by Ivan Goncharov

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1009

“Oblomov’s Dream,” which Ivan Goncharov called the overture to the complete novel Oblomov, was published in 1849. It took the writer ten years more to finish the whole book. When it appeared in 1859, three years before the emancipation of the serfs, Oblomov had an immediate and clamorous success. The period was one of growing political activity in feudal Russia. Progressive democratic forces preached an awakening from inertia and stagnation and expressed general hope for reforms. Although Goncharov had no political goals in mind, his realistic depiction of Russian life of about four decades of the first half of the nineteenth century opened the eyes of those who did not want to see the dangers of serfdom and the necessity of cardinal changes. Goncharov showed how and why the Russian gentry were in gradual decline and proved the necessity of strong, active leaders to rise up and to bring in a new epoch in which the laziness and stagnation would be overcome.

Ilya Ilyitch Oblomov, the main character of the novel, is a product and a victim of a disintegrated Russian culture and primitive natural economy. His life is a terrible process of spiritual and moral degradation. A curious and lively boy, he falls prey to the charms of Oblomovka, his family estate, where work and boredom are synonyms and where food and sleep are all that matter. There is no need for him to exercise any initiative, since hundreds of servants are always at his call.

By the age of thirty-two he is an inert and apathetic creature wrapped in his dressing gown and glued to his couch. He retires from the world and excuses his idleness with the pretense that he is preparing himself for life. His preparations are nothing but vain dreams in which a peaceful and happy childhood is mixed up with an unrealizable future without passions, conflicts, storms, or demands. Lazy, incompetent, clumsy, and good for nothing, Zakhar complements his master and shares his nostalgia for Oblomovka. Oblomov’s caprices and way of life are not in the least abnormal for Zakhar; they evoke his respect and admiration. The master and his valet cannot exist without each other and completely depend on each other.

Nothing and nobody can wake Oblomov up and bring him to active and normal life. His friend Andrey Stolz spares no effort to make Oblomov live up to what is best in him and to realize himself as an individual. Stolz introduces Oblomov to the beautiful and vivacious Olga Ilyinsky, who brings some freshness and purpose into Oblomov’s life. Although initially carried away by love, Oblomov does not want to have the troubles of this feeling or to take any responsibility for another person. Fear of changing his life routine wins over the feeling of love and leads to separation. Love for Olga and friendship with Stolz are a test of Oblomov’s ability to return to life, but Oblomov fails the test because the clutches of his sloth and melancholy are too strong. In the relations and the characters of Oblomov and Stolz, Goncharov shows the differences and collisions of the old patriarchal Russia and the new European Russia. Intelligent and practical, Stolz is one of the best representatives of the capitalist trend that Goncharov thinks that Russia can no longer avoid. Lean and muscular, Stolz is the complete opposite of the round, soft Oblomov; Stolz personifies energy, activity, business undertaking, and progress.

There are no complicated intrigues in the novel. The center of attention is the psychology of a person who gradually falls into apathy and the conditions that lead...

(This entire section contains 1009 words.)

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him to this kind of existence. There is not much action in the novel either. Even nature is undisturbed and quiet. The inactivity of nature blends with the inactivity and stagnation prevailing everywhere. The extremely simple plot, thematically based on inaction, develops slowly. This enables the reader to note details that otherwise might escape attention. Goncharov masterfully uses every detail, movement, gesture, and posture to thoroughly depict all characters. A true realist in his portraiture, Goncharov combines concrete physical details with biographical facts and description of the inner world of his characters. Goncharov shows a great talent for fitting every character and every scene into one fully developed, complete picture. Monologues, dialogues, and numerous comical situations bring color and lightness to the novel.

There is a close connection between Goncharov’s life and his creation. Goncharov and his protagonist Oblomov spent their childhoods on a provincial estate; both studied at Moscow University; both worked in civil service, and both experienced disappointment in love. Goncharov openly sympathizes with his hero and feels sorry for him. He shows Oblomov as a decent, lovable human being weakened by forces beyond his control. Oblomov, with all his shortcomings, is an intelligent, honest, truthful, and faithful person, who can evoke love and devotion. He understands his personal decline and the reasons for it but has neither power nor courage to do anything about it. He finds a substitute for his Oblomovka in Pshenitsina’s house, where he sleeps his life away under the maternal eye of Agafya Matveyevna, his landlady and later his wife. Conflicts between dream and reality, stagnation and striving, tradition and modernization, country and city, true love and sensual toleration bolster the main theme of the novel—the emptiness and inertia of the Russian gentry.

Oblomov is one of the best realistic novels of Russian literature and the height of Goncharov’s literary activity. It precipitated much dispute and evoked contradictory interpretations by all major Russian literary critics. Some accused Goncharov of malicious slander on Russian gentry; others praised him for sincerity and authenticity. Nikolay Alexandrovich Dobrolyubov gave the first and most famous treatment of Oblomov in his article “What Is Oblomovism?” The article was published in 1859, immediately after the publication of the novel. Dobrolyubov gives a brilliant analysis of the book, demonstrating its significance as a genuine depiction of the disintegration of Russia. “Oblomovism” immediately entered the Russian language, denoting passivity, idleness, apathy, sloppiness, inertia, and lack of self-discipline.