Islaev estate (ees-LA-ev). Country estate of a rich landowner, Arkady Islaev, located in an unspecified part of Russia. Ivan Turgenev uses a tranquil country setting because he is familiar with it, despite his frequent world travels, and also because he wants to contrast it with the emotional turmoil within practically all the characters. Although the play is subtitled a comedy, it depicts serious conflicts of several love relationships, mostly unrequited, that belie the quiet and beautiful settings of nature. Drawing rooms, a card table, the ballroom, the gardens, a shady pavilion—all point to a leisurely life in the country.
It is ironic that, when love’s passions reach a boiling point, “like a sudden storm on a fine day,” several characters leave for Moscow, as if fleeing from rustic country life. This seems to confirm the critic Georg Brandes’s seeing nature in Turgenev’s works as la grande indifférente. After several characters leave the estate, the quiet life returns. Those that remain, especially Islaev’s wife Natalia Petrovna, who had caused most of the turmoil with her infatuation with the young student Belaev, her jealousy and her desire to break the monotony of her life, are forced to find a rapport with nature again. With its lyrical mood and scarcity of action, A Month in the Country is a forerunner of Anton Chekhov’s plays.
The hope for reform and the tensions of revolution serve as the political backdrop against which much of Turgenev's work was created. From the 1820s and into the 1880s, Russia's government and its people were embroiled in the tenuous process of distinguishing an identity on the world stage. Nicholas I's reign, which spanned from 1825 to 1855, was characterized primarily by the idea that Russia should be independent from and uninvolved with the European West and its ideas. Nicholas I's highly nationalistic approach to government was coupled with his belief in having his government as centralized as possible. In his attempt to consolidate his power, Nicholas I expanded the role of the secret service and increased censorship.
During Nicholas I's rule, society was segmented by two growing forms of thought. While this segmentation was encouraged in academic circles where like-minded people met in discussion groups, mainstream thought was also divided along the same lines. The two primary groups were comprised of the Philosophical Idealists, or the Slavophiles, and the Westerners. According to Herbert J. Ellison in History of Russia, the Philosophical Idealists of the 1830s ‘‘conceived of Russia as a vigorous new civilization coming rapidly to maturity and leadership beside a declining Europe.’’ While the Slavophiles favored a nationalistic approach to government, "they were opposed to the actual tyranny of the imperial regime,'' according to Sidney Harcave in Russia: A History.
On the other side of the spectrum, as Ellison noted, ‘‘The Westerners of the 1840s and 1850s ... recommend[ed] the Western path of development for the future’’ and were not as nationalistic. In general, the Westerners saw a decided value in continuing to emulate the West. They supposed that Russia had not achieved the level of development that the West had and were critical of censorship and the great economic and social disparities between the serfs and the nobility.
Not surprisingly, the artists of this time were impacted by the political climate. While censorship certainly had a negative effect on the writing of many authors, Russia's cultural output during Nicholas I's reign did not suffer on the whole. According to Ellison, "the reign of Nicholas I was in many ways a period of extraordinary growth and of...
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great attainments . . . particularly in literature.’’ While this may be true, it is perhaps necessary to wonder what the cultural output would have been like, both in content and quantity, had censorship not been expanded during Nicholas I's reign. Prior to the 1840s, Russia's literary canon had been largely dominated by poetry; however, with the advent of realism, prose fiction began to figure more prominently in the literary circles of the time. Realism, or naturalism as it was called in Russia, brought "everyday people who had hitherto been admitted neither to the homes nor to the writings of the fashionable'' into the mainstream. Nikolai Gogol (The Inspector General) is perhaps one of the most well-known contributors to this body of Russian literature.
By the mid-1850s, the agitation for reform had become quite heated, and with Alexander II stepping in as ruler, the nation's policies began to change. As Ellison noted, Nicholas I had failed to stem ‘‘the tide of intellectual radicalism ... to buttress the traditional social order ... [and] to achieve a more enlightened and efficient government.’’ This being the case, his successor set to work putting the wheels of change into motion. Alexander II relaxed censorship and began reforming all aspects of bureaucracy including the government administration, the judiciary, the educational system, the military, and the nation's economic policies.
Success can not be measured by intent alone, and as Ellison pointed out, Alexander II' s "failures were of speed and scope, not of direction.'' Harcave concluded, "Although Alexander II, like Peter [the Great], failed to attain all the goals that he set for himself, his reforms helped to bring about such changes that his reign may be considered the second great watershed in Russian history.’’
