In a 1908 letter to Herman Bernstein, his English translator, Leonid Andreyev stated that his task in The Seven Who Were Hanged “was to point out the horror and iniquity of capital punishment under any circumstances.” That the author was effective in accomplishing this task seems clear, but for many decades criticism has been aware of something called the intentional fallacy, which holds that a work may offer meaning quite apart from what its creator intended. Late twentieth century critical theory puzzled over the instabilities of language, the tendency of literature to subvert its own apparent goal. Thus Andreyev’s novel, while remaining an indictment of the death penalty and its execution, can be viewed as susceptible to a number of interpretations, not necessarily consistent with one another. There may be a bitter irony in linking selfless revolutionaries with common criminals, but then an argument may be made that people who visit death on others to achieve a political aim are themselves no better than common criminals. Feminist criticism might choose to look particularly at the two women among the seven who suffer the death penalty; here again, more than one reading is possible or even desirable. Reducing The Seven Who Were Hanged to Andreyev’s declared intent or judging it by that intent alone is unwise.
At the same time, there is an advantage to knowing what the author regarded as his task, because it helps the reader to see how Andreyev, reacting to the increased use of the death penalty after the failed revolution of 1905, exercised his exceptional verbal facility to make vivid the brutality of any inflicted death. Andreyev may be seen as a kind of prose Acmeist, Acmeism being a movement in Russian poetry of about the same time that undertook to counter vague symbolism with language, vivid and concrete, that would convey true experience of the natural world. The mental and physical states of the seven who must die are sharply rendered, sometimes in metaphorical terms, as when the slender white arm of one young woman protrudes from the sleeve of a prisoner’s coat like “a beautiful flower out of a coarse earthen jug,” or when the newly executed prisoners lie “with blue, swollen tongues, looking like some unknown, terrible flowers between the lips.” There is little superfluity in this novel, which is not much more than thirty thousand words in length. Of the twelve chapters that make up the book, the capital sentence is pronounced in the second and carried out in the twelfth. Everything in between treats the seven important characters (there are practically no others of consequence) as they prepare to die.
In the chapters in which they are developed, the doomed people have particularity and complexity, but they are not much realized as human beings. This seems to be true for two reasons. First, there is little dialogue. Most of the characters await execution in isolation (two receive brief visits from parents), and what readers know of them is given through the narrative voice. In addition, there is a measure of implausibility that may arise from Andreyev’s having worked to create sharp impressions. The revolutionaries, where they are not sentimentalized, are idealized, and the common criminals, Yanson especially, are made so brutal as to be incongruent with ordinary experience, even of brutality. The horror of their predicament is clearly understood by the attentive reader, but at the cost of seeing them as people one might encounter in everyday life.
The Seven Who Were Hanged is Andreyev’s most successful work, even in its limitations. Andreyev was highly regarded in the first part of...
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his career, but his standing among contemporaries dwindled even before he died. Early in his literary career, he was befriended by the writer Maxim Gorky, who helped give him a place among his literary peers, and the success of his fiction about capital punishment led some to think that, with Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, Andreyev might be one of the most important Russian writers of his time. It gradually became apparent that, although he was masterful with language, many of his productions were flawed. Andreyev further compromised his standing by building an opulent house in Finland with money made in Russia by his writing. He lost more sympathy, especially with the rising Soviets, by drifting to the right in politics and supporting Russia’s active role in the earlier stages of World War I. His writing might not have been so closely scrutinized had he been more generally approved, but this was not the case, and with no sympathetic indulgence to help him along, the flaws showed through.
Whatever the flaws or limitations of The Seven Who Were Hanged, it remains a striking novel in a first encounter. If Andreyev had an avowed purpose in writing this story, he also had the good judgment to avoid leading the reader with direct moralizing, allowing his stark representation of two very different kinds of condemned people—political operatives and common felons—to make his point about the horror they must face. The clean, spare, concrete prose out of which Andreyev created his book gives the reader an impression of distinctly modern fiction. There are moments when Andreyev puts one in mind of writers of the generation that emerged after World War I—the American writer Ernest Hemingway would be an example. His most famous book also strongly resembles the slower, fuller fiction of Russian writers in the nineteenth century.
It is difficult, but not impossible, for a single work by a writer whose reputation has faded to hold its place among books that are sooner or later read. The Seven Who Were Hanged, although not an obligatory book, remains one that students of Russian literature should be expected to know well.