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Pronouns of high drama

December 3, 2013

A while ago I mentioned “The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity,” which made a huge impression on me when I first read it. Roger Brown and Albert Gilman say that Shakespeare and Marlowe used “thou” and “you” quite fluidly, with characters switching from one to the other to express temporary emotional states. In French neo-classical theater, “tu” and “vous” were almost always determined by stable social relationships; “Racine reserved the expressive pronoun as some composers save the cymbals” (278).

For years I thought nineteenth-century Russian more or less resembled the seventeenth-century French situation. Then I started finding examples of ты and вы in Pisemskii that seemed as free as the pronoun shifts in Shakespeare, notably the many times Baklanov switches pronouns in Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), even though ты obviously didn’t go the way of English “thou.”

In Leskov, on the other hand, I think there are socially inappropriate shifts from вы to ты that are like Racine’s cymbal crash.

Take Cathedral Folk (Соборяне, 1867-72). Nikolai Afanas’evich is an elderly dwarf (карлик in the text) of peasant origin, and he speaks in a dignified and respectful way to just about everyone. Naturally he called his late mistress and owner вы while she called him ты, but besides that he calls his own sister, also a dwarf and unlike him a half-wit (тупоумная), вы and uses the deferential plural forms when referring to her in the third person.

His unexpected ты comes in a story he tells at a name-day party. He had been bought by Marfa Andrevna Plodomasova. His sister was thrown in free, but he has been separated, apparently forever, from his parents and brother. Marfa Andrevna senses his hidden sorrow and wants to cheer him up; she offers him money as a name-day gift, but each ruble she offers he says he would give to a different family member. When his name day arrives, he is astonished by the sight of his family in the church at his new home, and Marfa Andrevna then gives him a purse full of rubles to distribute to his father, mother, brother, and (another surprise) his brother’s new family. He can’t believe his good fortune, but there’s more:

“[…] Up to this time Marfa Andrevna, who was walking with Father Aleksei, kept talking about the mowing and didn’t seem to be paying any attention to me, and then suddenly she stepped onto the porch, turned around to face me, and said the following: ‘My servant, here is a document of manumission: set your folks and your brother and his children free!’ And she put the document in my vest… Well, that was too much for me to take…”

Nikolai Afanas’evich raised his hands up to the level of his face and started talking again:

“‘You [ты]!’ I cried in a frenzy, ‘with all this it must be that you [ты],’ I say, ‘cruel woman, want [хочешь] to flatten me completely with your kindness!’ And then I felt a tightness in my chest, my temples started to hurt, I saw lights in my eyes on all sides, and I fell to the ground unconscious next to my father’s carts with that document.” (book 2, chapter 3)

So he actually calls the woman who owned him ты to her face when he is overwhelmed by her generosity. In the time when the story takes place, Nikolai Afanas’evich doesn’t come to for nine days (thus missing out on the unexpected reunion with his family). In the time when he tells the story, the passage with ты earns him an interruption and a friendly thump on the shoulder from the deacon Akhilla.

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