Alexander Pushkin Pushkin, Alexander (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ruslan i Lyudmila [Ruslan and Lyudmila] (poetry) 1820

*Gavriiliada [Gavriliada] (poetry) 1821

Kavkazski plennik [The Captive of the Caucasus] (poetry) 1822

Bakhchisaraiski fontan [The Bak-chesarian Fountain: A Tale of the Tauride] (poetry) 1824

Stansy (poetry) 1826

Bratya razboiniki [The Robber Brothers] (poetry) 1827

Graf Nulin [Count Nulin] (poetry) 1827

Tsygany [The Gypsies] (poetry) 1827

Poltava [Poltava] (poetry) 1829

Boris Godunov [Godunoff] [first publication] (drama) 1831

Motsart i Sal'eri [Mozart and Salieri] [first publication] (drama) 1831

Povesti Belkina [The Tales of Ivan Belkin] (short stones) 1831

Pir vo vremya chumy [A Feast during the Plague] [first publication] (drama) 1832

Domik v Kolomne [The Little House in Kolomna] (poetry) 1833

Yevgeny Onegin [Eugene Onegin] (verse novel) 1833

Pikovaya dama [The Queen of Spades] (novella) 1834

Shazki (fairy tales) 1834

Istoriya Pugacheva [History of Pugachev] (history) 1835

Kapitanskaya dochka [The Captain's Daughter] (novella) 1836

Puteshestvie v Arzrum [A Journey to Arzrum] (travel essay) 1836

Skupoi rytsar [The Covetous Knight] [first publication] (drama) 1836

Arap Petra Velikogo [The Negro of Peter the Great] (unfinished novel) 1837

Istoriya sela Goryukhina [History of the Village of Goryukhina] (unfinished novel) 1837

Medny vsadnik [The Bronze Horseman] (poetry) 1837

Kammeny gost [The Stone Guest] [first publication] (drama) 1839

Dubrovski [Dubrovsky] (unfinished novel) 1841

Rusalka [The Water Nymph] [first publication] (unfinished drama) 1841

Table Talk (essays) 1857

Polnoe sobranie sochienii. 16 vols. [The Poems, Prose and Plays of Alexander Pushkin] (poetry, drama, short stories, novellas, novels, essays, criticism, and letters) 1937-49

Pushkin's Poems (poetry) 1945

The Letters of Alexander Pushkin. 2 vols. (letters) 1963

The Critical Prose of Alexander Pushkin (criticism) 1969

Pushkin on Literature (letters, journals, and essays) 1971

*This work was widely circulated in manuscript form but never published by Pushkin.

†These works are collectively referred to as "The Little Tragedies."

Nikolai Gogol (essay date 1832)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Few Words About Pushkin," in Russian Literature Triquarterly; Vol. 10, 1974, pp. 180-83.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1832, Gogol lauds Pushkin as Russia's national poet.]

The name of Pushkin immediately evokes the thought—Russian national poet. Indeed, none of our poets is higher than he and none deserves more to be called "national"; this right decisively belongs to him. All the richness, power, and versatility of our language is contained in him, as if in a lexicon. More than anyone else he has further extended the limits of the language and has demonstrated its breadth. Pushkin is an extraordinary phenomenon and, perhaps, a singular...

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Paul Debreczeny (essay date 1969)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Reception of Pushkin's Poetic Works in the 1820s: A Study of the Critic's Role," in Slavic Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, September, 1969, pp. 394-415.

[In the following essay, Debreczeny explores early commentary on Pushkin's works in relation to the evolution of Russian literary criticism.]

The relationship between Pushkin and his critics has been a subject of considerable interest and discussion since the poet's own time. Belinsky made it the focus of the introduction to his series of essays on Pushkin. The early biographers provided some further information, and scholarly attention dates from the 1889 monograph by S. S. Trubachev, Pushkin v russkoi...

