Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 422

Like many authors of his generation, Dmitry Merezhkovsky attempted in his writings to search for solutions to the problems that plagued czarist Russia in the turbulent quarter of a century preceding the Bolshevik Revolution. Merezhkovsky, one of the Russian symbolists as well as founder of the Religious and Philosophical Society of St. Petersburg, was intensely interested in identifying the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization. He tried to do this in a fictional form in his trilogy KHRISTOS I ANTIKHRIST (CHRIST AND ANTICHRIST), comprising THE DEATH OF THE GODS, VOSKRESSHIYE BOGI: LEONARDO DA VINCI (1901; THE ROMANCE OF LEONARDO DA VINCI, 1928, 1953), and ANTIKHRIST: PYOTRI ALEKSEY (1905; PETER AND ALEXIS, 1905).

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In THE DEATH OF THE GODS, Merezhkovsky sets up the thematic structure of opposing concepts upon which the entire trilogy is built. On a general level, this structure reflects the author’s perception of the dualistic nature of man, within whom the forces of flesh and spirit are constantly struggling, and his belief that all of human history has been shaped by this struggle. More specifically, he establishes two sets of values which cluster around Hellenistic and pagan beliefs, on the one hand, and Christian values, on the other, and counterposes them dramatically throughout the work. The author’s purpose in doing this is to illustrate his theory that Western civilization grew out of, and took its direction from, the clash between paganism and Christianity.

The historical novel genre proved a perfect vehicle for a writer with Merezhkovsky’s gift for re-creating the past, and, in THE DEATH OF THE GODS, this talent is at its best. The setting ranges from all the places visited by the young Julian during his travels in Asia Minor, to the capital of Constantinople, to the military posts along the Persian frontier which are stormed by the Roman legions. Each of these settings comes alive in the author’s hands; his use of colorful and specific details infuses both time and place with uniqueness and vividness. The reader feels very close to the real experience of life in the Roman empire of the fourth century.

When Herbert Trench, a fellow at All Soul’s College, translated THE DEATH OF THE GODS into English, he felt the novel to be one of the most significant works of the new generation of Russian authors and saw Merezhkovsky as the successor of Dostoevski. Although time has seen Trench’s enthusiasm replaced by a more moderate critical appraisal, Merezhkovsky’s novel nevertheless remains an excellent example of historical fiction inspired with crucial philosophical concerns.

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