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Leskov and the lady question

January 30, 2015

In part 1, chapter 8 of The Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865), Dora, one of the women involved with the sewing cooperative, has a one-sided argument against two nihilist men. Here is some of it (it runs from about pp. 86-91):

Vyrvich and Shpandorchuk would try to start a discussion with Dorushka about infringements on women’s rights, but she was indifferent to this question from the very first word. The enlighteners gave her a few articles that touched on this subject to read; she read all these articles with great patience and said,

“Please don’t bring me any more of this rubbish.”

“Surely,” they would say to her, “you are at least sympathetic to people fighting for you yourself, fighting for your own natural rights, which have been taken away from you?”

“I am quite satisfied with my rights; I consider myself to have exactly as many as you have, and no one can take them away from me,” replied Dora.

Dora acknowledges she might not be allowed to become a judge or a doctor, but says she would find something else to do.

“Well, fine. Let’s say, then, that you can create some other kind of independent situation for yourself. What about those who can’t?”

“There’s no point even talking about them! If someone can’t stand on their own two feet by themselves, you won’t be able to stand them up. Belinskii says it beautifully: there is no saving one who carries his enemy around with him in the weakness of his nature.”

The nihilists reject Belinskii as an authority, and soon the argument turns to the fate of one of the seamstresses, who has found freedom and independence at the cost of material hardship. Dora says that anyone who would measure what freedom costs shouldn’t even talk about freedom. One of the men replies,

“Yes, nearly every woman is a slave; she is both a slave in her family and a slave in society.”

“Because in most cases she’s a slave by nature.”

“How do you mean that, then? She can’t live without a guardian?”

She doesn’t want to, she doesn’t want to help herself, she sells her freedom for carriages, for social position, for other stupid things. A slave! Anyone who treasures anything above freedom is a slave. Isn’t it all the same thing? A woman is the slave of her husband, the husband is the slave of ranks and positions, you are the slaves of your liberalism, sables, beavers — all are equal.”

The men say they won’t stop being liberals because of their convictions, but she insists they just don’t dare, and wouldn’t know what else to do with themselves.

“[…] There is only one thing I regret, gentlemen, and that is that I am not a writer. I would use all my strength to explain to women that all your efforts on our behalf are simply insulting to us.”

She asks them not to “call this question the woman question”; they ask what to call it; she answers,

“The young miss question, the lady question, in a word, call it anything you like, only not the woman question, because if it’s about the Russian woman working, then, Monsieur Shpandorchuk, the Russian woman has always worked and often works much more than her men. And you’re talking about young misses, or about ladies, so don’t call their question our women’s question.”

“We are speaking in general of the advanced woman, who in our time cannot earn her bread.”

Who became so advanced she couldn’t earn her bread! Ha, ha, ha…!”

I’m enjoying The Bypassed, but I see why people find it dissatisfying. There is not much ambiguity about whose side we are supposed to be on, as two not very clever men tell a much smarter woman what women should want. Then again, Leskov’s contemporaries could be mightily didactic on issues like the importance of female modesty, and the lack of ambiguity didn’t always ruin the book.

Leskov had written a similar scene a year before that I at least thought was better: book 1, chapter 5 of No Way Out (Некуда, 1864).

In No Way Out the characters on both sides of the argument are female, sympathetic, and interesting. Dora’s point of view (or something close to it) was more convincingly put in the mouth of a member of the older generation, the abbess Agnia, who had danced with the tsar as a débutante and then, when her secret Decembrist lover was exiled, joined a convent against her family’s furious objections and came to rule it with wisdom and an iron will. The young generation’s arguments were made by the abbess’s niece Liza Bakhareva, every bit as strong a personality as her aunt. The conversation between Liza and Agnia feels tied to their lives, while Dora and the nihilists seem to be having a model abstract debate. The turn to class (“the lady question” — being forbidden to work was not a problem that faced any but the wealthiest Russian women) is also much subtler in No Way Out: we just see a poor woman’s story in the next chapter, quietly juxtaposed to the argument among noblewomen.

The core of the Agnia/Dora worldview — that all people have constraints imposed on them by nature and society, but must carve out a space for themselves in the world they have (while, Agnia at least adds, also thinking of others’ needs) — seems to have the author’s seal of approval in these and other works, but No Way Out also never rejects Liza’s defiance against forces too big for her to fight.

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