The eavesdropping mother
Tom’s Chernyshevskii readalong is in full swing, at his own Wuthering Expectations, as well as Six Words for a Hat and Howling Frog Books. You’ll want to read about the ambiguity of Rakhmetov from both Scott Bailey — “Rakhmetov (or, as we call him at my house, Saint Rocky Socialist Christ)” — and Tom — “for a cartoon character, he is strangely complex.”
Bailey also has a post arguing that the book is a personal exercise in wish-fulfillment, where “Chernyshevsky wants to liberate his real-life wife Olga, but apparently Olga had no real wish to be liberated, educated, empowered, and employed in meaningful work.” It’s not unpersuasive, though going in I thought it was like arguing (Four Dead in) “Ohio” emerged from Neil Young’s dissatisfaction with his nuclear family. It’s true there are passages that feel wish-fulfillment-y even before any knowledge of the real author’s circumstances, like Lopukhov’s savoir-faire when he invites himself over for dinner in chapter 2, section xv.
I am a slow rereader and am still in the second quarter of the novel. Here’s what I’m thinking about it so far.
There may not be the kind of moral ambiguity in Chernyshevskii’s novel as in Dostoevskii or Leskov, but you can’t believe Chernyshevskii’s critics or the narrator about his lack of technique. Even if a writer’s purpose is to propagandize some philosophy, a novelist can do this in ways an essayist can’t. Lev Tolstoi’s writing can be morally unambiguous, but the didactic points are made with force and skill. We can take Nekrasov’s epigram “To the Author of Anna Karenina” (Автору “Анны Карениной”, 1876) seriously (“Tolstoi, you have proved it with talent and pomp: a woman shouldn’t step out with another, be he valet de chambre or an aide-de-camp, when she is a wife and mother”*). It really was “with talent,” even if you are a radical who finds the moral of the story banal, or rejects it on free-love grounds.
Chernyshevskii is no Tolstoi, but he had read his share of fiction, and he does more than write edifying dialogues between infallible nihilist heroes and a pack of yes-women and raisonneurs. Take chapter 2, section viii, the “Test à la Hamlet,” where Lopukhov and Vera Pavlovna have a conversation about life and seem to be in perfect agreement with each other, the nihilist-approved books they have read, and the authorial point of view. They discuss ideas, apply them to the choices that face Vera Pavlovna in the novel, and talk about whether turning pages of sheet music with one’s left or right hand is a decision made “from necessity” or depends “on my good pleasure.” So far, so painfully straightforward. But the narrator makes much of the fact that Vera Pavlovna’s mother eavesdrops on the conversation.
Anticipating objections, Chernyshevskii has the narrator dwell on the possibly ironic fact that Vera Pavlovna’s mother, Mar’ia Aleksevna, thinks she believes in what she overhears. Lopukhov argues that “what are called elevated sentiments, ideal aspirations, — all that, in the general course of affairs, is absolutely null, and is eclipsed by individual interest; these very sentiments are nothing but self-interest clearly understood.” Someone as petty and wicked as Vera’s mother is happy to get on board and declare that self-interest is the natural motive of all people. What then is the difference between the clearly good Lopukhov and the clearly bad Mar’ia Aleksevna?
I don’t think What Is to Be Done? answers that question in as satisfying a way as it was probably supposed to, despite all the meta-fiction in chapter 2, section ix, where it’s explained that both the “lofty ideas” crowd and the petty villains of the world mistakenly think “individuals like Lopoukhoff are in no wise distinguishable from individuals like Maria Alexevna.” Here in the early part of the novel I feel like it’s frequently asserted that Lopukhov is different from both groups, but he seems to exist in constant danger of either slipping into unenlightened self-interest or letting lofty ideas contaminate his enlightenment. If Chernyshevskii’s temperament had been more like Dostoevskii’s, you could imagine him pushing characters into difficult, borderline situations, where they would act in their own interest, but the reader might not be sure if they were more like Lopukhov or more like Mar’ia Aleksevna. (Maybe even the author wouldn’t know until he ran the experiment.) Instead we always know which characters are wearing the white hats, and it just falls out that Lopukhov acting in his own interest isn’t much different from Lopukhov altruistically sacrificing himself for Vera Pavlovna’s happiness and the good of humankind.
This is a thread later writers wanted to pull on. Some of the bad nihilists in Leskov are Mar’ia Aleksevnas who have been granted Lopukhov’s youth, suaveness, and education. They use nihilist ideas as a tool to advance their material self-interest at others’ expense (rather than in a positive-sum, socially beneficial way, as in Chernyshevskii). Take Termosesov in Cathedral Folk (Соборяне, 1867-71) or Gordanov in At Daggers Drawn (На ножах, 1870-71). You can also see Ayn Rand as the other side of Chernyshevskii’s coin, arguing that self-interest is king but the Mar’ia Aleksevnas are the heroes.
The scene in Chernyshevskii is more interesting with Mar’ia Aleksevna listening at the keyhole than it would be if it were just Lopukhov and Vera Pavlovna making interchangeable speeches, but it still feels like two cardboard cutouts being misunderstood by a walking joke of a villain. Imagine if you took Lopukhov out of the equation, made Vera Pavlovna feistier and already well-read, and had her argue with a formidable older relative instead of having her no-account mother sneak around in the hallway. You might get a scene like Leskov’s Liza Bakhareva debating her plain-spoken and intelligent aunt, the abbess Mother Agnia, in book 1, chapter 5 of No Way Out (Некуда, 1864). But Chernyshevskii doesn’t want an articulate woman like Mother Agnia making the anti-nihilist case. He has the narrator apologize for the comic aspects of Mar’ia Aleksevna and discusses the possibility of reporting Lopukhov and Vera Pavlovna’s conversation with no eavesdropping mother at all, but not the possibility of replacing her with someone who isn’t comic. That makes an aesthetic difference, not just an ideological one. I think not as many people would read Anna Karenina today if Anna Karenina made adultery seem no more tempting than Mar’ia Aleksevna makes alternatives to nihilism seem.
Quotes from Chernyshevskii are from Benjamin Tucker’s 1886 translation, since I like it better than Dole and Skidelsky’s, while Katz’s excellent translation is not fully available online.
* It should really be “patience and talent,” with a slam on the length of the serialized novel in progress, instead of “talent and pomp,” which is only my clumsy attempt to make it rhyme.