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A mortar and pestle, and Siberia as a substitute for divorce

July 1, 2013

And she [Mme Gartung] even made a hand gesture to show how she would crush all men with a mortar and pestle.

“Quite right, they’re all rubbish!” agreed Vikhrov, and soon afterward, on the subject of what he himself called his new religion, he had a rather lengthy argument with Nevedomov, whom he had previously thought to be entirely on his side. He went to see him once and made a point of starting a conversation on this topic.

“So tell me,” he began, “what is your opinion of George Sand? I’ve never had a chance to talk about her with you.” (part 2, chapter 12, “George Sand-ism”)

This is how directly George Sand comes up in Pisemskii’s Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869). Vikhrov is the sympathetic main character, but we’re only a third of the way into the book and he must have a lot to learn. Nevedomov, his independent-minded friend who translates Shakespeare and dresses in a monk’s robe (подрясник) though not a monk, declares “I consider chastity the chief virtue of any woman.” The narrator might be poking fun at the new feminist religion of a man who thinks men are rubbish. All in all it looks like the authorial point of view is going to expose the wrongness of George Sand.

The rest of the novel tests the two young men’s hypotheses. Vikhrov is involved with a married woman, Kleopatra Fateeva. He’s neither her first nor her last lover, and she dies unhappy, still relatively young. Her illness might have been prevented if Vikhrov had married her after her husband’s death. A point for Nevedomov and against Sand: Fateeva suffers for putting personal happiness and freedom above wifely duty, and Vikhrov, for all his George Sand-ism, decided not to marry an “unchaste” woman.

Nevedomov himself was in love with a young woman who lived in the same building as these male students, Anna Ivanovna. But she preferred another student, Salov. He became engaged to her, then kept her practically locked up while he deceived her and married another, wealthier woman instead, after sleeping with Anna. (The same Salov inspired the mortar-and-pestle sentiment above.) Nevedomov never forgives (!) Anna, who marries a merchant out of material need. Her husband makes her life miserable, Nevedomov goes to a monastery, Anna dies, and Nevedomov drowns, probably on purpose. The anti-Sand, pro-chastity philosophy has problems too.

I thought the tiebreaker would be Vikhrov’s first and greatest love for the married Mari Eismond. She loves Vikhrov too, but can’t bring herself either to deny herself like Pushkin’s Tat’iana or leave her husband altogether. Out of faithfulness to her lover, she stops having sex with her husband, who for that reason has an affair with a younger German woman. This goes on for some time and… is still going on when the novel ends, with no clear moral drawn.

We know that one of Vikhrov’s first pieces of fiction, banned under Nicholas I but published under Alexander II, “defends women.” In government service he encounters a peasant woman who falsely accuses herself of a crime in order to escape from her husband, and he helps her get sent to Siberia.

This last episode wins Pisemskii praise from M. Tsebrikova, a feminist critic writing in Nekrasov’s National Annals, in “A Humanitarian Champion of Women’s Rights (On Mr. Pisemskii’s Novel Men of the Forties)” (1870). Tsebrikova unsurprisingly takes some swipes at Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), but seems to think Men of the Forties is a step in the right direction. Her discussion of several works by Pisemskii is reasonably nuanced, which makes me wonder if the view that after 1863 Pisemskii was ignored because the radicals were mad at him is exaggerated. Here’s a whole article on Men of the Forties, not entirely hostile to Pisemskii and not just using him as an excuse to talk about the oppression of women, next to installments of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s History of a Certain Town and Nekrasov’s Who Can Be Happy in Russia?

[Update 7/9/13: More on Tsebrikova’s take on Pisemskii here. The article is perhaps more hostile to Pisemskii than I initially realized, and more inclined to group Men of the Forties with Troubled Seas, but I don’t take back anything I wrote here when I was halfway through it.]

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