Aleksandr Sergeevich Griboedov Critical Essays

Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Aleksandr Sergeevich Griboedov c. 1795-1829

Russian playwright, poet, and essayist.

One of Russia's most intelligent and highly educated aristocrats in the early nineteenth century, Griboedov was an accomplished playwright best known for Gore ot uma (1831; Woe from Wit), which many critics consider the greatest comedy in Russian literary history. The play quickly transcended critical favor and became part of the cultural fabric of the country. Fellow Russian writer Ivan Goncharov described the phenomenon: “Immediately grasping its beauty, and not finding any faults in it, the literate masses wore the manuscript down to tatters, to verses, to hemistiches; they distributed all its pith and wisdom into colloquial speech; they turned a million into kopecks.”

Biographical Information

Although there is a great deal of contradictory information regarding the date of Griboedov's birth, many sources maintain that he was born on January 4, 1795—others place his birth as early as 1790. His father, Sergei Ivanovich Griboedov, lived apart from his family and had little contact with his son. Griboedov was raised by his mother, Nastas'ia Fedorovna Griboedova, who saw to it that her son received a first-rate education. Griboedov entered the Moscow University Preparatory School for Nobles in 1803, receiving a literature degree in 1808 and a law degree in 1810. He began writing poetry while still a student, and one of his poems was published in the Moscow journal Vestnik Evropy in 1809.

Griboedov enlisted in the Russian army in 1812 and served as a general's aide for the next four years. During this time he published pieces of war correspondence in Vestnik Evropy. After leaving the army Griboedov entered the diplomatic service in St. Petersburg. He began writing plays at this time, some in collaboration with other playwrights. As part of his work in the Office of Foreign Affairs, Griboedov was assigned to the Russian diplomatic mission in Persia in 1818. He studied the Persian language while living there and was decorated by the shah for his service. In November of 1821 he was sent to Tiflis to serve under General Aleksei Petrovich Ermolov, the minister of foreign affairs.

Griboedov apparently formulated the idea for his masterpiece Woe from Wit as early as 1816, but the play was not actually completed until 1823 at the earliest, and it was not performed in its entirety until 1831. The play's many references to contemporary Russian politics attracted the attention of the censors, who thwarted attempts to publish or stage the work for several years. Those who read the play, including Aleksandr Pushkin, widely praised the work and the increasing critical and popular success eventually forced the Russian government to remove the ban. Although the full extent of his involvement is unknown, Griboedov was associated with the leaders of the Decembrists' revolt of 1825, and some critics have linked the republican ideals of the revolutionaries with the social criticism in Woe from Wit. He was imprisoned for four months, but was eventually pardoned and released, receiving an annual salary and a promotion to court councillor in compensation for his internment. He returned to service in the Caucasus, his experience proving invaluable in negotiating a peaceful settlement of Russia's war with Persia. The treaty, written by Griboedov, was signed in April of 1828. Shortly thereafter he was assigned to lead the Russian mission to Persia as the new ambassador. Before assuming his post, he visited Tiflis and renewed his acquaintance with Nina Chavchavadze, the daughter of a poet; they were married in August of 1828, and he continued on to Teheran. In January of 1829, all the members of the Russian mission, including Griboedov, were killed by a Persian mob. He is buried on a mountaintop in Tiflis.

Major Works

Griboedov's only famous work is Woe from Wit, which has often been compared to Molière's Le Misanthrope. The play's double plot involves, on one level, a classic love triangle between Chatsky, Sofia, and Molchalin, and on another level, a serious critique of Moscow society. The social criticism and the allusions to political figures and events resulted in heavy censorship and only portions of the play were published during Griboedov's lifetime; handwritten copies of the expurgated version, though, were widely circulated throughout Russia's literary community.

Although Griboedov wrote several plays, some in collaboration with other playwrights, as well as a number of poems and essays, the remainder of his work is virtually unknown today. Some of his manuscripts perished with him in the Persian massacre, others remain untranslated. Only Woe from Wit continues to attract critical and popular attention.

Critical Reception

Griboedov's comedy Woe from Wit was a tremendous success during the playwright's lifetime, although it was more often read than viewed. Pushkin, who called Griboedov “one of the smartest people in Russia,” reportedly considered the play a great accomplishment. Much of the critical attention on the work has centered on the influence of Molière's highly intelligent protagonist in Le Misanthrope, Alceste, and the character's disgust with the hypocrisy of contemporary society. Yvette Louria suggests that Griboedov's debt to Molière is considerable and it is a debt often unacknowledged by Russian scholars. She concedes, however, that both Soviet critics and Russian critics of an earlier era may have been concentrating more intensely on the work's political message, which is specific to Moscow's social and political scene and which in no way resembles Molière's play.

William Edward Brown praises Woe from Wit for its innovative portrayal of characters who are complex and “psychologically alive.” According to Brown: “Griboedov's people are all of a piece; they are intuited as complete psychological entities, and their language, their gestures, their modes of thinking, are all inseparable parts of their personalities.” Alexander Gershkovich also discusses Griboedov's characterization, specifically of Chatsky, maintaining that he is not only the first, but the only “effective and consistent portrait of individualism in Russian literature on a European scale.” For Gershkovich, the fact that Chatsky is completely alone and “at war with everyone,” makes him more like a Western hero or anti-hero than a Russian one.