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Moscow’s non-Penelope

May 25, 2020

I love an article that starts with a concrete question about something obviously mysterious, like why Chatsky, the main character of Aleksandr Griboedov’s Woe from Wit (Горе от ума, 1823–25), was absent from Moscow for so long and didn’t write letters while away (522). Also curious is the fact that Chatsky, while being vague about where he was and why, implies he reluctantly had to go away, while his former love Sofia treats his absence as voluntary (531–32).

Ingrid Kleespies has a really convincing answer. In Romantic fashion, Chatsky has modeled his life on Odysseus, and has gone away for a long time without giving word so he can test how good a Penelope Sofia is. It’s ambiguous whether he wants her to pass the test or whether he’d prefer to be able to point out how she fell short. Sofia, however, is playing a different game, modeling her own life on Sentimentalist literature, and doesn’t see the point of Chatsky’s Odysseus-like “cleverness and travel” (532–33).

The Odyssey was a big deal in Russian culture, as “from the era of Peter I on, Russian rulers made use of the classical tradition to signal participation in the Western heritage,” and in Griboedov’s time poems by Batiushkov and The Life and Adventures of Andrei Bolotov (Жизнь и приключения Андрея Болотова, 1789–1816) alluded to it (526).

We see Chatsky following the Odysseus story in his three-year absence and return, in his supposed reluctance to leave (531), in the way he immediately asks Sofia “didn’t you expect me?” when he shows up out of the blue (533), and in his request to enter Sofia’s room, which may be related to Penelope having the disguised Odysseus prove who he was by knowing that their marriage bed had been made from a particular tree (534). Both Chatsky and Odysseus like to talk and rely on words, wit, trickery more than strength (535). Even Chatsky’s much-quoted line “even the smoke of our fatherland is sweet and pleasant” (И дым отечества нам сладок и приятен) has a connection to the Odyssey. It’s a rendition of “Et fumus patriae dulcis,” which is a Latin proverb and/or a modified quotation of Ovid,* who in turn refers to “the opening stanzas of the Odyssey in which Athena requests that Zeus release Odysseus from Poseidon’s anger and grant his wish to see at least the ‘hearth-smoke drifting up from his own land’” (530), a quotation Sofia could have recognized from Homer, Ovid, Derzhavin, Batiushkov, Narezhnyi, or Viazemsky (531). (The last time I wrote about Kleespies’s work, there was also a smoke-of-the-fatherland connection.)

Sofia, meanwhile, follows the Penelope story in a few ways, such as by asking sailors for news of Chatsky during his absence (533), but undermines it in other ways, as by letting Molchalin/a new suitor but not Chatsky/Odysseus into her bedroom (534).

It turns out that Chatsky’s name was spelled Chadsky in early drafts, perhaps because the character was modeled in part on Petr Chaadaev (529). Sofia’s name is chosen ironically, as her character is “an inversion” of Sofia, the “stock character of neoclassical Russian drama,” who “embodied loyalty, goodness, victimhood, and romantic love” in plays by Verevkin, Karamzin, Kapnist, and of course Fonvizin (524n7),

Throughout her article Kleespies quotes the translation by Alan Shaw, whose translations of Pushkin’s Little Tragedies are also wonderful.

See Ingrid Kleespies, “‘What Good Is All This Cleverness and Travel?’: The Woe of the Road in Griboedov’s Woe from Wit,” Slavic and East European Journal 63.4 (2019): 522–42 (no link).

* As best I can tell, the Ovid quote is

non dubia est Ithaci prudentia, sed tamen optat
     fumum de patriis posse videre focis.
(Ovid, Ex Ponto, 1.3.33–34)

I think that means “The man from Ithaca’s premonition is not a matter of doubt, yet he prefers to be able to see the smoke from the hearths of his fatherland.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    May 25, 2020 9:07 am

    Fascinating, and I’m glad Alan Shaw’s translations are getting the respect they deserve!

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