Turgenev's Use of Dichotomies as a Structural and Character Development Device

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1781

In the introduction that precedes Richard Newnham's English translation of A Month in the Country, Richard Schechner applauded Turgenev for what he called ‘‘a masterful study of Natalya Petrovna,’’ the play's main character. While Schechner discussed at some length the ways in which Natalya's fear of men is closely linked to her fear of her father, his analysis also culminated in an important conclusion: ‘‘Natalya Petrovna is a failure in love, and that is the crux of her personality and the play. She cannot consummate love with her husband or Rakitin; Beliayev slips out of her grasp. She dissolves in a series of futile gestures and contradictions as the play draws to a close.’’

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It is certainly true that Natalya fails to achieve a fulfilling romantic relationship with any of her three leading men—Islayev, Rakitin, or Beliayev. Her attitude toward her husband seems at its best a benevolent tolerance, while her toying with Rakitin can be viewed as an ego-feeding, yet yawn-inspiring dalliance for her. As Schechner aptly noted, there is only a chance for her with Beliayev, for ' 'he is young, athletic, virile,’’ and because she perceives him to be naive, he is initially approachable. Ultimately, however, his departure from the estate also makes him inaccessible to her. Natalya is indeed a failure in love. Ironically, her eagerness to obtain the freedom and passion she desires is somehow too closely linked to her inability to attain the love that she believes will provide these things for her. She assigns value and ultimate happiness to the very things that she can not have, or does not attain, and thus, she dissolves into the ‘‘futile gestures and contradictions’’ of which Schechner spoke.

Schechner argued that it is Natalya's very fear of men that makes having any man impossible for her. She can only love that which is not a threat to her, yet all of her lovers either become threatening or boring, and as a result, love and the subsequent freedom and passion she seeks from it are unattainable for her. Her ultimate contradiction is perhaps a trite one—she wants what she can not have and does not want what is readily hers for the taking. As the play wraps up, all of Natalya's desires and realizations come to naught. Beliayev and Rakitin leave the estate, and she is left with her husband, who mistakenly believes that all happiness has been restored.

One way to understand the play's ending is offered by Schechner when he concluded that it is the ‘‘denouement of her [Natalya's] ineffectuality.’’ Indeed, her ineffectuality is central to her character development. As she grapples with her own contradictions, she dissolves into a perpetual state of frustration with her unfulfilled wishes. The elements of contradiction and opposition manifest themselves very clearly in Natalya's inner conflicts—should she or should she not pursue Beliayev, does she like or dislike Rakitin, can she be free or will she always feel like a prisoner? Embedded in her questions are dichotomies like faithful/unfaithful, love/hate, freedom/entrapment, and honesty/ dishonesty.

In addition to being defining characteristics of Natalya's character, such dichotomies are central elements in the work's overall structure. In fact, Turgenev's use of these elements permeates the play on almost every level. A quick glance at act one demonstrates the ways in which Turgenev incorporates these elements in his work from the very start.

When the curtains first rise, Schaaf, Liza, and Anna are playing hearts, a card game that is based not only on winning or losing but on a strategy that requires players to think in terms of all or nothing. To ensure a winning hand of hearts, one must hold all of the hearts in the...

(The entire section contains 2756 words.)

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