Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin

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Only The Brigadier and The Minor deserve systematic analysis here; Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin’s main work in life as a diplomatic secretary in Catherine II’s foreign office and the polemical writing emerging from that experience contributed to the content of the plays but limited his dramatic output. Some mention can be made of the unfinished third play, The Choice of a Tutor.

Fonvizin’s plays were the first to present native Russian customs and speech successfully, a process that began in the eighteenth century to transform the common dramatic fare of the time, mainly French neoclassical drama. The transformation continued for a century. Earlier Russian dramatists in both tragedy and comedy had modeled their plays on neoclassical principles, often retaining French names for the characters, even when they had changed the setting to Russia.

The didactic impulse of eighteenth century comedy in France was very much a part of audience expectation and dramatic practice when Fonvizin wrote his plays. The characters were types—young lovers, the domineering father, the buffoon—deriving from earlier French drama and from still earlier Italian and Latin plays. The convention of the raisonneur, a wise character who comments on the implication of the dramatic events and states explicitly the message of the author, operated in these plays, too. Elements of the emerging sentimentalism found their way into the plays as well.

The Brigadier

The Brigadier, written when Fonvizin was twenty-four years old, manipulates a situation comedy for plot but breaks new ground in its conception of character and in the speech of its dramatis personae. The action and characters satirize the Francomania of the Russian petty nobility, the brutality of military life, the stupidity of people without any real education, and the shallowness of morality among the country gentry. The play begins in a conventional setting of the provincial nobility: The Brigadier and his wife have brought their son, Ivan, to visit the family of Sofya, the girl they have arranged for him to marry. They intend to set the date for the wedding, but the course of the action becomes clear in the second line, with Ivan’s response, in French, to this effort: “Hélas!” No wedding between the two will take place, but crudely hilarious love intrigues must run their course before that happy ending can occur.

The Brigadier pursues the Councilor’s wife, with whom he falls in love because she is so cultivated and intelligent compared with his own wife; and the Councilor pursues the Brigadier’s wife because he is so impressed by her household economy. Ivan, however, also pursues the Councilor’s wife rather than his intended fiancé, Sofya, because the Councilor’s wife speaks French—and rhapsodizes over anyone who has ever lived in Paris. (Ivan has just returned.) The Brigadier, caught in the act of pursuing the wife of his host, is shocked to discover that his son is his rival for the boy’s mother-in-law to be. In a roundly comic scene, the Councilor cannot make clear to the Brigadier’s wife his proposal to have an affair with her, partly because she is so thickheaded and partly because she is in fact virtuous and unable to imagine herself as an object of desire.

Unlikely as the emotions of these people are, they set in motion scenes that keep the laughter of the audience ringing. Meanwhile, the conventional love interest between the heroine Sofya and her goodhearted officer Dobrolyubov makes good progress when they interrupt a love scene between Ivan and the Councilor’s wife. Revelations all around resolve the dramatic problem; so many sins cancel each other out, and the visitors leave in shame—and disgust. Sofya’s...

(This entire section contains 2859 words.)

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match with Ivan is broken off and Dobrolyubov gets his girl, especially since the legal problems holding up his inheritance have been settled. The speed with which the play moves gives the audience no time to think about how unlikely the action is.

The revelation of character in this merry-go-round, however, transforms the comedy. These are no sophisticated French couples frivolously pursuing amours. In accounting for the appetites they raise in each other, Fonvizin cuts deep, satirizing their distinctively Russian failings.

The Brigadier has been brutalized by his military life. The Councilor says of him, “Sometimes he loves his horse more than his wife.” The rank of which he is so proud gives him control over his peasants, and his usual mode of communication is violent. He disciplines his wife with his fists, and that good lady recalls a Captain Gvozdilov’s wife beaten more often than she. Tenderhearted Sofya asks her to stop telling about the wife beating. She answers, “You don’t want to even hear about it, but what was it like for the Captain’s wife who had to bear it?” Dostoevski later used the name Gvozdilov to refer to this kind of brutality.

The Councilor, a retired bribe-taking judge, grieves for the good old days when children obeyed their parents, not so many people were literate, and cases could be settled according to how much the judge was paid. He is a man willing to sacrifice his daughter’s happiness for the property he expects to get from the marriage agreement. He loves the Brigadier’s wife because she is as stingy with the peasants they own as he is with his. When he discovers that his wife is untrue, he swears not that he will beat Ivan for tempting her but that he will sue him for his last kopek.

