Alexander Pushkin 1799–1837
(Full name Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin; also transliterated as Alexsandr Puškin) Russian poet, novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, and critic.
The following entry presents recent criticism on Pushkin. For additional information on Pushkin's career, see NCLC, Volume 3; for criticism devoted to his verse novel Yevgeny Onegin (1833; Eugene Onegin), see NCLC, Volume 27.
An outstanding figure of nineteenth-century literature, Alexander Pushkin is recognized as the national poet of Russia. Emphasizing the simplicity and beauty of his native tongue, he transformed the literary language of his age, and helped Russian literature escape the domination of eighteenth-century neoclassicism. In his works, Pushkin absorbed many of the structural and stylistic characteristics of European writers—notably François Voltaire, Lord Byron, Shakespeare, and Sir Walter Scott—and recast them in a uniquely Russian mold. Known primarily for his long narrative poems, particularly Eugene Onegin and Medny vsadnik (1837; The Bronze Horseman), Pushkin additionally produced several collections of lyric poetry and completed a series of stage tragedies, and one full-length drama, Boris Godunov (1831). With his fiction, Pushkin established the foundation for the writings of the great Russian novelists—Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Ivan Turgenev.
Born into the Russian aristocracy in 1799, Pushkin was brought up in an environment heavily influenced by European culture. From his early years in Moscow, Pushkin had easy access to French and British literature. After graduating from a government lycée at Tsarskoe Selo in 1817, he obtained an appointment to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in St. Petersburg. While there he alternated between periods of reckless dissipation and intense writing, finishing his first fulllength work Ruslan i Lyudmila (Ruslan and Lyudmila) in 1820. Just prior to its publication, however, Czar Alexander I exiled Pushkin to southern Russia for the allegedly revolutionary political sentiments expressed in his poetry. During the first four years of his six-year exile, he retained his civil service position and lived in various towns in the Caucasus and Crimea. Despite bouts of gambling and drinking, he was productive
during his years in southern Russia and wrote prolifically. Pushkin was eventually pardoned by Nicholas I in 1826, though the czar appointed himself the poet's personal censor, keeping him under strict observation and forbidding him to travel freely or leave Russia. In 1831 Pushkin married Natalia Nikolaevna Goncharova, and in the final ten years of his life he lived primarily in St. Petersburg where he produced Eugene Onegin and all of his shorter fiction. In 1837 he was severely wounded in a duel with George d'Anthès, an Alsatian nobleman who had openly made sexual advances toward Pushkin's wife. Pushkin died two days later.
Critics generally divide Pushkin's poetic works into three periods. His early works, those written before his exile, include the narrative poem Ruslan and Lyudmila—a comic epic that celebrates freedom and love as it addresses the theme of youth coming to maturity—and numerous shorter poems, most of which were never published because of the bold attitudes he expressed concerning erotic love, politics, and religion. The second period in Pushkin's career roughly parallels his exile in southern Russia. Two of his narrative poems from this period, Kavkazski plennik (1822;The Captive of the Caucasus)—which contrasts civilized and primitive cultures as it addresses themes of the individual versus society—and Bakhchisaraiski fontan (1824;The Bak-chesarian Fountain: A Tale of the Tauride—which treats envy and jealousy—reveal the extensive influence of Lord Byron in terms of technique, character, and structure. Of Pushkin's poems on religious themes Gavriiliada (1821; Gavriliada) is the most infamous for its treatment of the Immaculate Conception as a love intrigue involving Mary, Satan, the angel Gabriel, and God. The principle poems from the last period of Pushkin's career are his most enduring works, Eugene Onegin and The Bronze Horseman. Described as a novel in verse and recognized for its technical precision and narrative complexity, Eugene Onegin is a story of twice-rejected love set against a detailed picture of Russian life in the early nineteenth century. The Bronze Horseman contrasts the omnipotence of Peter the Great with the helplessness of the protagonist, who is symbolic of the masses sacrificed for the construction of St. Petersburg and the glory of imperial Russia.
Among Pushkin's dramatic works, Boris Godunov is a historical play based on the work of Shakespeare. It opens with the accession of Godunov, a regent, to the Russian throne in 1598 and details the following seven years of intrigue, which culminate in his death and replacement by an ignoble pretender to the crown. Pushkin's "Little Tragedies," four one-act plays in blank verse, are numbered among his most abiding works of psychological realism. These dramas turn upon such themes as envy (Motsart i Sal'eri, 1831; Mozart and Salieri), avarice (Skupoi rytsar, 1836; The Covetous Knight), or lust (Kammeny gost, 1839; The Stone Guest). Povesti Belkina (1831; The Tales of Ivan Belkin) represents Pushkin's major contribution to the short story form. The volume consists of five tales framed by the commentary of a fictitious editor, Ivan Petrovich Belkin. The austere prose of this work, bereft of poetic embellishment, moves rapidly and with little psychological commentary. Demonstrative of these tales, "The Shot" is a story of revenge occasioned by the conflict of youthful brazenness with a more mature reflection. The novella Pikovaya dama (1834; The Queen of Spades) blends the tightly-plotted narrative technique and spare style of the Tales with a Gothic sensibility. Three successive games of cards, the curse of a dead countess, and the hero's eventual descent into madness, all figure prominently in this supernatural tale. Kapitanskaya dochka (1836; The Captain's Daughter), a largely realistic novella drawn from the historical events of the Pugachev peasant uprising, remains an important example of Pushkin's late prose work.
Pushkin is considered by most critics to be the greatest and most influential Russian writer of the early nineteenth century. Still, much of Pushkin's work, particularly his lyric poetry, is rarely read outside of Russia—a reality most critics have attributed to the fact that his superlative style virtually defies translation. Although foreign readers may not be directly acquainted with Pushkin's writings, his influence is evident in the more widely-known books of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Nikolai Gogol. In Russia and internationally, Eugene Onegin is generally regarded as Pushkin's masterpiece, and many commentators have noted that its realistic presentation of scene and character provided the model for the modern Russian novel. In his prose, scholars have observed, Pushkin rejected a stagnant literary tradition that counted fiction as an inferior genre; his ventures away from the sentimental fiction of the late eighteenth century thus signaled a new direction for Russian literature. Early critics in the West who read Pushkin outside of the context of his predecessors, however, often simply noted—as Gustave Flaubert did—the flatness of his prose. Modern critics of Pushkin's dramatic works have called for a reevaluation of their formal qualities, with many scholars emphasizing flaws in Boris Godunov, while acknowledging Pushkin's successes in the "Little Tragedies." Despite some negative appraisals, interest in Pushkin's fiction, narrative poetry, and drama in the twentieth century has remained strong, with contemporary scholars tending to rely on psychological analysis to reexamine these works, often highlighting the elements of irony and parody that they contain and evaluating Pushkin's experiments in narrative structure and technique.