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“Her long-dormant shame should have been awakened by degrees…”

February 5, 2016

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), the slave George Harris worked in a factory “where his adroitness and ingenuity caused him to be considered the first hand in the place,” but his master, against his own interests, puts him to work in the fields in an attempt to show him his place (chapter 2). You see this story in Russian literature, but the Russian Georges are women. Before Stowe’s novel, there was the woman in Nekrasov’s “On the Road” (В дороге, 1845), raised in the manor with the master’s daughter, then sent back to peasant life. Later, Marina in Goncharov’s “The Precipice” (Обрыв, 1869) “surpassed one and all with her adroitness and abilities, and exceeded [Raiskii’s] grandmother’s expectations” (304). We are made to sympathize with Marina’s then-owners more than with George’s, but she loses her privileged position too, for a different reason:

Marina fell out of  the mistress’s good graces because she came to know “love and its troubles” in the form of Nikita, then Petr, then Terentii, and so on, and so on.

There was not a lackey among the house servants or an eye-catching man in the village on whom she failed to rest her benevolent gaze. Her loves knew no bounds or limitations.

Had she been in Moscow or Petersburg, or in another city and situation, then fear, the dread of being deprived of bread or of her place, would have done something to rein in her inclinations. But in her secure position as an enserfed house servant [крепостная дворовая девка], there were no reins at all. (305-6)

Besides this analysis of why female house slaves might end up like Marina (and all but one on the estate are like her, except “the others all hide it, they can still feel shame,” 310), we have a comparison that got my attention:

An artistic sketch of Marina also struck [Raiskii] as appealing. He saw in her not merely a debauched house-servant woman [дворовая женщина], after the fashion of the hopeless confirmed drunkards among the men, but a selfless priestess of a cult, a “mother of pleasures”… (309)

In that case, Raiskii does not think promiscuous women are like drunken men (where does this comparison creep into the text from?). However, in a later episode, when he visits a friend’s wife to lecture her on chastity but somehow ends up sleeping with her, he’s thinking along those lines: “At that moment he understood that her long-dormant shame should have been awakened by degrees, if it had not died completely, but only fallen silent: ‘It’s just the same,’ he thought, ‘as how you shouldn’t suddenly tear a drunkard away from his cup: that causes a fever!’” (111).

The promiscuous дворовая is a type outside Goncharov (separate from the common trope of noblemen being attracted to дворовые) — take Irodiada from Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863) or Fenia from Leskov’s Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865; see pp. 18-19), who mysteriously get pregnant. Marina, Irodiada, and Fenia all have mistresses who disapprove of their sexual independence. In Leskov, the narrator seems to imply that what is unnatural is not Fenia’s pregnancy but the princess’s (rather amusing) shock. Pisemskii gives us to understand that Irodiada was the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman, and shows a nobleman of her own generation trying to seduce her, while he is also critical of the strict religiosity of Irodiada’s female owner: the masters are to blame for the ways of the servants.

As usual, it’s hard to pin down how Goncharov wants us to take Raiskii’s and the narrator’s thoughts about shame and the unrestrained condition of female house servants (especially since I haven’t finished the novel). So far Raiskii seems torn between the worlds of his grandmother (and Marfa) and of the nihilist Mark Volokhov (and Vera). His grandmother offers tradition, community, good management (or despotism), and Volokhov proclaims freedom, change, individuality (or irresponsibility). Raiskii was Marina’s legal owner. When he ignores a letter asking whether he gives permission for Marina to marry, is he respecting her intrinsic human freedom or washing his hands of his responsibility? What about when he goes back to the country and finds Marina’s husband beating her?

I’m curious to see where things go from here, but so far I think, using the novel’s terms, women’s lack of shame is supposed to be a drawback of Volokhov’s freedom. On the other hand the rather extreme innocence and chastity of the engaged Marfa, heir to Raiskii’s grandmother’s worldview, is presented as silly as much as virtuous. It’s unclear. The promiscuous female characters are all somewhat sympathetic, and Raiskii’s own lack of sexual self-discipline is mocked. The theme gets a treatment in every class: Marina; Raiskii’s friend’s wife, Ul’iana Andreevna; and also the flirtatious noblewoman Polina Karpovna, or “Delilah Karpovna” as she’s called before Raiskii stands up for her during a superb scandal scene.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2016 3:33 pm

    He saw in her not merely a debauched house-servant woman [дворовая женщина], after the fashion of the hopeless confirmed drunkards among the men, but a selfless priestess of a cult, a “mother of pleasures”… (309)

    In that case, Raiskii does not think promiscuous women are like drunken men (where does this comparison creep into the text from?).

    I disagree; it seems to me he does think promiscuous women are like drunken men in general, but sees this one differently, as “a selfless priestess of a cult.” This strikes me as a perfectly straightforward example of the “this one isn’t like the others” phenomenon.

    • February 5, 2016 4:57 pm

      I see what you mean, but I still read it as “he didn’t have that thought at that moment, but instead thought a different thought about Marina being like the priestess of a cult” (I don’t mean to imply “he didn’t hold that opinion of debauched house servants in general”). I picture the narrator explaining Raiskii’s priestess image to us readers by distinguishing it from an idea he perhaps expects us to recognize and/or agree with. Your reading also makes perfect sense, but even then there’s a shift toward making the promiscuity=drunkenness analogy more explicitly belong to Raiskii in the later scene.

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