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Who is the hero of A Bitter Fate?

June 19, 2020

Mogilianskii’s chapter on A Bitter Fate (Горькая судьбина, 1859) is interesting, especially the gender-vs.-social-estate issues he gets into at the end. I can’t tell if this is a case of an 82-year-old man working in a Marxist framework being dismissive of considering gender at the expense of class, no matter what, or if on the contrary it’s a Soviet scholar covertly smuggling in a reading that focuses on gender by pretending to argue with it. Here’s what he has to say about Pisemskii’s most successful play:


Pisemskii saw himself as a novelist and prose writer, not a playwright; whenever a writer character in one of his semi-autobiographical works achieved literary success, it was through novellas or novels (with the partial exception of a play written by Shamilov in “A Rich Fiancé” [Богатый жених, 1851–52]) (61). He also loved the theater and was a skilled actor.

Pisemskii’s plays before A Bitter Fate

His first play, The Hypochondriac (Ипохондрик, 1852) was terrible and very derivative of Gogol’s Marriage (Женитьба, 1833), but he tried hard to get it on the stage anyway (61). Amateur provincial theaters were highly developed in Pisemskii’s time and are depicted in “The Comic Actor” (Комик, 1851) and Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869) (61). The repertoire of Russian plays was so thin that Pisemskii did manage to have The Hypochondriac produced in St. Petersburg and Moscow (61–62).

His next play, a comedy called The Division (Раздел, 1853), was more successful in its portrayal of heirs fighting over dividing the inheritance of a dead landowner (62). It was originally a less serious comedy, but after Saltykov-Shchedrin’s play The Death of Pazukhin (Смерть Пазухина, 1857), Pisemskii intensified the satirical aspect of The Division (62).

By 1859 Pisemskii had established a reputation as a writer, and these two plays and a third, The Veteran and the New Recruit (Ветеран и новобранец, 1854), did nothing to help that reputation; no one thought of him as a playwright (62). This is when Pisemskii wrote his best play and one of his strongest works overall (62).

How A Bitter Fate was written

Pisemskii had written to Ostrovskii (February 15th, 1857) to suggest that Ostrovskii write plays on peasant themes (themes Pisemskii was already addressing in his fiction), but Ostrovskii didn’t (62). There had been some plays about peasants: a couple by Potekhin beginning in 1852 (Man’s Judgement Is Not God’s! [Суд людской — не божий!] and Other People’s Property Can Do No Good [Чужое добро в прок не идет]; the latter, more successful than the former, was about state peasants rather than serfs) and an 1803 [or 1805?] play by Il’inGenerosity, or The Conscription of Recruits (Великодушие или Рекрутский набор) that was revived more than once in the 1850s (62).

Emboldened by the success of A Thousand Souls, Pisemskii had the confidence to work on A Bitter Fate (62–63). It ended up having as much social pathos zeal as it did in part because of the developing revolutionary situation, the ideas of the revolutionary democrats, and the appearance in print of Goncharov’s Oblomov (Обломов, 1859), Ostrovskii’s A Protégée of the Mistress (Воспитанница, 1858), and Turgenev’s A Nest of the Gentry (Дворянское гнездо, 1859) (63).

Pisemskii wrote A Bitter Fate at a dacha outside St. Petersburg in summer 1859 (63). According to his widow’s reminiscences, Pisemskii originally planned to have Ananii become the leader of a band of robbers, show up in the village again, and kill the steward, but the actor Martynov convinced him to substitute the extant ending (Ananii returns repentant) instead during a chance meeting (63). The ending of “The Carpenters’ Guild” (Плотничья артель, 1855) proves that this kind of ending wasn’t a new idea for Pisemskii, whether or not Martynov actually recommended it (63).

We don’t have the uncensored text as Pisemskii first wrote it (63). A censor, S. N. Palauzov, approved the play for publication, but the minister intervened, required certain passages to be removed or changed, and fired the censor who had approved it (63–64).

Contradictory critical response to A Bitter Fate

Despite the play’s apparent simplicity, it is one of the most complex Russian plays, as shown by the broad spectrum of reaction to it, including different opinions within the same literary camp and even sharply different reactions by the same person at different times: Tolstoi wrote when the play came out that he “liked it very, very much,” but wrote a single word about it in 1890: “not good” (нехорошо, one word in Russian) (64). Saltykov-Shchedrin wrote critically about the play in 1863, complaining that characters “seemed like wooden figures to which were affixed signs with the labels ‘boastfulness,’ ‘stupidity,’ ‘slippery fellow,’ ‘fatal passion for drink,’ etc.” (64). The best contemporary article, per Mogilianskii, was by the revolutionary democratic critic M. L. Mikhailov (64).