SettingA Month in the Country is set in Russia during the mid-1800s on the estate of a wealthy landowner. The entire play takes place within one week and the majority of the action takes place in the Islayev's drawing room. By setting the play during the 1840s, Turgenev adds a political dimension to the work. The expansion of the secret police and the increase in censorship during Tsar Nicholas I's reign limited the degree to which Russian citizens could express themselves freely. To the extent that Natalya wants to break free from the constraints imposed upon her by men and the institution of marriage, A Month in the Country can be symbolically read as a political commentary about Russian citizens wanting to assert their free wills and act in accordance with their desires and passions. Like Natalya, who seeks the freedom to do as she pleases without any fear of the consequences, Russia's citizens, including its artists, desired the same opportunity.
Realism Realism is a literary term that describes the way that stories are told as well as a literary movement that was popular during Turgenev's lifetime. A Month in the Country is an example of a realist work because it depicts people and circumstances that could very well exist in everyday life. The characters and the plot are realistic as opposed to fanciful creations of the author's mind.
Biographical Elements While A Month in the Country is not a biography of Turgenev's life, the play does include some elements that can be considered biographical. For example, his longtime love for Pauline Viardot can be paralleled to Rakitin's unwavering devotion to Natalya. Throughout his lifetime, Turgenev often moved so that he could be close to Pauline and her husband. Like Rakitin's relationship with Islayev, Turgenev' s relationship with Pauline's husband was a friendly one. In addition to hints of Turgenev being found in the character of Rakitin, the author can also be found in the character of Natalya. As an artist who faced the limitations of censorship, Turgenev shared Natalya's passion for freedom. Further, whereas Natalya was influenced by her fear of her domineering father, Turgenev was highly influenced by his fear of his mother, who was known for her unpredictable cruelty.
Foreshadowing Foreshadowing is a technique used by authors to tip off readers/viewers about events that will come later in the story. Turgenev uses foreshadowing in the first act by having Anna, Schaaf, and Liza playing hearts. The card game is symbolic and its placement in the beginning of the play indicates that just as in the card game, there will be winners and losers in the game of love by the play's end.
Another use of foreshadowing involves Rakitin and Beliayev. Rakitin's decision to leave the estate suggests that, in the name of honor, Beliayev may make a similar decision and also decide to leave.
Symbolism The card game, hearts, that Anna, Schaaf, and Liza play in the opening scene is one example of the symbolism used by Turgenev in this play. Although the card game is part of the action of the play, the name of the game has an added significance. Placing the game in the very first scene makes its symbolism even more weighty. It is as though from the start, Turgenev is signaling the reader that the play is about the heart or love. The game is symbolic because, as in love, not everyone who plays wins. In cards and in love, one runs the risk of losing, and indeed by the play's end, many have lost in love. Schaaf s disappointing loss mirrors the disappointment felt by other characters when their desires to succeed in love are not fulfilled.
Irony Irony is defined as an outcome that is directly opposite an expected result. One of the central ironies in A Month in the Country is the fact that while love is one of the play's major themes, no one seems to sustain a romantic, loving relationship. While love is intended to be a passionate uplifting endeavor, none of the play's characters are happy in their romantic relationships. Further, the play does not suggest that any of the characters will likely be happy in their relationships. Vera agrees to marry Bolshintsov in order to leave the estate, Natalya remains with Islayev but wishes that she could be with someone else, and Anna joins with Shpigelski, with whom she is not in love.
Mid-1800s: During Nicholas I's reign, there are many restrictions placed on education. In particular, there are restrictions on the use of western ideas and texts in the classroom. The government has a strong influence on curriculum. When Alexander II assumes power, he seeks educational reforms by relaxing censorship standards and increasing the autonomy of universities.
Today: Along with the collapse of the Soviet system in the early-1990s came a marked increase in the number of private schools and institutions of higher education. In addition, the educational curriculum has been broadened to include previously banned works and reinterpre-tations of Russian and Soviet history.
Mid-1800s: Land is primarily owned by the wealthy, who use serfs for labor. While there is growing agitation for freeing the serfs under Nicholas I, the official emancipation statues are not initiated until February 19, 1861. The statutes call for land ownership to pass from noble landowners to the serfs in three stages. Ultimately, serfs have to pay high prices in exchange for little land; however, despite the flaws in the reforms, they do substantially raise the social position of Russia's lowest class.
Today: Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the agricultural industry has been slow to privatize. As late as the mid-1990s, 90% of agricultural land was in control of former collective and state farms. While these farms have been reorganized into cooperatives or joint stock companies, land ownership remains concentrated.
