Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov Essay - Critical Essays

Goncharov, Ivan Alexandrovich


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.

Principal Works

*Obyknovennaya istoriya [A Common Story; also published as The Same Old Story] (novel) 1847

Fregat Pallada [The Voyage of the Frigate Pallada] (travel essays and short stories) 1858

Oblomov (novel) 1859

Obryv [The Precipice', also published as The Ravine] (novel) 1869

"Luchshe pozdno, chem nikogda" ["Better Late Than Never"] (autobiographical essay) 1879; published in journal Russkaya rech'

"Neobyknovennaya istoriya" (autobiographical essay) 1924; published in Sbornik Rossiskoy Publichnoy biblioteki

Sobranie sochineniy. 8 vols. (novels, short stories, poetry, translations, essays, criticism, letters, travel essays, and reminiscences) 1952-55

*The 1957 translation of this work also includes excerpts from Goncharov's essay "Better Late than Never."


Edmund Gosse (essay date 1906)

SOURCE: A Preface to A Common Story: A Novel, by Ivan Gontcharoff, translated by Constance Garnett, London Book Co., 1906, pp. v-xii.

[In the following essay, Gosse describes Goncharov's literary influences and the lasting appeal of his novels.]

It is a disadvantage to Gontcharoff to be introduced for the first time to English readers who are already acquainted with the writings of his more thrilling and vivid successors, Tourgenieff, Dostoieffsky and Tolstoi. In the rapid development of the Russian realistic novel, Gontcharoff takes the second place in point of time. He was the first man to be roused by the example of Gogol, who wrote, shortly before he died in 1852:...

(The entire section is 2357 words.)

V. F. Pereverzev (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: "Concerning a Monistic Conception of Goncharov's Art," in Soviet Studies in Literature, Vol. XXII, No. 2-3, Spring-Summer, 1986, pp. 90-122.

[In the following essay originally published in Literaturovedenie. Sbornik statei in 1928, Pereverzev presents a unified assessment of Goncharov's novels, identifying the common traits of his heroes as manifestations of the bourgeois "smart operator" at a time of dramatic social and cultural change in Russia.]

One of the most essential tasks in the scholarly analysis of a writer's artistic corpus consists in clarifying the links among his images and their mutual interdependence, the inner logic of their...

(The entire section is 12103 words.)

Janko Lavrin (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "Oblomov and Oblomovism," and "The Ravine," in Goncharov, Yale University Press, 1954, pp. 27-37, 37-47.

[In the following excerpt, Lavrin studies style, theme, plot, and character in Oblomov and The Ravine, and provides a critical summary of both works.]

Oblomov and Oblomovism


The general theme of Goncharov's Oblomov is similar to that of A Common Story, but here it is deepened into a tragedy of passivity and of that peculiar type of indolence which soon became connected with the name of Oblomov not only in Russia but also in other parts of the world....

(The entire section is 8550 words.)

H. Gifford (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Goncharov," in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature: Studies of Ten Russian Writers, edited by John Fennell, University of California Press, 1973, pp. 130-42.

[In the following essay, Gifford analyzes Goncharov's A Common Story, Oblomov, and The Precipice, comparing these novels with the works of Goncharov's Russian contemporaries and examining critical opinion on the trilogy.]

Outside Russia Ivan Aleksandrovich Goncharov (1812-91) is known as the author of one classic novel published in 1859, Oblomov. In Russia too his reputation depends principally on this work; but he always insisted that it formed part of a trilogy, with...

(The entire section is 4494 words.)

Victor Rozov (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Life and How to Live It," an introduction to The Same Old Story, by Ivan Goncharov, translated by Ivy Litvinova, Progress Publishers, 1975, pp. 7-14.

[In the following essay, Rozov explores two contrasting views of lifethe idealistic and the pragmaticdramatized in Goncharov's The Same Old Story (A Common Story).]

The author explores life by two means—the intellectual, which begins with reflections on life's phenomena, and the artistic, the aim of which is to fathom the same phenomena and grasp them not with the mind (or, rather, not only with the mind) but with all one's being, intuitively as it is called.


(The entire section is 3210 words.)

Christine Borowec (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Time After Time: The Temporal Ideaology of Oblomov," in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol XXXVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 561-73.

[In the following essay, Borowec discusses Goncharov's thematic and structural use of cyclic and linear-progressive time in his novel Oblomov.]

Ilya Oblomov, Goncharov's most famous literary creation and the central figure of the novel Oblomov, represents a particular social class at a specific moment in Russian history. Oblomov epitomizes the obsolete, feckless aristocracy made possible by serfdom in Russia in the mid-nineteenth century. Critical appraisals contemporary to the novel, including Nikolaj...

(The entire section is 5958 words.)

Galya Diment (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Goncharov and the Russian Autobiographical Tradition," and "'Heart' vs. 'Mind' in A Common Story" in The Autobiographical Novel of Co-Consciousness: Goncharov, Woolf and Joyce, University Press of Florida, 1994, pp. 13-23, 24-40.

[In the following two chapters from her book-length study, Dimeni examines Goncharov's use of autobiographical material in his novel A Common Story, surveying the history of autobiography in Russia and discussing possible influences on Goncharov's work]

1. Goncharov and the Russian Autobiographical Tradition

A Common Story (Obyknovennaia istoriia, alternately translated as The...

(The entire section is 13578 words.)

Further Reading


Setchkarev, Vsevolod. Ivan Goncharov: His Life and His Works, Wòrzburg, Germany: Jal-Verlag, 1974, 339 p.

Critical biography of Goncharov designed to "provide an introduction to the life and work of this undeservedly neglected writer."


Ehre, Milton. Oblomov and His Creator: The Life and Art of Ivan Goncharov. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1973, 295 p.

Comprehensive study of Goncharov's career and works, highlighting stylistic and structural elements of his writings as they relate to the understanding of his...

(The entire section is 282 words.)