Summary and interpretation

A Bitter Fate portrays a conflict between the enserfed peasant Ananii Iakovlev and his master Cheglov-Sokovin, which is complicated by a conflict within Ananii’s family and by other motifs (64).

Act 1 tells the story of Ananii’s return to his native village from St. Petersburg, where he discovers his wife Lizaveta has had a child by Cheglov-Sokovin; he decides to forgive Lizaveta and recognize the child as his own on the condition that she cut off further contact with their master (64). The pride of Ananii, who usually lives in St. Petersburg, is contrasted to the psychology of the enserfed rural peasantry in talkative drunk Nikon, Lizaveta’s mother Matrena, and a supporting character named Spiridon’evna (65). In this first act Lizaveta’s own character is largely hidden: she is silent when others are present and is required to speak only when alone with her husband (65). Some of her lines are noteworthy: “she lies and seems to prepare her husband in advance for the fact that she is going to continue to interact with the master,” which leads to Ananii extracting her promise that she won’t (65). The dramatic technique of the first act (and the whole play) is excellent, with believable psychology and every nuance of behavior motivated: the drunk Nikon—irritated that he, though himself formerly a peasant who worked in St. Petersburg and “an experienced man who had seen a lot in his time,” doesn’t know anything about the new technology of the time, the railroad—gets into an argument with Ananii and ends up telling him that he is “an in-law of the master’s and nothing more” (65). Ananii’s refusal to believe Nikon, then Matrena, so that he asks his wife about the child when they are alone as if he hadn’t yet heard anything, reflects his forceful personality; he seems to “have already fully liberated himself from the bonds of serfdom through consciousness of his human rights” (65–66).

Act 2 focuses on Lizaveta instead of Ananii (66). It also acts as a second exposition: the same events that were shown from a peasant perspective in act 1 are shown again from a noble perspective in act 2 (66). We see Cheglov talk to his son-in-law Zolotilov; Zolotilov is a pro-serfdom landowner, while Cheglov himself is drawn as “the best of landowners/slaveholders (помещики): he is educated, knows something about modern democratic ideas, is burdened by his role as a landowner/slaveholder (помещик), and is absolutely incapable of serving the monarchy” (66). Cf. Dobroliubov’s article on Marko Vovchok no longer depicting the worst slaveholders, since “why talk about the abuses of what is bad in itself?” (66). We know from Troubled Seas that Pisemskii’s opinions of liberal slaveholders had not become more positive, so he chose to make Cheglov a “good” slaveholder for the sake of the deep social meaning of the play (66). Things really get moving in act 2 with the appearance of the steward Kalistrat Grigor’ev, who like Zolotilov is a “philosopher of serfdom” (67). Kalistrat resents Ananii because Ananii is not servile, and he lies about Ananii’s behavior since his return (67). Lizaveta comes to see Cheglov, tells him that Ananii has decided to take her and the child to St. Petersburg, and declares that she must either live “near you” or not live at all, since her husband will kill her (67). Cheglov restricts Ananii’s right to travel so that he can’t go back to St. Petersburg (67). This is the moment of Lizaveta’s strongest resistance to her husband’s will (67). Lizaveta’s action leads to a confrontation between the master and his serf Ananii during which Cheglov literally challenges Ananii to a duel (67). After this Cheglov disappears from the scene, having given instructions to Kalistrat, who is the hand of serfdom from here on out; critics who saw Cheglov’s disappearance as indicating the play was not wholeheartedly against serfdom were wrong (67). Two important incidents during the confrontation between Cheglov and Ananii: Ananii discovers his wife’s treachery and beats her, and Ananii reveals Kalistrat’s abuses to Cheglov, which causes Kalistrat to vow revenge (67–68).