Mid-1800s: Russia's most impressive industrial expansion takes place during the 1860s and 1870s; however, prior to this time, much had been done to pave the way. The completion of close to five thousand miles of roads and the Moscow-Petersburg railroad line contributed greatly to Russia's budding industrialization as did the growth of cities and cottage industries. During Alexander II's reign, wasteful excise tax collection is abolished, railroad construction continues, and the system of banks, joint stock companies, and credit institutions is expanded. Russia is primed for the industrial and commercial expansion it needs to strengthen its empire.
Today: As the twentieth century comes to a close, Russia is finding itself, along with the rest of the world, in the midst of a new revolution— the technological revolution. Advances in the computer industry are transforming the global landscape and like the rest of the world, Russia is enjoying and eagerly anticipating the progress made possible by the new communication age.
Mid-1800s: Russia is ruled by autocrats whose personal preferences and dispositions characterize and determine the goals of the government.
Today: In the past two decades, Russia has been faced with the difficult task of transitioning from a single-party totalitarian style of government (communist) to a multiparty democratic style of government. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) has been replaced by hundreds of parties whose orientations range from monarchists to communists. In general, the political parties can be divided into three groups: 1) nationalist/communist, 2) pro-market/democratic, and 3) centrist/special interest.
A Month in the Country was made into a film for Mastervision's arts series on drama. Produced in the 1980s, this ninety-minute version of the play stars Susannah York and Ian McShane. Derek Marlowe wrote the screenplay, Quentin Lawrence directed, and Peter Snell produced the film.
In 1969, Melodiia in the U.S.S.R. published a recording called Stseny iz spektaklei, or Scenes from Plays, that included scenes from A Month in the Country. This recording is in Russian.
A Month in the Country was performed as an opera and recorded in 1981 by the Boston and New England Conservatories. John Moriarty was the conductor and David Bartholomew directed the show.
A 100-minute sound recording of the play was released in 1981 by A.B.C. in Sydney, Australia.
SOURCES Harcave, Sidney. Russia: A History, J. B. Lippincott, 1968, pp. 248-74.
Schechner, Richard. Introduction to A Month in the Country, translated by Richard Newnham, Chandler, 1962, pp. vii-xviii.
FURTHER READING Ellison, Herbert J. History of Russia, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964, pp. 134-218. This book chronicles Russia's history. The particular pages noted cover the years 1801 through 1881, roughly encompassing the period of Turgenev's life.
Freeborn, Richard. Turgenev: The Novelist's Novelist: A Study, Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. xi-36. While this book focuses upon Turgenev as a novelist, its beginning chapters provide an introduction to his guiding philosophies, political leanings, and development as a writer.
Garnett, Edward. Turgenev, Kennikat Press, 1966, pp. v-34. This work presents a discussion of Turgenev's childhood, family life, and his early works as well as a chapter about his critics.
Knowles, A. V. Ivan Turgenev, edited by Charles A. Moser, Twayne, 1988. This book offers an in-depth look at Turgenev with chapters devoted to his biography, literary career, reputation, six of his novels, and his final years. A Month in the Country is also discussed.
Schapiro, Leonard. Turgenev: His Life and Times, Oxford University Press, 1978. This book contextualizes Turgenev's life and works within the nineteenth century.
Yarmolinsky, Avraham. Turgenev: The Man—His Art—His Age, Hodder & Stroughton, 1926. Yarmolinsky's work offers a survey of Turgenev's life and his literary accomplishments.
Fitzlyon, April. A Month in the Country: An Exhibition Presented by the Theatre Museum. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983. A useful illustrated presentation of Turgenev’s work for theater, with a bibliography of translations of his plays into English and of their productions in Great Britain. Various aspects of A Month in the Country are treated in an uncluttered way.
Freeborn, Richard. “Turgenev the Dramatist.” In Critical Essays on Ivan Turgenev, edited by David A. Lowe. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. An excellent survey of Turgenev’s dramatic works. Freeborn considers Turgenev’s work for the theater a part of his apprenticeship for future works. In A Month in the Country, he added a dimension of forceful psychological insight, reinforced by a sharp edge of social criticism.
Magarshack, David. Turgenev: A Life. London: Faber and Faber, 1954. An illustrated biography by Turgenev’s translator, concentrating on the events shaping his life, his relationships with Russian and foreign writers, and the circumstances surrounding his works, including A Month in the Country.
Seeley, Frank Friedeberg. “Poetry, Plays, Criticism.” In Turgenev: A Reading of His Fiction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. In this survey of Turgenev’s poetry and plays, Seeley finds A Month in the Country to be a combination of two subtle psychological portraits, that of a woman in crisis and of a Hamlet-type hero. The play marks the full development of the Russian psychological drama a generation before Chekhov.