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“Why this analysis of our inmost feelings, which no one would have gone into?”

November 7, 2014

I’m months late for Tom’s readalong, but here’s what I thought after finishing Chernyshevskii’s What Is to Be Done? (Что делать?, 1863).

1. Is there a hairsbreadth of difference in worldview between the narrator, Vera Pavlovna, Lopukhov, Kirsanov, Rakhmetov, and all the seamstresses and students? Yes, but only just. Some differences emerge as the novel goes on, but not enough.

2. Early on the narrator contrasts A) people who act in their own interest wrongly understood and are petty and selfish, B) people who claim to believe in the noble values of altruism and self-sacrifice but are petty and selfish hypocrites, and C) people who act in their own interest rightly understood and bring good to themselves and the world. If you read the novel sympathetically, there’s an effective enough distinction between type A (Vera Pavlovna’s mother) and type C (all the flavors of new men and new women). But no real characters, unless you count the “perspicacious reader,” carry the banner of type B. Anna Petrovna (the mother of the Mikhail Ivanych, the weak-willed scoundrel Vera Pavlovna’s mother wanted to marry her off to) shows that what’s called “noble” may be mere narrow-mindedness (chapter 1, section 8), but she’s not much of a stand-in for the “enlightened and noble novelists” who (claim to) believe in values that transcend self-interest and can’t distinguish between Vera Pavlovna’s mother and Lopukhov (chapter 1, section 9).

3. A related problem is that self-interest is such a tortured concept that it becomes possible to believe that the author is making fun of his narrator and the type C characters who claim to see human nature in those terms. Lopukhov fakes his own death so that Kirsanov can marry Lopukhov’s wife, Vera Pavlovna. I think I can just barely believe that Lopukhov sees this act as in his own interest, but surely it would be at least as easy to see the old “noble” altruistic philosophy leading to the same melodramatic outcome. I haven’t yet read Andrew Drozd’s reevaluation of What Is to Be Done? but I suspect it must argue that self-interest as a guiding principle is being mocked, not advocated. The narrator seems to agree with the unrepresented noble hypocrites in every case about what end result is good, and then toss out convoluted rhetoric about how, say, Rakhmetov sleeping on a bed of nails (chapter 3, section 29) is actually a question of self-interest.

4. The novel is uneven. The love triangle and faked suicide work just fine as a center to hang a plot on, and the beginning about Vera Pavlovna’s life before Lopukhov fits well with it, but after Lopukhov’s disappearance there’s far too much of the characters analyzing what’s already happened, and too little that’s new. I got that “butter spread over too much bread” feeling. When we start getting typical dialogues from different, interchangeable years of Vera Pavlovna and Kirsanov’s marriage (chapter 4, section 15), it seems like we’re doomed to 200 pages of happily ever after.

5. Whenever the novel got tedious, I felt like Chernyshevskii himself felt what I was feeling and threw in an argument between the narrator and the perspicacious reader. Or, in one of my favorite passages, he has Vera Pavlovna gently make fun of Lopukhov’s habit of vivisecting every human motive (chapter 4, section 2: “You have had so much sympathy for me that you have thought nothing of the few hours required to write your long and precious letter”). It’s as if he’s acknowledging and addressing my complaints that the new people are too much like each other and that there’s way more rehashing of why things happened, and what they meant to whom when, than the love triangle can support.

6. There’s some tension between gestures toward the idea that people are a product of their circumstances (Vera Pavlovna’s mother would have been a better person if the world were ordered differently) and the idea that “new people” are coming out of the woodwork.

Где логика? Отцы – злодеи,
Низкопоклонники, лакеи,
А в детях видя подлецов,
И негодуют и дивятся,
Как будто от таких отцов
Герои где-нибудь родятся?*

In this poem, the fathers were scoundrels, so it’s no mystery if the sons are too. But What Is to Be Done? has no explanation for the growing legions of heroically self-interested sons and daughters of scoundrel parents. The new people, and only the new people, rise above the circumstances of their society.

7. Vera Pavlovna’s fourth dream (chapter 4, section 16) was more interesting than I thought it would be.

8. I had heard too much about this book, for too long, from too many sources, to enjoy it as much as I could have. But it had its moments, apart from being useful for understanding the polemics of the 1860s.

* A quick prose translation of these defensive lines from Nekrasov: “Where’s the logic? The fathers are villains, toadies, lackeys, yet people, upon seeing their children are scoundrels, are indignant and surprised, as if it were remotely possible that, from fathers like those, heroes could be born?”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. vikathoria permalink
    November 7, 2014 9:45 pm

    These are great remarks, Erik! I just had some students do a presentation on it based on their independent reading–it came out flat and “Soviet” (I bet they used online Russian sources). I was shocked–I can’t imagine how one can read this novel now and take it for what it claims to be. The concept of self-interest “rightly” understood is the only thing that keeps the scene of action to be understood as “the wonderful world of the new people” and not “the brothel.” Since my students showed no understanding of “self-interest” (they vaguely thought it was some sort of “selfishness”), I was shocked that their reading was absolutely sterile. They got no sense of the “brothel” either. All this made me realize how authoritative the voice of Chernyshevsky still is. They believe him without even attempting to understand him (even on his own terms). This must have been partly the mechanism of the book’s influence and authority back then as well.

  2. November 10, 2014 11:07 am

    Schedules are for the birds. I much prefer this.

    I was wondering about Drozd, too, but decided to stick with what was in front of me to the extent possible. As you say, with this book so much outside context is bundled up with it that seeing the book for what it is was difficult.

    By far the worst aesthetic problem is just the one you identify – that the last quarter or so of the book is something of a wasteland, which left me with an overall memory that the novel was more of a slog than it really is. Until you get to the last quarter, I mean.

    Your arguments about “self-interest” are quite interesting and I think fruitful, worth pursuing if I could find the inclination to work on the novel more. #6 is a problem for a lot of ideological movements.

    I’m so glad I decided to do this misguided readalong.

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