Academic journal article Pushkin Review

Tragedy in the Balkans: Pushkin's Critique of Romantic Ideology in the Gypsies

Academic journal article Pushkin Review

Tragedy in the Balkans: Pushkin's Critique of Romantic Ideology in the Gypsies

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article examines Pushkin's The Gypsies as a case study of the changing status of tragedy in the Romantic period. Arguing that The Gypsies is a narrative of displacement in which Pushkin traces the failures of the Greek Revolution and, more broadly, European liberalism to the Romantic ideology of Rousseau and his followers, it shows how Pushkin challenged Rousseau's depiction of the noble, unenlightened savage and advanced the idea that all men are vulnerable to the same passions and fates. Moreover, it goes on to show that while Pushkin sought to stylize his poem after the works of Greek tragedy, in its emphasis on misfortune from within and the universal, destructive nature of the passions, the tragic vision expressed in the work can be traced back to Racine. The "open" world of Romanticism meets the limits imposed by Racinian tragedy. Overall, The Gypsies is presented as a work that mixes critique and commemoration, marking the entrance of tragedy into Pushkin's poetic vision.

Key words: Gypsies, Greek Revolution, Rousseau, tragedy, Racine, genre, Pushkin

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Among the many colorful escapades that Pushkin is said to have taken part in during his famed Southern exile were the several weeks that he spent among a nomadic Gypsy tribe in Moldavia. According to an oral account passed on to her nephew by Pushkin's Kishinev acquaintance Ekaterina Zakhar'evna Stamo (nee Ralli), the twenty-two-year-old poet was accompanying Stamo's brother Konstantin on a visit to Dolna when he met and fell madly in love with a beautiful Gypsy girl named Zemfira. The daughter of the respected tribe elder (buli-basha), Zemfira was a tall girl with large black eyes and long undulating braids who dressed like a man, wore colorful trousers (sharovary), and smoked a pipe. Pushkin was so enchanted by Zemfira's beauty that he asked Konstantin if he could stay with the tribe. And so he set tled there for several weeks, during which time he and Zemfira could be seen strolling together in the woods, holding each other's hands, and, unable to speak the same tongue, communicating by pantomime. This idyll came to an abrupt end when Pushkin began to suspect Zemfira of infidelity. Waking up one morning to learn that Zemfira had run off with a young Gypsy, Pushkin followed her to the next village, but, unable to find her, decided to return alone to Kishinev. It was several years later that he received a letter from Konstantin informing him of Zemfira's brutal murder at the hands of her new lover. The tragic episode inspired Pushkin to write his great narrative poem The Gypsies (1824). (1)

Stamo's exotic tale of illicit love, jealousy, and murder has recently been challenged on a number of factual and ethnographic counts, highlighting some of the difficulties that readers have faced in approaching Pushkin's last Southern poema. (2) The Gypsies has often been regarded as a watershed work for Pushkin, one that marked his break with the peculiar brand of Romanticism that he inherited from Lord Byron. (3) But as Stamo's apparent eagerness to project the fictional plot of The Gypsies onto Pushkin's biography seems to suggest, the semiotic context within which the poem was written and read was still in large part defined by Byronic codes and conventions. In fact, The Gypsies presents a collision of two distinct genres, or, rather, two poetic modes - one subjective and lyrical, the other objective and dramatic. While the lyrical mode encourages readers to draw connections between the author"s personal experiences and the events of the plot, the dramatic mode is characterized by a distanced authorial perspective and makes a gesture toward universalization. It is, in part, the uneasy coexistence of these two modes that lends The Gypsies its power and novelty. It also makes the poem a perfect case study for examining the changing status of tragedy in the Romantic period. What happens to the Romantic narrative poem when it takes on the form and topoi of traditional tragedy? …

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