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“The Limits of Family”

July 30, 2019

You can’t accuse Anna A. Berman of sensationalism for writing about incest, since she hardly mentioned it in a whole book about siblings in Russian literature. But she asks why there is so little discussion of it even though a lot of nineteenth-century Russian novels have women choose a man who is family, or who is like family, instead of a dashing stranger. Meanwhile, incest comes up all the time in studies of English literature.

Why this difference? First, literary context. English literature was full of scandalous incest plots in the eighteenth century. Lovers would learn too late they were sister and brother (84-85). The Romantics in a parallel literary strain “conceived of the sister-brother bond as the highest form of perfect unity” (85). In eighteenth-century Russia only Karamzin’s “The Island of Bornholm” (Остров Борнгольм, 1793) centered on incest, and even there extratextual evidence is needed to make it clear what the terrible secret is (84). So there were differences in the traditions nineteenth-century writers were reacting to, which moves back a century the question of why things were different.

Another answer: the social and economic context. Following Ruth Perry, Berman says that in England primogeniture plus the eighteenth-century rise of the nuclear family meant that “women were disempowered in their consanguineal families, where they became a burden to be given away in marriage, a transient being, rather than a stable member” (85). In Russia not only the first-born son inherited, and women’s property rights were stronger (89). Those who wanted to keep wealth in the family had different incentives.

Perhaps most significant is the religious and legal context: the Russian Orthodox Church, and subsequently Russian law, defined incest broadly. People were prohibited from marrying not only their blood children, grandchildren, siblings, first cousins, and (until 1810) second cousins, but also their in-laws (you couldn’t marry your late husband’s brother) and spiritual relatives, like godparents of the same child (87-90).

In this 2017 Russian adaptation of Anna Karenina, we watch Anna and her brother through the train window with Vronsky, who explains this is when he fell in love with her

If you restrict yourself to amorous love between blood siblings, you won’t find many examples in the nineteenth century either, except the Kuragins in War and Peace (Война и мир, 1863-69). But if you look at incest sensu lato, cases abound of (1) love between cousins and more distant relatives, or between in-laws or spiritual relatives, (2) love for people who are not family but are in some sense like family, and (3) love modeled on the love of a sister and brother (90-92, 92-96, and 96-99). And these different kinds of quasi-incest could be presented in two manners, (A) a positive one, where a lover is made sibling-like, and (B) a negative one, the “sibling made lover-like” (95, 97). In Anna Karenina (Анна Каренина, 1873-77), Levin is drawn to Kitty’s whole family, feeling almost a part of it, so the Levin-Kitty couple could be classified as 2A, while Vronsky falls for Anna after watching her embrace her brother in “the most explicit description of an embrace in the whole novel,” so that their relationship is type 3B. (Berman doesn’t use numbers and letters, but this is how I understand her typology.) We see other combinations in examples from Odoevskii, Goncharov, Turgenev, Dostoevskii, Tur, Leskov, and Aleeva (the pseudonym of Natal’ia Ieronimovna Utina, née Korsini).

What Berman wants us to notice is how unjudgmental everyone is in these books. Sometimes two characters who would not have been allowed to marry are together, but onlookers either don’t mind or critique them on grounds other than incest. In Turgenev’s “Three Portraits” (Три портрета, 1846), a man uses the intimacy that being family gave him to “seduce his adopted sister during her engagement,” and “the narrator seems to condemn him for the seduction of an innocent, but not for their degree of kinship” (91). And here’s the insight into cultural difference that I’m going to remember from this article: because in Russia the circle of who counts as family was drawn so broadly, “the line between kin and non-kin” was “not as clear as in England” and, moreover, “people were less concerned about it” (101). There was an inner line drawn around close relatives like blood siblings or parents and children, and in Russia as in England the taboo against sexual relationships within this circle was always extremely strong. But the outer line that decided whether first cousins or siblings-in-law or co-godparents counted as family (and were therefore out of bounds as marriage prospects) ended up mattering less in Russia precisely because so many people fell inside it, especially in the small world of the “upper gentry” (100). With Russian culture’s “expansive open vision of family,” the problem is that “if all people are brothers and sisters, then all sex would be incest,” and one can either “reject sex” like Tolstoi in “The Kreutzer Sonata” (Крейцерова соната, 1889) or be more laid-back about the incest taboo (101).

See Anna A. Berman, “Incest and the Limits of Family in the Nineteenth-Century Russian Novel,” The Russian Review 78.1 (2019): 82–102. Berman was interviewed in 2017 by Kate Holland over at The Bloggers Karamazov.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2019 11:26 am

    Thinking of Tolstoy’s early plot idea for W & P where Andrei and Natasha can’t marry because Nikolai and Maria did, making them relatives.

    • July 31, 2019 11:58 am

      Yes, exactly! Berman mentions this too, flipped around: if Andrei had lived and married Natasha, Nikolai would not have been allowed to marry Princess Maria (90). She has another interesting example from Leskov’s A Decrepit Clan (Захудалый род, 1874) where “Olga Fedotovna selflessly forces her beloved to renounce her by conniving to make him godfather to a child for whom she is godmother” (90).

  2. July 31, 2019 12:41 pm

    Super interesting post. I wrote a post about the incest in War and Peace once, and it is the most read post on my blog. I think that voluntary incest between brother and sister is even more a taboo than the involuntary kind that we read about in the news nowadays.

    • July 31, 2019 1:38 pm

      That seems plausible to me. Berman, by the way, brings up the same good point that you made in your post: the incest in War and Peace was more obvious in earlier drafts (84n10).

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