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Walter N. Vickery (essay date 1970)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lyric Poetry—1820-1836," in Alexander Pushkin, Twayne Publishers, 1970, 211 p.

[In the following excerpt, Vickery studies Pushkin's mature lyric poetry.]

The term lyric is sometimes used in Russian criticism to denote any poem belonging to the shorter genres—from the epigram to the elegy, from the personal theme to the patriotic or civic (anything, in effect, that can be listed under stikhotvoreniya or short poems, as opposed to the longer poemy). There is also the more limited and specific meaning of the word which envisages a lyric as a short poem in which the personal feelings of the author stand in the foreground: objective...

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Barbara Heldt Monter (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Love and Death in Pushkin's 'Little Tragedies'," in Modern Critical Views: Alexander Pushkin, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 65-71.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1972, Monter probes the thematic unity of Pushkin's "Little Tragedies" in their concern with "the recognition of love and the recognition of death."]

A critical attempt to correlate separate works of the same author could hardly be more justified than in the case of Pushkin's four "Little Tragedies." All were completed in the fall of 1830: The Miserly Knight (Skupoi rytsar'), Mozart and Salieri (Motsart i Sal'eri) and The Stone Guest (Kamennyi...

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L. P. Grossman (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Art of the Anecdote in Pushkin," in Russian Literature Triquarterly, Vol. 10, 1974, pp. 129-48.

[In the following essay, Grossman views the centrality of the anecdote to Pushkin's prose and poetry.]

Nowadays we look down upon these playthings of older children of an older time; but if there is the imprint of thought and art on the plaything, then it should be preserved in the Museum, just as those most minor trifles and artifacts, which have been excavated from beneath the ruins of Pompei, are preserved.

Prince P. A. Vyazemsky

Literary genres suffer their various fates....

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Valentin Nepomnyashchy (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On Pushkin's Evolution as a Poet in the 'Thirties (The Tale of the Golden Cockerel)," in Soviet Literature, No. 6 (315), 1974, pp. 141-67.

[In the following essay, Nepomnyashchy examines Pushkin's verse fairy-tale, The Tale of the Golden Cockerel, acknowledging its significance to Pushkin's work of the 1830s.]

The Tale of the Golden Cockerel is one of the strangest of Pushkin's compositions in the 'thirties.1 Even alongside such works as The Queen of Spades or The House at Kolomna it is marked out by its mysterious, "hermetic" quality, by what you might describe as the difficulty of approaching it. Inseparably...

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Robert Karpiak (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pushkin's Little Tragedies: The Controversies in Criticism," in Canadian Slavonic Papers, Vol. XXII, No. 1, March, 1980, pp. 80-91.

[In the following essay, Karpiak surveys twentieth-century thematic criticism of Pushkin's dramas The Covetous Knight, Mozart and Salieri, and The Stone Guest.]

"There is nothing more difficult," wrote Vissarion Belinskii, "than to speak about a work of literature which is great in its totality and in its parts." "To such works," he continues, "belong Skupoi rytsar', Motsart i Sal'eri, and Kamennyi gost'."1 The veracity of Belinskii's assessment of Alexander Pushkin's Little Tragedies...

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Paul Debreczeny (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Execution of Captain Mironov: A Crossing of the Tragic and Comic Modes," in Alexander Puskin: Symposium II, Slavica Publishers, Inc., 1980, pp. 67-78.

[In the following essay, Debreczeny considers the place of Captain Mironov's tragic execution in the otherwise comic The Captain's Daughter.]

The Captain's Daughter (1836), even though its action is set in the midst of a bloody revolt, contains surprisingly little violence. Grinev's prophetic nightmare foreshadows a massacre, but only in a remote manner. Grinev is wounded quite seriously in his duel with Švabrin, but his wound turns out to be a blessing, for he awakes to find himself in the tender...

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Stephanie Sandier (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetics of Authority in Pushkin's 'André Chénier'," in Slavic Review, Vol. 42, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 187-203.

