Literary Bicentenary: Goncharov

Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov was born on 18 June 1812 (adjusting for the vagaries of the Russian calendar). Today is his 200th birthday.

Goncharov wrote Oblomov, and Oblomov made Goncharov’s reputation forever. Very few writers in world literature have been so identified with a single iconic character. In fact, very few literary characters have become so iconic. Not being Russian, I can’t begin to understand the depths to which Oblomov (and his life-philosophy, Oblomovshchina or “Oblomovism”) have become entwined with Russian culture. But as a vicarious fan of Oblomov in translation, I have some sense of a few things that Oblomov means.

Oblomov is a deeply inertial character. It takes him several chapters of his own novel to get out of bed, and once out, he is always in danger of slipping back in. One can interpret his inability to rouse himself from a number of perspectives. To read him through our own century, he’s simply depressed. Indeed, Oblomov is a wonderful character study in depression, in the way your mind works when you hesitate to take out the trash because there will just be more trash tomorrow, when there’s no point even in microwaving some miserable leftover or punctuating your sentences and you watch one reality show after another because the remote is too far from your couch. The psychological realism of Oblomov is sometimes so fresh and so contemporary that it seems to belie social constructionism. Despite our immense distance from Oblomov in socio-economic circumstances, culture, and language, we can read him as directly as if he were sprawled on the sofa next to us. And why not? His creator was born only 200 years ago – two long human lifetimes. Being depressed can’t be all that different now than it was two lifetimes ago.

But of course, the intervening history of Russia is about nothing if it’s not about social constructionism. The Soviets believed that people took the forms that economic relations dictated to them. They read Oblomov as an indictment of an aristocracy made soft by its dependence on serfs. For that reason, Oblomov was one of the Russian classics that did best under the Soviet regime. In such a reading, Oblomov is not just somebody whose brain chemistry has let him down. He becomes allegorical for an ancien regime, brutal and lazy, that is heading for a fall.

And there are other ways of reading Oblomov that are less partisan, if just as political. One can see him as emblematic of a deep, corrupt indolence in the Russian national spirit. He can also possibly stand for positive values of tradition and community. He’s not infinitely malleable, though. He cannot stand for energy, progress, Westernization, or anything-ization, really. He has no project and no aspirations. He does have a tender side, though, and readers instinctively like him (though Goncharov may not have intended them to). He is diffident, and so ends up losing the woman he loves, Olga Sergeyevna. As heartless as his indolent defection may seem, one gets a sense that he really does leave her because she won’t be happy with him. Olga wants to change Oblomov, to get him moving. Instead, he stays right where he is, and eventually marries his distinctly declassé landlady, Agafia Matveyevna. Much like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, Oblomov realizes that what matters is not how much he loves, but how much he is loved by others. Agafia loves him just the way he is.

That Oblomov is harder to allegorize, and a richer character than the one of Soviet (or anti-Soviet) criticism. Perhaps in spite of himself, Goncharov created a character that we can’t help but enjoy and identify with, despite his fecklessness. Indeed, he’s the ancestor of a line of feckless literary heroes, as various as Nabokov’s Pnin and John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly.

Oblomov is by many orders of magnitude Goncharov’s most famous work. I tried to read his first novel The Same Old Story in the UTA Library’s copy recently, only to be told that the grim little Soviet volume did not circulate. But I was able to read his third, The Precipice, which deserves a wider audience – if only for its fallen women who emerge from the novel unaffected by arsenic or passing trains, determined to keep living their lives despite a fate, in the 19th-century novel, that is conventionally worse than death.

I know little of Goncharov’s life. He was from the upper classes, though not a nobleman, and he became a bureaucrat (in the Tsarist literary/cultural establishment, at times in his life serving as a literary censor). He knew the world populated by many a character who would appear in his own novels, or those of Tolstoy and Turgenev. He seems always to have wanted to do something else, though, no matter what he was doing. He was no Oblomov, though he may have felt like one. He seems to have been more like the protagonist of The Precipice, Boris Raisky, who wanders from one profession and artistic calling to another. Like Oblomov, Boris doesn’t get the woman of his dreams. But worse, he doesn’t get any woman at all: he wanders off into perpetual dilettantism. Oblomov, with his widowed landlady bringing him breakfast in bed, may have chosen the better part.


  1. Mabye a forerunner of The Underground Man, but more endearing? Or, gee, depending on the date of the novel, almost a contemporary?

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