Pushkin, Alexander 1799-1837
(Full name Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin; also transliterated as Alexsandr Puškin) Russian short story writer, poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, and critic. See also Alexander Pushkin Criticism.
An outstanding figure of nineteenth-century Russian culture, Alexander Pushkin greatly influenced poetry and prose in his native language and set the foundation for the writings of the great Russian novelists—Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Ivan Turgenev. Known primarily for his narrative poems, particularly Yevgeny Onegin (1833; Eugene Onegin) and Medny vsadnik (1837; The Bronze Horseman), Pushkin absorbed many of the structural and stylistic characteristics of European writers—notably François Voltaire, Lord Byron, William Shakespeare, and Sir Walter Scott—and recast them in a uniquely Russian mold. With his short fiction, including several novellas, a few short stories, and many incomplete prose pieces, Pushkin sought to free Russian literature from the domination of eighteenth-century European classicism, arguing that prose should be simple and direct, clear and precise. His finished stories and incomplete experiments—particularly after 1827—mark his efforts to move Russian fiction away from the sentimental mode and set the literary course for the nineteenth century.
Born into the Russian aristocracy in 1799, Pushkin was brought up in a heavily European-influenced environment. From his early years in Moscow, Pushkin had easy access to French and British literature—Voltaire, Byron, and Scott would become his early literary models. 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 full-length 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, producing his most enduring poetic works, including 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 of Short Fiction
Povesti Belkina (1831; The Tales of Belkin) represents Pushkin's major contribution to the short story form. The volume consists of five tales—"The Shot," "The Snowstorm," "The Stationmaster," "The Undertaker," and "Mistress into Maid" (or "The Lady Turned Peasant")—all of them 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 piece is recounted by three different narrators, including Belkin, and its hero, Silvio, who returns to finish a yearsold duel with a count. Once indifferent to the possibility of death, the count, now married, values his life and reacts with cowardice to Silvio's sudden arrival. Critics agree, however, that the novella Pikovaya dama (1834; The Queen of Spades) is Pushkin's finest prose story. In it he 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 that critics have found reminiscent of the stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann. Relatively less attention has been devoted to Kapitanskaya dochka (1836; The Captain's Daughter), a largely realistic novella drawn from the historical events of the Pugachev peasant uprising, though it remains an important example of Pushkin's late work.
Pushkin is considered by most critics the greatest and most influential Russian writer of the early nineteenth century. As many commentators have noted, Eugene Onegin's realistic presentation of scene and character provided the model for the modern Russian novel. In his prose, scholars observe, 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. Among his admirers, Dostoevsky and Nikolai Gogol singled out "The Stationmaster" as an early influence in their own work. 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. Despite such appraisals, interest in Pushkin's fiction in the twentieth century has remained strong, with contemporary scholars tending to rely on psychological analysis to re-examine his short stories, often highlighting the elements of irony and parody that they contain and evaluating Pushkin's experiments in narrative structure and technique.