Reference Guide to Russian Literature

By Neil Cornwell; Nicole Christian | Go to book overview

focus is on the greed of the mother and the hypocrisy of the son. So far as the politics of the decade were concerned, the only novel to offer an understanding picture of revolutionary Populism was Turgenev's Nov' ( Virgin Soil) of 1877, but its lukewarm appraisal of the revolutionaries' aims while celebrating their self-sacrifice made it seem ambiguous and dated.

The age of the classic Russian novel concludes with two masterpieces, Tolstoi's Anna Karenina ( 1875-77), and Dostoevskii's Brat'ia Karamazovy ( The Brothers Karamazov) 1880. Both reflect closely the dominant issues of the decade — in Tolstoi's case, the emancipation of women, the new role of the landowning nobility, the threat posed by the urban to the rural, the Russo-Turkish War; in Dostoevskii's, the issue of justice, faith versus free will, the power of money, the incipient terrorism — all within the framework of the damage done to the moral fibre of society and particularly to the family.

Anna Karenina may seem a triumph of authorial detachment in a technical sense, though there is no denying that the famous epigraph "Vengeance is mine and I will repay" presupposes some degree of authorial judgement. This does not mean that Anna's is not a portrait of deeply engaging vitality, and her tragedy the more poignant for that reason. Her high-society world has an equally strong allure. Driven by a need for love in her infatuation with Vronskii and turned into a social pariah by her husband's refusal of a divorce, she is seen moving brilliantly through her world, deserving better than its superficiality and yet never able to achieve a spiritual focus. Her suicide can seem as inevitable in its tragedy as the railway lines on which she immolates herself, but it is also all-too-humanly understandable in its futility and despair.

Structurally a novel of twin strands divided into eight parts, Anna's story is complemented by the parallel story of Konstantin Levin, which clearly enough reflects the author's own spiritual quest. Insufferably opinionated and serious-minded though Levin is, he possesses a truthful eye and can see Anna for what she is on the only occasion they meet — a vital, beautiful woman consumed by the tragedy of her loveless situation. His own marriage, if uneven, at least permits him the security of love and the chance to reach beyond rational causes to a belief in the popular wisdom that one should live for one's soul, thereby discovering a concept of God that can reconcile all men. His discovery, set as it is against the background of the Russo‐ Turkish War of 1877-78, the first so-called "War of Liberation", has a pacifist appeal no doubt suited to its time; it lacks, however, the contentious challenge that Dostoevskii brought to his classic study of the meaning of justice.

The Brothers Karamazov, though conceived much earlier, sprang from Dostoevskii's attendance at the trial of the terrorist Vera Zasulich in 1878 and has as its climax the trial of Dmitrii Karamazov for the killing of his father. Pronounced guilty by the jury, Dmitrii is shown in the first three parts of this four-part novel to be the victim of a miscarriage of justice. The reasons are explored in a supposedly narrated account of what actually happened in the three days immediately preceding the parricide. Set in a small town suspiciously like Staraia Russa ( Dostoevskii's vacation resort not far from Novgorod) and at a remove of 13 years before the supposed time of writing, the novel challenges notions of the real, and of truth and justice in many complex ways. On one level, it is about money. At a deeper level, it is about the choices facing Russia. These take two principal forms in the opposed ideas of Dmitrii's brothers, Ivan and Alesha.

Ivan seeks to liberate mankind from God and his unjust world by decrying the notion of a hell for evil-doers and offering a brilliant critique of Christ's teaching (in the famous chapter " The Grand Inquisitor"). He ends with the nihilistic assertion that there is no virtue and "all is permissible". Ironically Smerdiakov, his illegitimate brother, acts on such permissiveness to commit the parricide. The irony is compounded when Ivan is confronted on the eve of Dmitrii's trial by his personal devil who challenges him to tell the truth. But Ivan, for whom truth has become so deeply penetrated by paradox, cannot do more at the trial than declare that "We all desire our father's death", and a miscarriage of justice becomes inevitable.

Alesha, studying to be a monk at a local monastery, offers the teaching of his spiritual father, Zosima, as an antidote to Ivan. He advocates a Christian responsibility for all other men's sins. The killing of the father, however reprobate, becomes in this context a heinously nihilistic act that destroys both the unity of generations and the idea of justice as inseparable from universal responsibility for sin.

The ideas must seem incomplete, as the novel was incomplete, but in their boldness, as in the exploration of the tenuous line between the real and the unreal, the rational and irrational, Dostoevskii expanded the limits of the novel as a genre. His legacy of the ideological novel was the summit of achievement in the classic Russian novel. No other half-century of novel-writing in any literature has been able to match it.


The Superfluous Man in Russian Literature

The "superfluous man" (lishnii chelovek) is a term that, since the mid-I9th century, has been applied to a particular type of character in Russian literature. Ivan Turgenev's work of 1850, Dnevnik lishnego cheloveka ( The Diary of a Superfluous Man), popularized the term "superfluous man", which came to be used to identify literary characters of an earlier period of the I9th century as well as those in the middle years of the century and beyond, into the zoth century.Often, the end of the tradition of


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Reference Guide to Russian Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Reference Guide to Russian Literature *
  • Contents *
  • Editor's Note vii
  • Advisers xi
  • Contributors xi
  • Alphabetical List of Writers and Works xiii
  • Alphabetical List of Works xix
  • Chronological List of Writers xxiii
  • General Reading List xxvii
  • Chronology xxxv
  • Glossary xxxix
  • Introductory Essays *
  • Old Russian Literature 3
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russian Theatre 9
  • Russian Literature in the I8th Century 13
  • Aleksandr Pushkin: from Byron to Shakespeare 18
  • The Classic Russian Novel 25
  • The Superfluous Man in Russian Literature 29
  • Women's Writing in Russia 35
  • Russian Literary Theory: from the Formalists to Lotman 40
  • Post-Revolutionary Russian Theatre 45
  • Experiment and Emigration: Russian Literature, 1917-1953 49
  • Socialist Realism in Soviet Literature 55
  • Thaws, Freezes, and Wakes: Russian Literature, 1953-1991 59
  • Russian Literature in the Post-Soviet Period 64
  • Writers and Works *
  • A 73
  • B 127
  • C 213
  • D 237
  • E 271
  • F 297
  • G 311
  • H 379
  • I 389
  • K 413
  • L 485
  • M 521
  • N 559
  • O 585
  • P 611
  • R 685
  • S 707
  • T 789
  • U 859
  • V 861
  • Y 897
  • Z 899
  • Title Index 933
  • Notes on Advisers and Contributors 963


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