An elder sister from an unnamed town visits her younger sister in the country. The elder sister boasts about her city life, finding it superior to county life. She believes that people living in town are simply better than peasants.
The contrast between the elder sister and the younger sister is an illustration of the social hierarchy of nineteenth-century Russia, where material possessions and wealth determine individual worth. The elder sister embodies the characteristics and traits commonly associated with higher social standing, including resentment of the lower class.
The younger sister adamantly defends her life as a peasant. Believing that loss always follows gain, she prefers a simple life without the temptations of the city. She equates hard work with morality and insists that the self-sufficiency of farming means that “we don’t have to crawl to anyone and we’re afraid of no one.”
The younger sister is equally resentful of the elder sister, and she believes her life as a peasant is morally superior. The younger sister is portrayed as a better person compared to the elder sister because she works harder and avoids the evil vices frequently found in the city, such as drinking and gambling. Additionally, her subsistence lifestyle ensures she is beholden to no one, unlike her sister, the wife of a merchant, who undoubtedly must answer to some authority.
Pakhom, the younger sister’s husband, soon joins the debate. He values his life as a peasant and does not regret all his hard work. However, he does wish he had more land, claiming that with enough land he would “fear no one—not even the Devil himself!”
Pakhom is too proud to listen to the women debate without defending his peasant lifestyle. Ironically, in his defense of peasantry, Pakhom wishes for social mobility into a higher social class, believing that more land, and therefore more money, will somehow protect him from evil.
Nearby, the Devil sits listening to the family’s conversation. He receives Pakhom’s claim as a personal dare and vows to tempt Pakhom with “plenty of land” so that he may get him in his “clutches.”
The Devil’s presence in Pakhom’s home demonstrates the continual threat of evil in everyday life, which must be resisted constantly. Pakhom’s prideful behavior directly draws the ire of the Devil, who hopes to lure Pakhom to Hell by enticing him with land. Pakhom may have escaped the Devil’s attention had he behaved more humbly in response to the elder sister’s argument.