Ivan Goncharov Essay - Critical Essays


“My life began flickering out from the very first moment I became conscious of myself.” Thus, Ilya Oblomov explains his arrested development to his successful business friend, Stolz, who is making a last try to rouse Oblomov from his fatal lethargy, and thus Goncharov points the reader to the cause of Oblomov’s inertia: his childhood in a sleepy, backward manor house, attended by an army of serfs, every moment structured to reinforce an existence of indolently blissful inactivity, a paradise to which the adult strives all of his life to return. Oblomov’s failure as a man and his search for a surrogate childhood in a simple St. Petersburg family fit perfectly the scheme of the psychological novel. From this perspective, the seemingly typical Russian landowner Oblomov becomes a universal figure, and the old-fashioned Russian village becomes merely background.

Such a perspective, however, has its drawbacks. If one considers Oblomov apart from Goncharov’s other novels, as is often the case in the West, the wider artistic sweep of his fiction is neglected. Each of his novels gives expression to a different facet of the contradictions encountered by the Russian patriarchal order as it confronted sociopolitical reform. Goncharov’s characters can be said to embody the two warring dominant philosophies of nineteenth century Russia: Slavophilism and Westernization. The author’s own struggle between these two opposing forces is cast into sharp focus in the novels, as his progress-oriented mind gradually loses ground to his tradition-loving, Slavophile heart.

Neither Goncharov’s personal dissatisfactions nor his conservative turn impair his stature as an accomplished novelist. The expert use of several literary devices contributes to this renown. There is, first of all, his power of observation, the ability to create such a lifelike image of an ordinary event through accumulation of detail that his scenes are compared to Flemish interiors. Authorial ambiguity also enriches thenarrative. The first two novels conceptually demonstrate the advantages of a progressive economy and the futility of perpetuating serfdom, but Goncharov presents a dying way of life with such a wealth of attractive imagery that social indifference, indeed exploitation, infantilism, and stagnation, are turned into a languidly cozy, almost noble way of life, feeding on nostalgia and winning sympathy for its prejudices.

No less impressive is Goncharov’s skill in suggesting the delusions of the regressive personality. Oblomov’s insecure psyche reshapes his ordinary village into a harmless, safe refuge, smoothing craggy mountains into gentle hillocks, swift rivers into murmuring brooks, extremes of climate into eternally pleasant weather, passions into lethargy. Readers are scarcely aware that the descriptions are no longer objective, but the distortions of a frightened mind.

Finally, Goncharov excels in drawing exquisite female portraits; his women also symbolize the synthesis between the old and new. In A Common Story, Lizaveta is able to balance the contradictory forces that pull the male characters into adversary position; in Oblomov, Olga combines the best of old Russia, its cultural heritage, with an inquisitive mind and an active personality; in The Precipice, Vera eventually unites the positive features of her patriarchal upbringing with the progressive forces of a commercially enterprising spouse.

In his final novel, Goncharov’s moralizing instincts undermine his mastery of style, as didactic elements intrude too explicitly. The author’s own estrangement from the present and his nostalgia for a less complex existence color his perceptions. His slow-paced upbringing, his later insecurities, his realization that progress was necessary, his struggle between old and new, and his final withdrawal from society are the building blocks of all of his works. He delicately managed to balance these elements before yielding to his own preferences.

A Common Story

The unstinting praise of Russia’s foremost social critic, Vissarion Belinsky, assured the success of A Common Story the moment it appeared in the literary journal Sovremennik. Ironically, the work was hailed as an exposé of the degenerate gentry class and a call for modernization. Critics and readers alike noted only the main character Alexander Aduev’s final acceptance of St. Petersburg’s progressive lifestyle, not his mentor-uncle’s disillusionment with it. They also overlooked the author’s cautious suggestion that the city’s competitive utilitarianism was no more satisfying than the monotony of the backward village.

This misperception attests Goncharov’s balancing skill. Alexander is lured from his peaceful, idyllic estate, lovingly presented in the fragrance of its lilacs, berries, bushes, and forests, by visions of cosmopolitan dazzle. Once he is taken in hand by a “new man,” his coldly efficient, philistine uncle, Peter, one disappointment succeeds another. Like an early Oblomov, Alexander adjusts only superficially, never able to integrate his rustic values with St. Petersburg’s diverse phenomena. Like a young Goncharov, Alexander blunders from one unsuccessful love affair to another. His literary endeavors, characterized by overblown sentimental clichés, are equally fruitless. Despite all efforts by Peter, he turns into a rather ridiculous figure, an out-of-place relic in the bustling city. Goncharov’s ambiguous attitude, however, gives enough scope to elicit a measure of pity from the reader, to mark the young man’s discomforts and his inability to cope.

Peter’s young wife, Lizaveta, compassionately brings out Alexander’s positive traits. When all attempts at acclimatization end in failure, he returns to his quiet country home and recovers his bearings. yet the lessons of the city are not lost. At a distance, its hectic multiplicity develops into a fair alternative to the boring idyll of the placid province. In the end, Alexander sets out...

(The entire section is 2479 words.)