Leonard Q. Ross’s popular story “Cemetery Path” is very short, easy to read, and has a twist ending that many readers have enjoyed. It’s a popular short story for students and other younger readers, although I think older readers can enjoy it just the same. This analysis starts with a “Cemetery Path” summary then looks at themes and some questions.
“Cemetery Path” Summary
Ivan is a timid little man. The villagers mock him by calling him “Pigeon” or “Ivan the Terrible.” He stops at a tavern every night. Everyone knows he won’t walk through the cemetery, even though it would save time.
On a cold winter night, the patrons start jeering Ivan. He claims the cemetery is just like any other ground. A Cossack lieutenant offers Ivan five gold rubles to cross the cemetery tonight. Ivan accepts the challenge, perhaps because of the vodka or the money. The patrons can’t believe it.
The lieutenant unbuckles his saber and hands it to Ivan, telling him to stick it in the ground in the center of the cemetery, in front of the biggest tomb, as proof. If it’s there in the morning, he gets the money.
Ivan takes the saber. The men drink a toast and laugh. He goes out into the cold, buttoning up his long coat. He can still hear the men yelling inside.
Ivan pushes through the cemetery gate and starts his walk. The darkness is dreadful and the wind is cold. He tells himself it’s just like walking anywhere else and also thinks of the money.
He picks up his pace and reaches the large tomb. Fighting the cold and his fear, he drives the saber into the hard ground all the way to the hilt.
Ivan tries to stand up but can’t. Something holds him there. He panics, lurching and pulling away to no avail. He’s overcome with fear, yells in terror and gurgles.
The next morning, the men find Ivan dead on the ground in front of the big tomb. He has an expression of horror on his face. The saber has been pounded through the folds of Ivan’s long coat and into the ground.
(End of “Cemetery Path” summary)
“Cemetery Path” Theme: Irrational Fear
The entire story rests on Ivan’s irrational fear of walking through the cemetery. Indeed, without this character trait, the story’s premise wouldn’t be interesting at all and the ending would be impossible.
Fear isn’t a bad thing in itself. It can prevent someone from putting themselves in unnecessary danger, moving them to take reasonable precautions. The author makes it clear this isn’t the kind of fear Ivan feels. He doesn’t avoid the cemetery because it’s a popular spot for muggings or other attacks. There’s also no mention that he fears any other places.
Ivan’s fear is based in the supernatural. It’s implied he fears the cemetery purely because it’s where dead people are buried—as a gloomy, ghostly place. He responds to the jeering about the graveyard by murmuring, “It is nothing but earth, like all the other earth.” It seems Ivan is responding to the common perception around his fear, that there’s some mystical reason to be afraid of the cemetery. This is confirmed by Ivan’s attempt at self-calming as he walks, when he says, “Earth, just earth. . . like any other earth.”
In contrast to a healthy fear that could save one’s life, Ivan’s irrational fear costs him his. He dies, presumably from a heart attack, due to sheer terror. He doesn’t consider the possibility of a physical reason, which is the most obvious assumption, for his immobility. His extreme fear renders him unable to think clearly, and he dies over nothing—in a paroxysm of superstitious fright.
“Cemetery Path” Theme: Teasing & Bullying
The constant teasing from his peers in “Cemetery Path” leads Ivan to his unfortunate death. There’s no indication he bothered anyone; he could have continued to live as he did. Instead of accepting Ivan’s difficulty, his peers make it a point of major importance. They belittle him over it with nicknames and constant mockery, as if this is the only thing that matters about him.
The results of this teasing and pressure are disastrous for Ivan. He’s driven to do something he doesn’t want to do. The strain of it, albeit from an unexpected occurrence, sends him over the edge, mentally.
It’s noteworthy that even if Ivan hadn’t accepted this challenge and died, the effects of the teasing and peer pressure would still be present. He lives with it everyday, seems to be known only for his phobia, and is alienated from his peers. Ivan doesn’t get the acceptance and support he needs.
1. Based on Ivan’s extreme fear of the cemetery, is it believable that he accepts the challenge?
I think so. There are several factors that contribute to Ivan taking up the lieutenant’s challenge:
- He has been taunted about his fear for years, possibly most of his life.
- We’re not told if Ivan drank more or stronger alcohol this night, but his drinking might have dulled his fear a little.
- The money helps motivate him. To help keep up his nerve he says to himself, “Five gold rubles.”
It’s possible Ivan was nearing a breaking point from the constant teasing. Combining this with the relaxing effect of the whiskey and the thought of winning a significant prize, it’s believable that Ivan has sufficient motivation to face his fear.
We also must remember that Ivan’s fear doesn’t go away, it becomes just manageable enough for him to complete his task. “The darkness was a massive dread” and he’s terrified when he reaches the center. The fact that Ivan’s extreme fear hasn’t left him makes the incident plausible. He’s working at the limits of his mental control as he makes his walk.
2. Is the surprise ending “fair” to the reader?
Yes. The surprise ending of “Cemetery Path” makes sense and is set up sufficiently. The climactic moment when Ivan finds himself restrained at the big tomb depends on his long coat, which was mentioned twice before in the story, including just a few sentences before he gets stuck. It’s also stressed how cold it is, so Ivan would naturally be wearing his long coat.
Of course, some readers will figure out what really happened before reading the final paragraph, and maybe before that. That’s understandable, as the story seems to be geared toward younger readers.
I hope this “Cemetery Path” summary and look at themes was helpful.