drastic measures had to be taken. The Professor did not allow Bormental to kill Sharik, for he always insisted on keeping one’s hands and conscience clean. He had no alternative but to retransplant Sharik’s own brain and other parts into his body.
Was it the brain of Klim Grigorevich Chugunkin who himself was a criminal, thief and alcoholic or the company surrounding Sharik – the members of the Domcom (Housing Society) who were all arrogant, stubborn, haters of the intelligentsia – which converted Sharik into a snob? Only a careful reader can draw the conclusion that Sharik was not a unique, isolated character whom Bulgakov wanted to portray. He did not want to preach only against the misuse of science. Bulgakov, the master that he was, has shown us a typical representative of the proletarian class. Sharik, in fact, reflects the whole mental and social status of the proletarian class. But Bulgakov does not simply want to depict the proletariat as it was, he wants to convey the message that the creators of the proletariat class wanted it to be a finer version of mankind but the experiment proved fatal for themselves. If they were alive, they would have definitely reversed the direction of this process. Doesn’t that remind one of Bhasmasura1 who had to be eliminated as he was about to destroy his creator?
While describing the life of Sharik, the street dog, before he was picked up by Preobrazhensky for his experiment, Mikhail Bulgakov does not try to hide the fact that it was, indeed, the life of masses before revolution. The author gives the picture of society through Sharik’s perception. The language used by Bulgakov for this purpose is typical of illiterates, that of people belonging to lower social strata. A cook from a community kitchen threw boiling water on Sharik thereby scalding him. Sharik wriggled in pain, “what a swine…and a proletarian!” Trying to endure the pain Sharik meditates over his life, “...Where would you go now? Were you hit with shoes? Yes! Did you get bricks on your ribs? I have eaten enough in my life…have gone through every ordeal…I have submitted myself to my fate and if I am crying now it’s because of pain and cold, because my soul is still alive. It can still feel!...Long live dog’s soul 2 (p.321).
Sharik is not self centred, does not bother only about his problems observes the life surrounding him in his own impartial way evaluating, thus, directly the people and indirectly the social system. Sharik says, “…what nonsense they do at the Soviet Normal Diet – it is beyond a dog’s wisdom. They (cooks) boil soup out of stinking beef, and the customers, poor fellows, don’t know anything about it. They come running, gorge and lap it up” (p.322).
This description of people eating in community kitchens is exactly opposite to that of Phillip Philippovich, the representative of intelligentsia having his dinner or lunch in his dining hall. While the proletariat only “gorges and laps it up”, the intelligentsia has still preserved decency in almost all walks of life. Obviously enraged at this, the proletariat is out to deprive Philip Philippovich of his dining hall and drawing room. With this aim, during the early twenties, many buildings belonging to affluent people, were confiscated and converted into community apartments. Bulgakov mentions it in almost all his works written during that time. Here also, considering the nature of Prof Preobrazhensky’s work, his fame, as well as his importance in the society, he was allowed to retain all his seven rooms for himself, but the Domcom somehow wanted to acquire four out of Professor’s seven rooms. Arguments between the members of Domcom and the Professor reflect the feeling of hatred that was prevailing between the intelligentsia and proletariat. Sharik, in whose presence this meeting took place, describes it like this:
“Four special visitors entered the room. They were all young and were dressed modestly. The Professor looked at them, as a commander of army looks at his enemies…his nostrils flared up. The intruders trampled down the carpet and said, “Professor, we have come to you for…,” the Professor interrupts them, “You, sirs, have spoiled my Persian carpets”. They were taken aback but after a few seconds got control over themselves and said, “Firstly, we are not Sirs, nor Dear Sir. We are put up in Sablin’s flat. We are the new House Management Committee of this building.” Shvonder (President of this Domcom) added with great malice, “ We have come to you after a meeting of the Domcom, in which the question of reducing the per capita living space was discussed.” (p.338)
Here Bulgakov hits two birds in one stroke, first he ridicules the language of the newly emerging proletariat, which, even in day to day life, was similar to the language of protocols etc. The exact Russian version of this conversion is:
Стоял вопрос об уплотнении квартир дома.” (Literal translation of this sentence into English would be “…stood the question about reducing the per person living space of quarters in this building.”
‘Стоял’ , as is well known, means “stood” and would answer such questions as who? Where? Philip Philippovich virtually shouted at Shvonder when he commented about “standing question”.
Кто на ком Стоял?... потрудитесь излагать ваши мысли яснее.”
(Who stood on whom?-try to explain your thoughts more clearly.”
Secondly, Bulgakov makes the reader aware of the fact that the houses of intelligentsia and of people not belonging to working class were either confiscated or they were made to shrink in their flats which caused lots of problems to them.
