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“Even more fallen than all the other fallen women…”

April 1, 2016

At the end of Ivan Goncharov’s “The Precipice” (Обрыв, 1869), the theme of women — married, unmarried, or widowed, rich, poor, or in between, slave or free — having sex with men they weren’t at that moment married to gets even more prominent than it had been. It’s at the heart of the turning point at the end of part 4 and the (by then well prepared and not unexpected) revelation of the past in part 5.

And this turns out to be the place where Goncharov takes a stand. Which was unusual, according to his contemporaries: Pisarev wrote that Goncharov, while a superb literary technician, “picks apart the situation and the qualities of his characters, but always refrains from pronouncing a final verdict… the reader cannot say the author is sympathetic to the elder Aduev [in An Ordinary Story], nor can he say that he considers him wrong… Consequently, while finishing the final page of the novel, the reader feels unsatisfied.” Some might want to dismiss Pisarev as a primitive radical who wanted everything to be didactic, but I think he was an observant reader. Joseph Frank quotes Dostoevskii as saying more or less the same thing: “he once described [Goncharov] as a person with ‘the soul of a petty official, not an idea in his head, and the eyes of a steamed fish, whom God, as if for a joke, has endowed with a brilliant talent’” (212).

The long “will-she-or-won’t-she” scene with Vera and Mark in The Precipice follows Goncharov’s “no final verdict” playbook for a long time. She wants him to marry her and be her friend and lover forever; he wants her to have sex with him right now, and explicitly refuses to make promises about the future. Their arguments about laws of nature, rules made by people, freedom, happiness, and duty are internally consistent, but incompatible. In the end,

Both understood that each of them was right from their own point of view — but nevertheless they both desperately hoped in secret, he that she would come over to his side, and she that he would yield, admitting all the while that their hope was absurd, that neither of them would be able, even if they had wanted, to be suddenly reborn; to take on different convictions, a different worldview, as one puts on a hat; to come to share a faith or to renounce it. (part 4, chapter 12)

The wishy-washy evenhandedness that displeased Dostoevskii and Pisarev is practically being flaunted. But the chapter isn’t over, and the symmetry is soon ruined in what I thought was the most astonishing and least psychologically convincing part of the novel:

And so she goes away without leaving him any trophy of victory except ephemeral meetings that would disappear like footsteps in the sand. He was losing the battle, losing her, and as he walked away he understood he would never meet another Vera to match this one.

He compared her to other women, especially to “new” women, so many of whom gave themselves to life, according to the new teaching, just as wantonly as Marina gave herself to her loves. And he found that these were pitiful, vulgar creatures, even more fallen than all the other fallen women who had yielded to their imagination or temperament or even to gold, while these ones had supposedly yielded to a principle that they frequently did not understand, which was not a conviction of theirs, but something they had believed at the first word. Consequently they had yielded to something else, to the same thing that Kozlov’s wife, for example, would yield to, only they hypocritically or imbecilically covered this up with a principle! (part 4, chapter 12)

And poof, Mark Volokhov puts on a new hat. I’d earlier been surprised that the vacillating Raiskii (who talks of love lasting forever, like Vera, but in practice moves from one physical attraction to another, like Mark says men must) appeared to condemn this same Marina and this same Kozlov’s wife for being promiscuous. I thought it was hard to tell how much of the words “He saw in her not merely a debauched house-servant woman, after the fashion of the hopeless confirmed drunkards among the men…” to attribute to the narrator’s attitudes, since it seemed strange to take it as a pro–female chastity view of Raiskii’s given in style indirect libre. But it turns out that everyone, even the ferocious nihilist Volokhov, sees the truth of what looks like the strongest authorial position in Goncharov: women shouldn’t sleep around, the new men who preach free love are self-serving predators, and the new women who pretend to believe in it are idiots or willing dupes.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2016 8:07 am

    It will not surprise you to hear this, but I must say it anyway: as far as I’m concerned, an artist should never pronounce a final verdict (that’s the job of editorialists and politicians), and Pisarev was indeed a primitive radical who wanted everything to be didactic (though perhaps Lurie’s Literator Pisarev, which I’ll be reading before too long, will change my mind).

    • April 3, 2016 10:43 pm

      I think rather a lot of artists do pronounce verdicts about all sorts of matters, and not always on narrowly political or philosophical themes. If Goncharov had written Invitation to a Beheading, maybe we’d be scratching our heads about whether we were supposed to find Cincinnatus C.’s wife’s behavior admirable or not. And if he’d written Transparent Things, we’d think the cases for and against Freud were precisely balanced.

      As for Pisarev, I’d say there are radicals and there are primitive radicals – you don’t have to agree with Pisarev on anything to see he’s more interesting to read than Antonovich or even Dobroliubov (whose prose I think I’d like better if he condensed every three pages of examples down to one).

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