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...
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