Oblomov occupies a unique place among the great Russian masterpieces of the nineteenth century. Goncharov's great novel kicks Dostoyevsky's violence, Turgenev's brilliance and compactness, and Tolstoy's monumental force. And yet Goncharov did something that none of these great creative writers was able to do: he transformed the humdrum life of his totally insignificant and uninteresting hero into a great tragi-comedy, and he did it not by any trick from the novelist's bag, but by a painstaking accumulation of seemingly insignificant details and by a completely detached and, at the same time, sympathetic analysis of his hero's character.
In his reminiscences Goncharov pointed out that he created the character of Oblomov as a result both of his personal observations and self-analysis. Already as a very observant and impressionable little boy, he wrote, he was so deeply struck by the carefree existence and the idleness of the representatives of the nobility in his native town that a vague impression of Oblomov as a type of human being first arose in his mind. Later on, he declared, 'Oblomov's indolent image was constantly thrust before my eyes in myself and others'. In creating Oblomov, therefore, Goncharov had in mind the universal aspect of his hero, and indeed the greatness of his novel as a work of art lies in the universality of its hero. Oblomov can hardly be said to be a typically Russian character: there are thousands of Oblomovs scattered all over the world.
It is no less true, moreover, that it was by his deeply sympathetic attitude towards a hero with such negative qualities as Oblomov that Goncharov succeeded in creating a full-blooded human being. It is interesting that in his novel Goncharov himself condemned the so- called 'realistic' writers who wage 'bitter war on vice' and indulge in 'contemptuous laughter at fallen humanity' in the belief that 'to express ideas one does not need a heart'. The novel as a whole is, of course, a powerful condemnation of serfdom, but the exposure of its iniquities is all the more effective for being indirect and implicit.
Ivan Goncharov himself did not belong to the class of the Russian serf-owning nobility. His father was a well-to-do grain merchant of Simbirsk, a small provincial town on the Volga which, to quote Goncharov, 'presented a complete picture of steep and stagnation'. He was born on 18 June 1812. His father died when he was a boy . . .