Critical Context

Envy is easily Olesha’s most important work; it is the only one of his novels to achieve the status of a Soviet classic—although it is not reprinted in the Soviet Union—and it is the one work of the author which is known to most students of Soviet literature. His work was greeted favorably when it was published because most critics misunderstood what the author was trying to achieve in it. Orthodox Marxist critics viewed the novel as a vindication of the new Soviet system because Ivan and Kavalerov are completely ineffectual and end up sharing the attentions of the fat widow; in effect, kept men who are unable to cope with reality. Opponents of the Soviet system viewed the novel as a call for more individualism in a society which was rapidly becoming collectivized, more emphasis on feelings rather than utilitarian worth. In the end the latter group of critics prevailed, and Envy is a banned classic in the Soviet Union. The truth of the matter is probably in the middle: The author was repelled by aspects of both sides in the dispute.

The real attractiveness of the novel was the freshness which Olesha brought to the theme. Critics of all persuasions praised the author’s style, which is a combination of symbolism, realism, and fantasy. The author deals with a very realistic problem of the times and enhances the main themes with a liberal dose of fantasy in order to emphasize the realistic nature of the situation. Such a method requires great virtuosity if it is to be successful, and most critics agree that Olesha was such a virtuoso. Using colorful images and a fast-paced narrative, the author managed to restate an old problem in a new form. Because of the Draconian restrictions placed upon Soviet literature soon after the publication of this work, its method was not repeated until the 1960’s, when Olesha became an openly acknowledged master for a new generation of Soviet writers.