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Great Reforms and 19th Century Literature of Realism
August 21, 2008 23:58

Unusual flourishing of Russian realistic literature in the second half of the 19th century was going on against the background of social and political distemper that started in the 1840s, under the reign of Nicholas I (1825–1855). It was the literary critic Vissarion Grigoryevich Belinsky (1811–1848) who heralded the reforms: he called upon writers to realistically approach the country’s social problems, such as serfdom and the like, and realize their role as critics of the social order.

 Vissarion Belinsky

Activity of Belinsky was followed by talented critics Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky (1828–1889) and Nikolay Aleksandrovich Dobrolyubov (1836–1861). These reformers were Westernizer who believed that Russia should be developing like a West European civilization. They were opposed by Slavophiles who proclaimed adherence to traditions of the Old Rus’, such as Orthodox belief and czarist autocracy.

Among the numerous novelists of that period there stand out three giants known all over the world: Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev (1818–1883), Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821–1881) and Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828–1910). Noteworthy is also Ivan Aleksandrovich Goncharov (1812–1891), the author of the perennial Oblomov (1858).

 Ivan Turgenev

Both poetic descriptions of nature and deep insight into human psyche are inherent in Turgenev’s A Sportsman's Sketches (1847–1852). Both these features along with disposition to social and political problems are characteristic of his two following novels, such as Rudin (1856) and A Nest of the Gentry (1859). These novels present Turgenev’s pet pair of characters: a weak-willed hero and an unbending heroine, the types obviously inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Tatiana. It was also Pushkin’s impact that determined realistic representation of landlords’ country life. In the novel On the Eve (1860) Turgenev attempted to create a portrait of a vigorous fighter against oppression. It was not a big success with the critics, however. His vividly sculptured nihilist Bazarov from Turgenev’s best novel, Fathers and Sons (1862) was also attacked by the same critics, who saw the character as a caricatured image of a revolutionist. Ivan Turgenev spent his last years abroad, where he went on writing, yet his latest works were weaker than the previous ones.

 Fyodor Dostoevsky

The main character of Dostoevsky’s first novel Poor Folk (1846) was created under the influence of the portrait of the humiliated clerk in Gogol’s The Overcoat, yet his further creations revealed his being utterly alien to Gogol and overall Pushkin’s tradition of classical realism. Dostoevsky as a writer did not consider himself to be a mouthpiece of any social stratum. Rather, he saw his writing as an attempt “to find a man within man”. In Crime and Punishment (1866) student Raskolnikov being embittered by his poverty and depended on his insane theory that crime is allowed to “unusual people” performs a murder for the sake of money. The novel dwells on the inner struggling of his conscience with the immoral theory. In The Idiot (1868) the main character Myshkin tries to coordinate sinful life with Christian virtues; here Dostoevsky analyzes spiritual defeat of “a completely beautiful person”. Plot of The Brothers Karamazov (1879–1880) represents seeking of God and faith in the world possessed with practicalness and impiety – this seeking is symbolically expressed in Ivan’s titanic spiritual struggle with himself, when he repudiates God’s world, because it is full of senseless people’s sufferings.

Unlike Dostoevsky, the creator of quite a life-like, and yet distorted by subjective perception and obsession world, Leo Tolstoy was an exponent of actual life. His picture of life was fresh, vivid and vital owing to his rich artistic vision.

His early works, brilliant as they were, served him as preparation for the monumental novel War and Peace (1863–1869). This voluminous historic epic is mainly focused on relations of five families in the period from 1805 to 1820. The events of 1812 (the Napoleonic War) are interwoven with profound philosophic reflections on history, war and nature of human greatness. His next big novel, Anna Karenina (1873–1877) is one of the most significant stories of love.

In 1880 Tolstoy went through poignant spiritual experience that made him dedicate the rest of his life to crusade against social evil. He did not fully abandon his artwork, but, except The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) and his last big novel Resurrection (1899), Tolstoy gave up his psychological and analytical writing behind for the sake of simplified narrative style comprehensible to wide masses.

Lots of writers contributed to Russian literature of the second half of the 19th century. Over the common level of fiction there tower such authors as Mikhail Yevgrafovich Saltykov (1826–1889; pen name N.Shchedrin) – an outstanding satirist whose masterpiece The Golovlyov Family (1875–1880) is still relevant nowadays; and Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov (1831–1895), whose “chronicle” Cathedral Folk (1872) enriched the fund of Russian classics.

 Anton Chekhov

Later splendid short stories and stories by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860–1904), such as Ward No. 6 (1892), Peasants (1897), The Lady with the Dog (1899) and In the Ravine (1900), to name but a few, gained him laurels of the master of small prose all over the world. In short story genre his famous rival was Maxim Gorky (Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov) (1868–1936) his best works including Chelkash (1895), On the Rafts (1895) and The Orlovs (1897).

The poetry of that period hardly compares to the marvelous realistic prose of the time. And yet, certainly noteworthy are the masterly and realistic narrative poems by Nikolay Alexeyevich Nekrasov (1821–1877), such as The Peddlers (1861) and Who is Happy in Russia? (1863–1877).

Similarly to novels and short stories of those years, drama was also imbued with realistic pathos.

Specifically theatrical dramatist Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky (1823–1886) wrote a great number of plays; the best of them, such as for example Poverty Is No Crime (1854), The Storm (1859) and The Dowerless Bride (aka Bespridannitsa) (1879) have not quit the stage till date.

Turgenev’s comedies The Provincial Lady (1851) and A Month in the Country (1855) are also staged nowadays. Leo Tolstoy also wrote several plays, the most impressive of them being The Power of Darkness (1887), a realistic tragedy from peasant life. Out of Gorky’s plays The Lower Depths (1902) is still of high artistic value.

The most significant and original playwright of the 19th century was certainly Anton Chekhov. After more or less standard one-act plays and more elaborate plays, such as Ivanov (1887) and The Wood Demon (1889), Chekhov came up with his great plays: The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1900), Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904). Chekhov created a new drama structure, consisting of intermittent soliloquies, where all the personages are very outspoken and yet their confessions pass unnoticed.

 Vasily Rozanov

The 19th century ended with sort of a farewell bloom of pre-revolutionary culture, with realistic tradition rejected and new horizons opening in poetry, prose, drama and critics.

The new literary movement penetrated with mysticism, religiousness and disappointment, imbibed with West European influences of the “end of the age” and presentiment of upcoming revolutionary tendencies was first called decadent and later, in its mature period, symbolist. Among many symbolist writers, some of whom flew to the West after the revolution of 1917, one should note Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov (1853–1900), Vasily Vasilievich Rozanov (1856–1919), Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky (1866–1941), Konstantin Dmitriyevich Balmont (1867–1942), Valery Yakovlevich Bryusov (1873–1924), Fyodor Kuzmich Sologub (Teternikov) (1863–1927), Andrei Bely (Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev) (1880–1934), Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Blok (1880–1921) and others.


Tags: Russian Literature History of Russian Literature Russian Realism Russian Classics  

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