The Councilor’s idle, vacuous wife gets perhaps the worst of Fonvizin’s scorn for the Frenchified Russian. When her Ivanushka tells her his only unhappiness is that she is Russian, she agrees, “That, my angel, is pure perdition for me!” Fonvizin’s love of country underlies the contempt he pours on her. Ivan, as empty as she, is in fact a suitable mate for her; their pleasure in imitating the superficialities of French life is absurd to those, like Fonvizin, who have come to hate the Frenchified dandies of St. Petersburg who waste the proceeds of Russian labor on imported luxuries that are sent from France.

The force of the play lies especially in the language. First is the satire of the Russian use of French. Ivan and the Councilor’s wife speak an amusing pastiche of Russian and French; they know only the small coin of the language. Second is the mispronunciation and failure to understand French by the Brigadier, and the total rejection of it by the Brigadier’s wife. What the earliest audience of the play enjoyed most, however, was the richness of the Russian colloquial speech, tailored to the speaker, that the truly Russian characters speak. Russian proverbs abound; set phrases and pet turns of phrase mark the speaker. The Brigadier’s wife’s sympathetic, practical-minded innocence is caught perfectly in her language, for example. Fonvizin begins here the task of making natural Russian a dramatic language, a task to be mastered a century and a half later by Alexander Ostrovsky and, later still, by Anton Chekhov.

For all its excellence, The Brigadier nevertheless is psychologically shallow and unbelievable. These people would not in real life act the way they do onstage. Authentic members of the Russian lower nobility are caught in a trivial French plot, and they must be found inappropriate there, once the audience stops laughing. The positive characters lack shading to make them more believable. That is doubtless why The Brigadier has had fewer productions than the second work of its author, The Minor.

The Minor

The Minor catches eighteenth century Russian culture at its worst and best, in all its bestiality side by side with its commitment to enlightenment and the honor of an “honest man,” Fonvizin’s measure of what a human being should be. Fonvizin’s characters were designed to satirize the unenlightened country nobility and to encourage patriotism, the rule of law in the treatment of dependents, and the relation of education to virtue and the right use of authority, and their names have become part of the Russian language. For example, “Mitrofans” are ignorant boobies; “Skotinins” are men too swinelike to qualify as human; and “Prostakovas” are the virulent shrews who are nevertheless tender mothers, a lasting contradiction that appeals to the best and the beast in human beings everywhere.

The play is structurally very different from The Brigadier. The plot arises from actions that would become patterns in melodrama in the nineteenth century: the marrying off of an heiress, the return of a long-lost rich uncle, the maltreatment of an orphan, the timely arrival of the hero to save the heroine. The punishment of the villains comes about through the offices of a figure Gogol used later in The Inspector General, a government inspector secretly observing the action.

The ostensible main action is an eighteenth century cliché: arranging the marriage of the heroine. Barely motivated coincidence brings characters together at the moment they are needed. The whole is arranged with small care for conventional suspense because the inspector announces his presence (though not to the villains) in the first act, the hero gets the girl in a scene well before the end of the play, and the uncle makes his agency for good abundantly clear from the start.

All this matters little, however, because the real center of the action is the undoing of the villain, Prostakova, a domestic tyrant, a shrew, a brutal mistress—and the loving mother of her Mitrofanushka. This line of action has its ups and downs, but its movement nevertheless is not the focus of interest for Fonvizin because the dramatist interrupts the main action repeatedly with long conversations that in fact are his main interest. The interest in theme can best be understood in a discussion of the characters.

The characterizations are the source of this play’s greatness. The benighted ignorance and beastliness of Prostakova and her brother Skotinin come to symbolize the brutality of the unenlightened country nobility, the main subject of Fonvizin’s satire. Both characters, while hilarious caricatures of human beings, cut deeply with their merciless self-interest and inhumanity displayed toward those in their power. They make the audience laugh, but they represent Fonvizin’s didactic message more profoundly than the long and wise conversations between Starodum, Provdin, Milon, and Sofya, in which the message comes out directly.

Prostakova’s confident verbal and physical abuse of everyone around her except her beloved son and those from whom she hopes to benefit brands her as a villain. Yet as Starodum points out, she is motivated by the single-minded love for her son, and when he, too, deserts her at the end of the play, one cannot help but feel pity. Her name, meaning “simpleton,” allows for the contradiction. This ambiguity, and the very vigor of her personality, make her one of the great characters in Russian drama. Her husband is a mere postscript to her, a nonentity of a henpecked husband who has no opinion of his own, not even on whether his son’s new coat is too big or too small. Little sympathy can be wasted on him.

Her brother Skotinin, perhaps the grossest caricature, and certainly the grossest character, carries farthest Fonvizin’s attack on the beastliness of the unenlightened. Skotinin, whose name means “beastly,” is a monomaniac about hogs. As he says himself, “men and women try to show me how clever they are, but among my pigs I am the cleverest one.” He is interested in marrying Sofya solely to acquire more pigs. When it is suggested that he would not provide well for his wife, he indignantly makes clear that she would have as good a pen as any of his pigs.

