Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

A School for Fools can been read as a sociopolitical indictment of Soviet reality, but this is far too narrow an interpretation. Russian literature has a tradition, largely associated with Fyodor Dostoevski, that links rationalism with political and social authoritarianism and with artistic sterility. The irrational, on the other hand, is identified with social and personal freedom and with artistic creativity. To many, Soviet society seems to embody the evils assertedly consequent upon a rationalist worldview. The question has implications for more than only the Soviet scene; it is universal.

Madness, the most extreme manifestation of the irrational (at least in its romanticized, fictional representation), permits Sokolov’s hero freedom from the constraints of a drab institutionalized reality. His madness and selective memory even free him from the laws of time. Death, along with all else, becomes problematic. The hero can simultaneously be a snot-nosed, crazy schoolboy and a suave graduate engineer courting Veta in his own car. Norvegov can simultaneously be dead and alive. It should be kept in mind, however, that the boy, and also his idol Norvegov, pay a high price for their freedom, since it puts them in conflict with social reality.

The irrationality/rationality theme pervades A School for Fools in several dimensions: madness versus sanity; the individual versus the collective; nature versus social institutions; and a free, spontaneous art versus a dictated, institutionalized pseudo-art. These themes give shape and meaning to a seemingly chaotic tale.

A School for Fools should not, however, be read solely, or even primarily, as intellectual argument. Sokolov is a brilliant stylist, a language-obsessed writer. It is the whirlwind of language and sound that shapes the narrative and carries it along. This irrational, free, creative force of nature is embodied in the figure of “The Sender of the Wind,” who inspires and defends the positive characters and threatens havoc on their enemies. Norvegov, its prophet, is nicknamed the “winddriver” and the “windvane.” His schoolgirl mistress is Rosa Windova. The name of the boy’s beloved, Veta, poetically derives from the Russian word for wind, veter, as do the names and sobriquets of all the affirmative characters. They are quite literally “children of the wind,” who emerge from the verbal hurricane of the novel’s stream-of-consciousness passages. Such poetic devices are the essence of Sokolov’s literary style.