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“Poor thing! they coaxed a fateful ‘yes’ from her…”

September 25, 2013

Inspired by Sarah J. Young, I recently read Elena Gan’s “The Ideal” (Идеал, 1837). In the last few months I’ve been realizing that—even after you allow for the fact that many talented women didn’t have the opportunity to write, and the further fact that male editors and critics at the time and male scholars since have pushed the women who did write to the edges of the canon—I’ve read appallingly few nineteenth-century Russian women writers. So I’m slowly fixing that with Gan and Ol’ga N.

“The Ideal” is the story of Ol’ga Aleksandrovna Gol’tsberg, who is unhappily married to an unromantic colonel and loves, at first platonically and from afar, the poet Anatolii Borisovich T. In poetry and life he insincerely plays the part of the passionate, romantic idealist, and he nearly seduces her before she stumbles on a letter where he describes to a friend his plans to seduce her, even though he’s lost interest, just to teach her that life isn’t how she sees it.

The narrator, Ol’ga, and Ol’ga’s friend Vera are slightly different in that Ol’ga starts out naive. All three seem to share the same system of values, which doesn’t look ahead to a feminist future to come but is a corrective to the tentative freethinking of Ol’ga’s mother, who “read all the works of the philosophers of the French school and considered the unalterable conditions of women’s existence to be fabrications fit only for the mob.” Not so the younger women, who come to see an unhappy marriage as a cross that must be borne with the kind of submissiveness urged on the peasants. There’s no salvation in other men, who in this story can at best temporarily appear better than the unloved husband, so the married woman’s only recourse is religion.

Ol’ga and Vera anticipate Liza Bakhareva and Jenny Glovatskaia in Leskov’s No Way Out (Некуда, 1864): two young friends who were educated together, one of them (Ol’ga, Liza) so passionate she can’t fit into a rather drab society, and the other (Vera, Jenny) wise beyond her years and level-headed enough to drive anyone crazy.

Mostly Gan is willing to have the narrator describe characters’ internal states and openly root for them to change, but I found one example of the method that later becomes Pisemskii’s calling card. Here the poet, Anatolii Borisovich, is playing his part:

“Do not take the sacred name of love in the vulgar meaning with which society has tarred it; understand me, my Friend; my love is pure and innocent…”

But the poet’s gaze bored hungrily into Ol’ga’s heaving bosom.

“I cannot, I must not love you. I am married…!”

“And you cling to that word too? Poor thing! they coaxed a fateful ‘yes’ from her, tore it from her tongue, and this ‘yes’ must smother all of nature’s feelings in her heart, it must bind her with chains of thorns to a soulless man.”

“He is my husband! Anatolii, he loves me, and I… I… respect him!”

I suppose the trick of undercutting what a character is saying by describing an external, visible action (“but the poet’s gaze bored hungrily…”) has been around forever, but Pisemskii sure uses it a lot (he might even have left out the “but”). I like how it works in Gan here. Anatolii Borisovich’s first speech above might look self-serving even if we didn’t know where his eyes were, but in a different story, without that gaze, the second speech could have been made persuasive. (By the way, is “chains of thorns” supposed to sound poetic at first, but like a funny misquotation of “crown of thorns” after you think about it? That’s how I take it, but it may be my Russian. The original is “это ‘да’ должно задушить в ее сердце все чувства природы, должно приковать ее терновыми цепями к человеку бездушному.”)

A while ago I was musing about why 1830s Russian seemed so much harder than 1860s Russian, but I want to revise that now. The language of this 1837 story is as crystal clear as anything in Pisemskii, Turgenev, or Tolstoi.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Vika Thorstensson permalink
    October 7, 2013 1:45 pm

    I never read that story but seeing your comment about Liza Bakhareva and Jennie Glovatskaya from No Way Out, I wonder what the real origin of this character doubling is. It is probably not very important that these are two friends, what do you think? Isn’t it close to Tatiana and Olga in Eugene Onegin and Vera and Marfin’ka in The Precipice? Are there others? What is the source?

    • October 7, 2013 2:14 pm

      Vika, you’re probably right that there are other and older similar pairs of characters. It’s always a danger for me that I’ll see unimportant connections between two things I happen to read around the same time. I guess I thought that it was somewhat novel to have two female non-relatives sharing a past this way (Liza and Jennie, Ol’ga and Vera aren’t blood sisters), and from what I remember Ol’ga in Eugene Onegin wasn’t taken as seriously by the authorial POV as the less passionate halves of the Gan and Leskov duos. For that matter I thought Tat’iana was a standard if appealing young woman in love (and then an ideal of self-sacrificing faithfulness), without the intensity and frequent changes of direction of Liza B. (suddenly deciding to spend the night in an unheated house in winter, almost going blind from reading, etc.). I haven’t read The Precipice – what are Vera and Marfin’ka like?

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