Act 3 includes scenes where the masses of the peasantry in the form of the peasant commune (мир) are on stage (68). Individual and diverse voices from this commune are heard, so it’s hard to talk about the characterization of the commune in general, but overall they seem beaten down, and Ananii rises over them like a giant (68). The act opens with Spiridon’evna and Matrena talking about events that happened between act 2 and act 3, including the fact that Ananii has declared he won’t let Lizaveta go anywhere and has taken away and locked up her warm clothes and shoes (68). The first half of the act is a confrontation between Ananii and Lizaveta; Ananii now resolves to take Lizaveta to St. Petersburg the next day despite the master’s prohibition (68). Kalistrat arrives with the peasant commune as a threat of violence backing up the slaveholder’s will (68). Ananii does not give up but threatens everyone with an ax, and it is unclear to the viewer who will come out on top (68). However, like the hero of a classical drama, Ananii is his own undoing: he publicly threatens his wife, which causes her to run out and declare that she wants to go to the master (68). At this point Ananii despairs and throws himself on the mercy of the peasant commune, now seen as a “third force” between Ananii on the one side and Cheglov/Kalistrat on the other (68–69). Lizaveta tries to blind Ananii in a fit of passion; he throws her child onto the floor, climbs out the window, and runs away: end of act 3 (69).

The conduct of the peasant commune in act 3 is important (69). Before he explains why they’re at Ananii’s house, Kalistrat speaks to three of them individually, praising them for their own passive acceptance of shameful episodes in their family life, which in two cases were caused by the slaveholder (69). The audience only hears a few of their lines clearly, but at the end one of the peasants declares that they will do whatever the master wishes (69). During the dramatic confrontation between Ananii and the peasant commune, he sees himself (proud and independent) as above them (servile) and insults and threatens them; seeing Ananii’s tactical mistake, Kalistrat eggs him on (69). At this point the commune turns on Ananii, and Kalistrat orders Ananii tied up and Lizaveta brought to his, Kalistrat’s, place, where she is to live in a separate cell in the courtyard (69–70). Then we have the fundamental confrontation between Ananii and Kalistrat (70). Kalistrat orders a young man in the peasant commune to give Lizaveta her coat and shoes, but the peasants respond with silent inaction (70). Ananii sees their indecision and changes tactics, asking them for mercy and protection (70). One peasant speaks against Lizaveta, the young man refuses to obey Kalistrat and leaves, and the rest stay but don’t carry out the steward’s instructions, until Lizaveta screams from offstage about the child’s murder, at which point they begin to act, but slowly and unwillingly (70).

Mikhailov’s reading of the play: the commune’s actions toward Ananii follow the formula свои выдают своего (~“they betray their own”) (70). Ananii is not just an individualist, but one who fights for peasants’ rights; the problem is that he can’t take on serfdom by himself, and the other peasants have not attained the level of conscious resistance (70). But Pisemskii’s play is fundamentally optimistic and suffused with a great truth about latent power in the peasantry; Pisemskii’s village is a place in darkness, but Ananii is like one ray of light of the coming dawn (70). To be fair, not just Mikhailov the revolutionary democrat, but also progressive liberal critics (including Basistov, Dudyshkin, and Kushelev-Bezborodko) understood the social meaning of A Bitter Fate as a play about serfs’ rights (70–71).

In act 4 Ananii is a shadow of his former self and is no longer fighting for the same thing as before; why did Pisemskii include this act, the longest of the play (71)? Pisemskii was interested in the theory of drama, including Aristotle’s idea of catharsis, and act 4 of A Bitter Fate is suffering as moral purification (71). Mid–nineteenth century Russian plays “seemed to consciously refer to works from the ancient Greek slaveholding order,” and A Bitter Fate is connected in particular to Euripides’ Herakles Mainomenos, in which the main character kills his children (71). The catharsis extends to Lizaveta, destroyed by grief after her child was killed, but act 4 is not just about that: it also has the battle between Zolotilov and Kalistrat Grigor’ev, on the one hand, and the provincial chinovnik Shpringel, who is trying to expose the crimes of Cheglov-Sokovin, on the other (71). Kalistrat bribes the district police officer and is present at the interrogation of peasants, ensuring justice will not be done; scenes about the criminal investigation sometimes border on slapstick (71). In the middle of the act, Ananii, who had been hiding in the forest, returns and turns himself in; according to his own Christian worldview, he has committed a great sin by killing the child, and there is no longer any possibility of fighting for his own rights (71–72). The democrat Shpringel urges him to defend himself and give evidence against others, but to no avail (72).

On the possibility of taking Lizaveta as the true hero of the play

The objectivity of Pisemskii’s realism is striking: he is clearly on the side of the enserfed peasant Ananii Iakovlev, but he doesn’t make him a simple, positive character; there is much in Ananii’s worldview that is old and ought to die out (72). The audience’s sympathies are not mechanically on Ananii’s side, but come to him through struggle and contradictions (72). The brilliant [Polina] Strepetova interpreted A Bitter Fate “upside down,” taking Lizaveta to be the hero and the object of the audience’s sympathy; how was this possible (72)? Only because Pisemskii’s drama is so lifelike and ideally truthful (72). If you look at it in detail, there are only two things that aren’t motivated, but they aren’t important, so we won’t talk about them here (72).