Shvonder said, “after having looked into your case, the Domcom has come to the conclusion that you are occupying an extremely large area. You alone are staying in seven rooms…so the ‘general meeting’ requests you, as per labour discipline, to surrender, voluntarily, the dining hall to us. No one in Moscow has dining halls these days!”
“…even Isadora Duncan3 doesn’t have one” – shouted the woman.
“ …and also surrender to us the examination room. You can check up your patients in your study just as well.” (p.339)
When the Professor refused to surrender to this order, they threatened him that they would complain to the higher authorities about him. But the higher authorities, keeping in view Philip Philipovich’s speciality and his fame as a doctor, allowed him to retain the whole space for himself. But the Domcom, while leaving the place, commented, “If only you were not the Light of Europe an had the higher authorities not helped you, we would have arrested you…because you hate the proletariat.” (p.342)
It is as if Bulgakov is giving vent, through Philip Philippovich, to his own feelings, when he says: “Yes, I don’t like proletariat.” (p.342)
Though the working class hates Prof. Preobrazhensky, Sharik regards him as his God – the creator. Sharik does not even think of running away from Philip Philippovich‘s house: “Why should I look for freedom? What is freedom after all? It’s smoke, mirage, fiction…delirium of these ill fated democrats…” (p.355)
Sharik preferred to be content if he got food, warmth and shelter. The same mentality kept the proletariat silent for seventy long years, in spite of some thoughts about freedom now and then. But Bulgakov seems to warn them that freedom is like a mirage…no true freedom can ever be found on this earth.
Surprisingly enough, today, after about seventy years, the modern Russians who could free themselves from the communists must have understood the message underlying these words.
M. Bulgakov comments on various aspects of proletarian society. He does not speak only about the ideological relationship between the incoming and outgoing class. He aims at showing the peculiar characteristics of the working class, mostly through Sharik’s perception: “Another typist gets four and a half chervonetz4 but her lover presents her Persian stockings…and how much humiliation she has to bear for the sake of these stockings…well…he loves her not in a common style…but in French style…she comes running to him in the stockings presented by him…legs are cold, stomach is cold…she has to wear lacy things…no woollen clothing, or else he shouts… “I am fed up of my Matryona, I am sick of flannel stockings…At last my days have come. I am now President (of some committee), no matter how much I steal, I spend it all on women. On crawfish tails, on Abrau-Dyurso5.Since I have starved enough in my youth…I don’t believe in life after death. So let me enjoy my present.” (P.322-323)
Sharik’s seemingly innocent observation speaks a lot about holders of Profsoyuz tickets, party workers, who are, as if, entitled for all comforts of life.
Making fun of the Soviet newspapers, M.Bulgakov advises Doctor Bormental: “If you are conscious about our diet – never speak about Bolshevism during lunch, never read soviet newspapers before lunch.” The 30 patients, who were interviewed in this connection by Doctor Preobrazhensky, gave the following reactions:
“Those who don’t read any newspapers feel excellent, but those whom I forced to read Pravda considerably lost their weight, lost appetite and even had attacks of depression.”
Philip Philippovich feels that the proletariat is spoiling the place i.e. society, making it unsuitable for living. He says metaphorically, “I have been staying in this house since 1903. Since then till March 1917, there wasn’t a single case of theft of even a single pair of galoshes from the unlocked door of this building consisting of twelve flats. Apart from the residents there are patients coming to me everyday. But in March 1917 all the galoshes disappeared, also disappeared 3 sticks, one overcoat and one samovar. Since then we have been putting galoshes with the watchman. Why was the carpet removed from the staircase? Does Karl Marx prohibit carpeting staircases? Has Marx anywhere written that the second entrance to this building be sealed with wooden boards and the residents should use the backdoor? Why can’t the proletariat leave its galoshes at the entrance? Why does it spoil the marble?
“Probably it doesn’t have galoshes,” commented Bormental.
“Nothing of that sort,” thundered Philip Philippovich; “ It has galoshes…my galoshes which disappeared in the spring of 1917…only if they had taken them off at the entrance and left the place clean!” (P.345-346)
How much disappointment can be felt in these words! The proletariat, having deprived the intelligentsia of everything, was destroying the very aesthetic base of society and taking it back to darker times. Mikhail Bulgakov uses ‘white marble house’ where Preobrazhensky used to live as a symbol of intelligentsia. In fact, there was one such building in Prechistenko, the region predominated by intelligentsia. Many of Bulgakov’s characters are shown to be residing there. Whiteness of the marble represents the cleanliness, purity of these people, which was trampled down by proletariat after March 1917 i.e. soon after the temporary government took over.
