Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov 1812-1891

(Also transliterated as Aleksandrovich; also transliterated as Gontcharoff, Gontcharov, Gončarov, Goncharóff, Gontchareff) Russian novelist, travel writer, short story and sketch writer, critic, essayist, and translator.

For further information on Goncharov's works and career, see

Considered a central force in the development of the realist tradition in his native language, Goncharov is largely remembered for the authentic depiction of mid-nineteenth century Russia in his esteemed trilogy: Obyknovennaya istoriya (1847; A Common Story), Oblomov (1859), and Obryv (1869; The Precipice). Of these, Oblomov is generally thought to be his masterpiece and, like the other novels in the series, features a type of the superfluous man, the lazy and idle landowner Ilya Ilyich Oblomov—a figure that Goncharov used to portray the social and psychological torpor of life in provincial Russia. Additionally, the work illustrates the characteristic simplicity and objectivity of Goncharov's style, while revealing the skill in evoking mood and character that furnish the enduring appeal of his fiction.

Biographical Information

Goncharov was born in Simbirsk, the son of a well-to-do merchant raised to the nobility. He attended Moscow University in the early 1930s, at the same time as such great figures of Russian literary and political thought as Mikhail Lermontov, V. G. Belinsky, Alexander Herzen, and Mikhail Bakunin, but he remained largely unaffected by the radical ideas of this young generation. Upon his graduation, he secured a position as a civil servant in St. Petersburg, working first for the Ministry of Finance and later as a censor. Among his earliest literary works were several translations and short stories, works that were eclipsed in importance by the publication of his novel A Common Story in 1847. Envisioned as the first of a trilogy of novels about Russian life, A Common Story proved to be a considerable success, winning the approval of the esteemed critic Belinsky. Soon after its publication, Goncharov produced a short sketch entitled "Oblomov's Dream," which he later incorporated into the second novel of the series, Oblomov—a work that required more than ten years to complete. In the interim, Goncharov served as secretary to a Russian admiral and traveled to Japan in 1852. This singular act of adventure, in vivid contrast to his quiet early life, is chronicled in Fregat Pallada (1858; The Voyage of the Frigate Pallada). His return to St. Petersburg and the widely hailed publication of Oblomov had solidified Goncharov's reputation in Russia. Even before the appearance of this second novel, however, Goncharov had begun to amass ideas for his last novel, The Precipice, published a decade after Oblomov. The last twenty years of Goncharov's life were spent in isolation and growing senility. In his late autobiographical essay "Neobyknovennaya istoriya" (not published until 1924) he claimed that Ivan Turgenev had stolen his ideas, and that even the works of such European writers as Gustave Flaubert and Berthold Auerbach were little more than the reworking of his original concepts. Goncharov went so far as to accuse Turgenev of plagiarism. Turgenev was exonerated, however, following a trial brought about at the insistence of Goncharov. Tormented by his persecution mania and growing madness, Goncharov wrote little in the years remaining before his death in 1891.

Major Works

A Common Story dramatizes the theme that was to reappear in each of Goncharov's novels: the troubled relationship between a naïve, dreamy character and a sophisticated, active protagonist. In A Common Story this conflict arises as the young and idealistic Alexander Aduyev leaves his provincial town and is introduced to the ways of the city by his practical and successful uncle, Pyotr Ivanovich Aduyev. Goncharov adumbrated the theme of his second novel in the sketch "Oblomov's Dream," a nostalgic and lyrical evocation of childhood, suffused with a soporific warmth that mirrors the peaceful, unchanging life of the Russian landed gentry in the era of serfdom. As the sketch grew into the full-length novel Oblomov, Goncharov created a character type of the idle Russian aristocrat that was immediately recognizable to his countrymen in the figure of Ilya Ilyich Oblomov. Critics, including the radical N. A. Dobrolyubov, alighted upon the term "oblomovism," which Goncharov himself uses in the novel, eventually giving it common currency among Russians. Dobrolyubov specifically construed the term to represent the moral and social malaise brought about by serfdom. Yet other commentators acknowledged that Oblomov presents more than a condemnation of an existence of sloth and social blindness, observing that Goncharov also reveals his sympathy and yearning for the old patriarchal way of life in the work. Severely didactic in tone—much more so than its predecessors—The Precipice contains portraits of the directionless dilettante-artist Boris Raisky and the nihilistic Mark Volokhov. Overall, the work reveals most clearly Goncharov's largely conservative literary and social views.

Critical Reception

In addition to his three novels, Goncharov also wrote several short stories and enough essays, criticism, and other prose to fill the eight volumes of his Sobranie sochineniy, or collected works (1952-55). In large part, critics have seen Goncharov's early fiction as secondary to the major novels, though many acknowledge that these works provide valuable insights into the development of his style. General opinion holds that Goncharov's literary fame rests upon his evocation of Russian character and society in A Common Story, Oblomov, and The Precipice. The last of these, Goncharov believed, would be remembered as his masterpiece, but since its publication in 1869 critics have been inclined to disagree, saving this praise instead for the brilliant simplicity and incisiveness of Oblomov.