[In the following essay, Sandier analyzes Pushkin's "André Chénier, " and observes that the poem is indicative of a significant development in Pushkin's authorial voice.]

During the spring and summer months of 1825, Aleksandr Pushkin intensified his efforts to end his exile in Mikhailovskoe. Though his friends urged him to produce work that might influence imperial opinion in his favor, Pushkin doubted that his poems could win him freedom.1 His writings increasingly were concerned with what the function of poetry should be....

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Paul Debreczeny (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Experiments with Narrative Modes," in The Other Pushkin: A Study of Alexander Pushkin's Prose Fiction, Stanford University Press, 1983, 386 p.

[In the following essay, Debreczeny discusses innovative developments in the narrative technique of Pushkin's prose fiction.]


Pushkin made his first serious attempt at writing fiction in the summer of 1827, when he completed six chapters of a proposed historical novel, now known to us as The Blackamoor of Peter the Great. The prototype for its central character, Ibrahim, was Pushkin's maternal great-grandfather, Abram Hannibal, an African who had been brought to Russia as a child during...

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Simon Karlinsky (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pushkin and Neoclassical Drama," in Russian Drama from Its Beginnings to the Age of Pushkin, University of California Press, 1985, pp. 312-38.

[In the following essay, Karlinsky characterizes Pushkin's works as "the culmination of Russian eighteenth-century neoclassicism."]

"Pushkin is our first classicist and romanticist, which makes him a realist." … (The latter definition depends upon the epoch, and also the temperament of the commentator.)

Igor Stravinsky1

It has been the fate of many a great Russian writer to acquire in Western countries an image that is the very...

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I. Z. Serman (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Paradoxes of the Popular Mind in Pushkin's Boris Godunov," in The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 64, No. 1, January, 1986, pp. 25-39.

[In the following essay, Serman focuses on the central importance of The Pretender, the false Tsarevich Dmitry, to Boris Godunov—a drama he sees as a folk-historical tragedy concerned with the changing consciousness of the Russian people.]

One of the many constant problems for Soviet Pushkin scholars has been, who is the central character in Pushkin's Boris Godunov? Indeed, is there a central hero at all? Most of those who have written on Pushkin's tragedy in the Soviet Union have found it more...

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A. D. P. Briggs (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fallibility and Perfection in the Works of Alexander Pushkin," in Problems of Russian Romanticism, edited by Robert Reid, Gower Publishing Company, 1986, pp. 25-45.

[In the following essay, Briggs presents a critical survey of Pushkin's works, concentrating on Pushkin's relation to romanticism.]


There is every reason to associate the name of Alexander Pushkin with the artistic movement known as European romanticism. This movement, notoriously difficult to circumscribe either by general definition or by dates, arose from a dissatisfaction with the traditional constraints imposed by classical and neo-classical art, assisted as these...

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Stephanie Sandier (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Boris Godunov: The Expectations of an Audience," in Distant Pleasures: Alexander Pushkin and the Writing of Exile, Stanford University Press, 1989, 263 p.

[In the following essay, Sandler offers an interpretation of Boris Godunov that finds dramatic success and unity in its rhetoric of loneliness and separation.]

They were the players, and we who had struggled at the game
Were merely spectators, though subject to its vicissitudes
And moving with it out of the tearful stadium, borne on shoulders, at last.
Night after night this message returns.
—John Ashbery, "Soonest...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Pushkin, Alexander. Complete Prose Fiction, translated by Paul Debreczeny. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1983, 545 p.

English translations of Pushkin's collected works of prose fiction. Includes a critical introduction to Pushkin's fiction by the translator.

——. The Critical Prose of Alexander Pushkin, edited and translated by Carl R. Proffer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969, 308 p.

Contains selections from Pushkin's critical writings. Proffer introduces the essays with a survey of Pushkin's significance to Russian literary...

(The entire section is 411 words.)