Philip Philippovich is sure that “nothing will change for the better in this house and in every other house till these singers shut their mouths…unless they stop their concerts.” Proletariat, as per Philip Philippovich, was lagging behind Europe by 200 years and “they can’t even button up their trousers.” (P.347)
On this Doctor Bormental commented in jest, “Philip Philippovich, you are talking counter revolutionary things. God forbid, if someone listens to us!” (P.347)
In 1925 Bulgakov boldly pointed out that people are under constant watch. Simply a word against the authorities or the system would make people vanish into the unknown. It was as if the author predicted the purges that were going to begin soon.
Bulgakov, at the same time suggests, “one should influence a man or an animal by inspiration.” “With affection. This is the only way to deal with a human being. Terror won’t help getting anything from an animal, however developed he is. I have always stressed this and shall always stress the same. They think in vain, that terror will help them. No…it won’t help…whosoever it is. White, red or even brown. Terror completely paralyses the nervous system.” (P. 331) Though these words were uttered with reference to Sharik, there is the eternal truth underlying them. Bulgakov tries to divert the authorities from the path of bloodshed. The choice of adjectives here also speaks a lot. Bulgakov does not say, White, Black but White (counter revolutionaries), Red (Revolutionaries – communists), Brown (a mixture of Red and White i.e. internal immigrants). But in the purges, not only the Whites and Browns but also Reds were subjected to the highest degree of cruelty and terror.
One more incident is exploited by Bulgakov in favour of shunning the politics of murder and bloodshed. When Sharik gradually picks up the crudest possible language and argues about his rights and ultimately tries to kill the Professor, Doctor Bormental proposes to poison Sharik to death, but Philip Philippovich stops him saying, “Never commit a crime against anyone. Live life with clean hands.” (P.398) He is not ready to kill even his own creation, even when his experiment about ‘reforming the human race’ failed miserably. For him, murder is not the ultimate solution of any problem. Preobrazhensky, instead, chose to bring Sharik back to his original state.
The beautiful epilogue tells the readers about what happened after the dog’s brain was retransplanted in its body. Ten days later…at midnight the militia and the investigator stormed Philip Philippovich’s flat. By choosing midnight as the time for this search operation, Bulgakov, again, has drawn our attention to the fact that people used to vanish, mostly, during nights. They brought with them a warrant to arrest Professor, depending on the outcome of this search. Preobrazhensky was accused of the murder of Sharikov. The Professor said that he doesn’t know any Sharikov…it was only Sharik, his dog, whom he had operated upon and added that the dog was still alive. The investigator, accompanied by the president of the Domcom, Shvonder, demanded that Sharik be produced before them.
Sharik was brought into the drawing room and everyone saw that “a horrible looking dog, with a pink mark of injury on its forehead came walking on its hind legs, gave a smile to everyone and sat on the chair (P.410).
When the investigator said that they were looking for Sharikov who was working in the sanitation department, the Professor said ironically that it was Shvonder and not the Professor, who recommended him there. The visitors were totally puzzled… they started arguing that Sharikov could speak like human being…and suddenly Sharik said in a human voice: “Don’t use indecent expressions!” (P.411) Hearing this, Shvonder fell unconscious, there was total confusion in the room when everyone saw the dog speaking, and the Professor had the last word to say, “Science still does not know the ways and means of transforming animals into human beings. I tried, but was unsuccessful, as you see! He spoke for a while and fell silent, went back to his original state, Atavism.” (P.411)
Mikhail Bulgakov, as if, predicted that the experiment of ‘communism’ will also definitely go back in the reverse direction and society will again start distinguishing between civilised human beings and animals. Philip Philippovich’s experiment failed (and so failed the experiment of forming a communist state) because the researcher, instead of going parallel and in harmony with nature, went against it…the result was Sharikov, who was to be eliminated or else the product of the experiment would have destroyed the creator.
- Bhasmasura, the demon, was given a boon by Lord Shiva, that whosoever he puts his hand on his head will turn into ashes. Intoxicated by this unusual power Bhasmasura was out to eliminate Lord Shiva. Ultimately Lord Vishnu in the guise of Mohini made Bhasmasura put his hand on his own forehead thereby destroying him.
- Translations are mine. The quotations are taken from M.Bulgakov’s collection of early satirical prose The Crimson Island. M.1990
- Isadora Duncan-Well known American dancer, she married Soviet Poet Sergei Esenin in 1922.
- Chervonetz-Ten roubles in terms of gold coins, as well as currency notes.
- Abrau-Dyurso- This is a Champagne available at that time in the Soviet Union.