The figure of Lizaveta is comparatively simple: raised with the ideas of a slave, she deified her master and despised her peasant husband, like a truly servile creature (72). On the other hand, you can’t deny that she has a certain femininity, a particular kind of feminine stubbornness and an unquestionable maternal feeling (72). Her spiritual depth comes out in the last act, when she finally realizes the magnitude of her guilt before her husband: she not only shamed him, but ruined him (72). Suffering destroys her and no rebirth to a new life is possible (72).

Critics had divergent views of Lizaveta (72). Saltykov-Shchedrin called her a “woman overcome by Satan” (72). Other critics, like the actress Strepetova, saw in her practically an ideal heroine, worthy of appearing in George Sand novels (72). Pisemskii himself reportedly agreed with Saltykov-Shchedrin, according to a quote recorded by the nineteenth-century critic A. I. Urusov (a.k.a. A. Ivanov) complete with phonetic transcription of Pisemskii’s Kostroma accent (72).

Ananii’s evolution

Ananii had not always been a successful individualist (73). Before he went to work in St. Petersburg, he had been an extremely active and capable contributor to the peasant commune (73). His emergence as a leader in the struggle for peasant rights didn’t happen by a chance arrangement of circumstances (73). Convinced that his efforts against the system in the village would be fruitless, he followed the path of least resistance and put his energy into the acquisition of personal property (73). Before the events of the play, he is on the way to becoming a merchant and talks of opening his own shop, getting a larger apartment, and hiring a cook so Lizaveta won’t have to work when she comes to join him (73). Ananii is not yet a petty bourgeois, as he still earns money through his own physical labor without hiring anyone, but bourgeois status is in sight, and the bourgeois mindset has already arrived (73). This has its positive side, as what distinguishes him the most from other peasants is his firm knowledge of his own rights: for him the master is just some outsider he has to pay a quitrent to until he buys his freedom (73–74). He denies any right on the master’s part to control his personal life, and he won’t even talk to the district marshal of the nobility, Zolotilov (74). This highly developed class consciousness elevates Ananii above the other serf characters in the play (74).

Is Ananii religious? Is Ananii a despot within his family?

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics frequently point out two traits in Ananii’s character, his religiosity and his despotism within his family, building all kinds of reactionary interpretations of the play on top of them (74).

But unlike some of Turgenev’s peasants, Ananii isn’t a religious mystic. He takes practical rules for life from the Bible just as he leans on “ideas of bourgeois law,” of recourse to the authorities to redress injustice by slaveholders (74).

He views marriage as indissoluble and beyond the reach of slaveholders and stewards (74). For Ananii, marriage places equal responsibilities on men and women, and you can’t make him into a despot based on either those views or his conduct (74). Pisemskii was a supporter of women’s emancipation and a fan of George Sand, but he surely didn’t think it was time to apply Sand’s ideas to the Russian countryside (74). The problem in the countryside had to remain the emancipation of the people from serfdom, and this is the main topic of A Bitter Fate (74).

Some people interpret Ananii’s turning himself in in act 4 as advocating peace between classes and an abandoning of the struggle (74). But Ananii never renounces his former ideas about the slaveholder and his “rights” (74–75). The psychological change in Ananii is motivated by the unpremeditated murder he committed in act 3 (75). He thought it was inevitable he would be tried and thought it unworthy of his dignity to try to hide—this is the same dignity that had given him the strength to fight back against the slaveholder (75).

See chapter 5, “‘Горькая судьбина’ [A Bitter Fate],” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 61–75.

[Update 6/22/20: A silent film of A Bitter Fate was made in 1917 (premiere January 1918) under the title A Bitter Lot (Горькая доля), but it has unfortunately not survived.]

2 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    June 19, 2020 9:48 am

    Faux ami alert:

    It ended up having as much social pathos as it did

    Russian пафос is almost always better translated, e.g., “zeal” or “spirit,” and certainly here.

    It’s truly a great play — have you read it? If so, that makes two Pisemskys we have in common!

    • June 19, 2020 10:10 am

      You’re right, of course—I think I’m to the point where I’m losing my original understanding of what “pathos” means because I see пафос more often. Thanks for pointing that out!

      I started A Bitter Fate a while back but got distracted, so it’s still by far the most famous thing by Pisemskii I haven’t read. I clearly have something to look forward to.

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