Mitrofan (the name means “mother’s son”) is the petted darling of his profoundly ignorant mother; he becomes the symbol of the kind of human being that results from a pampered and unenlightened upbringing. Lazy, self-willed, and hostile to the education his mother has arranged for him, he has no principles, but lives solely for physical pleasures. He is greedy at table and, as the “minor”—a young man supposed to be studying to take on adult responsibility—he says, “I don’t want to study; I want to marry.”

Yeremeyevna, Mitrofan’s old nurse, is a potent symbol of the victimization the Skotinins and Prostakovs practice. Held in constant fear by physical punishment—she gets “five roubles a year and five slaps a day”—she is nevertheless fiercely loyal to her charge, her loyalty repaid with contemptuous abuse. Her dignity as a human being hangs in the mind long after the comedy is over.

The qualities of the three incompetent tutors—Kuteikin, Cipherkin, and Vralman—summarize what Fonvizin wishes to criticize in the miseducation of the country nobility. Cipherkin is perhaps the best of the three, an “honest man,” a retired soldier who has the barest knowledge of arithmetic; his knowledge is nevertheless far above Mitrofan’s capacity to learn. In Kuteikin, an unsuccessful seminarist, Fonvizin satirizes the demi-educated churchman. Pious Church Slavonicisms permeate Kuteikin’s speech, creating a comic effect onstage. His grasping nature and essential dishonesty are revealed when he pads his bill as Pravdin intends to pay him what the Prostakovs owe him. Vralman (liar) does Mitrofan’s and Prostakova’s will in frustrating the meager efforts of the other two tutors to educate Mitrofan, and he is a fraud, besides. A coachman in want of a job, he has convinced the Prostakovs that he is a learned and wise man. They are incompetent to recognize an authentic man of learning. As a teacher, he is a competent coachman, and Fonvizin allows him to return to his trade at the end of the play.

The positive characters voice the recommendations Fonvizin had to make to the court and responsible Russian nobility, the message based on his lifetime of service in government. In long, undramatic speeches, they simply stand and make the pleas for Russia’s inprovement that Fonvizin had formulated over the years, especially under Count Panin’s tutelage. Pravdin, the government inspector, brings the czar’s justice to the brutal landlord Prostakova, in the rule of law. Starodum (old wisdom) praises patriotic duty and personal virtue even above education, though he makes clear that the virtuous man will also be educated. Sofya is a somewhat sickeningly sweet young woman who looks to her admired uncle for guidance, as a good ward should. She is obedient, capable of true love, generous in spirit. To modern ears, her echoing of the sentiments her uncle expresses is mildly repellent, but her forgiving spirit toward the Prostakovs when she gets free of them is winning. Milon, the young noble officer who wins her love, is not a credible character but an instrument Fonvizin uses to state his views on civil and military valor, as distinguished from mere courage in service to the fatherland. While all these speeches may have held the interest of contemporaries, and they often state values in memorable ways, these representatives of Fonvizin’s ideals need strong acting to hold their own with the negative characters.

Fonvizin’s themes are clear: Children should be obedient, and they should be educated with an eye to encouraging their virtue. Parents and rulers should be responsible, loving, and just. Teachers should be competent. Men and women should marry for love and accept their responsibilities. Flattery should not be the means by which people should acquire wealth. Justice should be done by the rule of enlightened law. Generosity of spirit should pervade human relations, and education should enlighten the rule of law. True nobility is of character, not birth or wealth. The Minor is the fruit of all Fonvizin’s experience in Russian government and society, all that he wished to improve in a country he loved and deplored. It is a masterpiece not in its explicit messages, however, but in its richly comic caricatures of human evils as they appear in eighteenth century Russian guise.

The Choice of a Tutor

The Choice of a Tutor, a three-act comedy of which the second act is incomplete, is one of Fonvizin’s last works, written after his severe illness and partial paralysis. The play continues the dramatist’s exploration of the importance of education and the satire of efforts by ignorant Russians to secure proper education for their children. The satire also directs itself toward pride in lineage preferred to true nobility. Prince and Princess Slaboumov (weak-minded) seek a tutor to encourage in their child a sense of their own self-importance because of their lineage. The choice includes an honest retired Russian officer, but the parents choose instead a fraudulent Frenchman, in fact a fugitive medical orderly. The traditional inauthenticity of Russian tutors persists. Long discussions between a sound local marshal of the nobility and the retired officer assess the impact of the French Revolution and reject the possibility of the social equality it supposes. The play was produced a century after it was written, in St. Petersburg, on the occasion of the centenary of Fonvizin’s death.


Fonvizin, Denis Ivanovich