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Mogilianskii on The Bourgeois

July 7, 2020

Mogilianskii doesn’t have much to say about the critical reception of The Bourgeois (Мещане, 1877), which I initially assumed meant there wasn’t much contemporary reception at all (because of that conspiracy of silence about Pisemskii from democratic critics), but I see that N. K. Mikhailovskii did write about the novel, and I now think Mogilianskii was covertly arguing with him about what kind of positive character Begushev was supposed to be, but didn’t want to make it look like he disagreed with one of the Soviet-approved nineteenth-century critics. (I’m not sure that was so big an issue in 1991, but I also think Mogilianskii must have worked on this book for a long time before finding an opportunity to publish it during perestroika.) This is the only one of Pisemskii’s six long novels that I haven’t read, so I have nothing to add to what Mogilianskii says.

Novels 5 and 6 are a pair of opposites and each is also opposed to novels 3 and 4

Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869) and In the Whirlpool (В водовороте, 1871) were contradictory in many ways, and so was the pair of novels that followed them, The Bourgeois and The Masons (Масоны, 1880) (136). Each of the latter two is also neatly opposed to the former two (136). But in all four novels taken together, there is a certain unified plan and clearly overlapping leitmotifs (136).

Commentators misread The Bourgeois, incorrectly taking it as satire and seeing nobles and bourgeois as discrete camps

The novels became more distinctive from one to the next, and The Bourgeois is already so distinctive that it is difficult to categorize (136). It has never yet been adequately analyzed, with even major scholars failing to understand it (136). On the surface it is about a contrast between the rising bourgeoisie and the decaying nobility (136). In this it is like Boborykin’s later novel Kitay-gorod (Китай-город, 1882) [this novel is sometimes referred to as Chinatown in English, but I think that’s misleadingEM]; the two novels are connected (136).

The main mistake commentators have made is to take The Bourgeois as satirical, with the protagonist Begushev as a positive character, idealized by the author, in contrast to the “bourgeois” characters (136). But in the text of the novel, bourgeois and nobles are not actually distinct opposing groups, as the bourgeois group includes noblemen (Iansutskii) and even ones with titles (Count Khvostikov) (136).

The love plot and Pisemskii’s moral and immoral female characters

Pisemskii ties his novel to philosophical, historical, and sociological issues, which means the arguments between Begushev and his friend the high-ranking official Tiumenev are very important (136). The centrality of the arguments is underscored by the relationship between Begushev and Tiumenev over the course of the novel’s plot (136). The love story in the novel is, on the one hand, a spoonful of sugar to help the philosophical and historical medicine go down for the average reader, but it also has its own aesthetic purpose, and Pisemskii had never before reached such heights in this respect (137).

From his earliest works, Pisemskii had always chosen morally pure heroines (нравственно чистые героини) in his longer works: Anna Pavlovna, Lidiia, Vera Enzaeva, Nasten’ka, Evpraksiia Sabakeeva, Marie Eismond, Elena Zhiglinskaia) (137). These female characters were opposed to other female characters cut from the opposite kind of moral cloth (женщины противоположного нравственного склада) (137). In Troubled Seas the bad girl, Sophie Leneva, is a more prominent character than the good girl, Evpraksiia Sabakeeva, but Leneva is nevertheless a decidedly negative character, “for all the author’s objectivity” (137).

There are once again two main female characters in The Bourgeois (137). Domna Olukhova, who is the main representative of the kingdom of the “bourgeois,” is undoubtedly the more prominent of the two (137). But although Elizaveta Merova (Count Khvostikov’s daughter) has a more limited part to play, she is more interesting to the author (137). Merova is like Sophie Leneva from Troubled Seas, and indeed her moral and social fall is even more pronounced than Leneva’s (137). However, unlike Leneva, Merova is not treated as a negative character in the slightest (137). The narrator treats Merova as a speck of dust drifting in the wind, and even at the end of the novel her psychology is characterized by childlike naivete and purity (137).

The male bourgeois characters are not the focus of attention in The Bourgeois, though the plot is driven by events from the bourgeois world

Pisemskii pays less attention to the professionals among the “bourgeois” (1. Khmurin, from Siberia, 2. Ofon’kin, from Berdichev, 3. Colonel Iansutskii, 4. the lawyer Grokhov) (137). The first three of those listed are shown in detail only once, at a dinner at a Moscow hotel on Iansutskii’s name-day (137). Olukhova, Merova, Begushev, and Tiumenev (who had recently arrived from St. Petersburg) are all at the dinner too, and the entrepreneurs all want to be in Tiumenev’s good graces, which gives these chapters the feel of a business deal being closed (137). Olukhova, meanwhile, wants to get Khmurin’s shares at a nominal price (137).

Although we never learn that much about Khmurin or his business, the failure of his company is the central event of the novel and affects many characters (137). In particular it leaves Merova without any means of support, as her lover Iansutskii, who had been paying her expenses, was suddenly poorer and treated her as a luxury he could no longer afford (137). Her father, Count Khvostikov, who had been doing small services for Khmurin and Iansutskii, is also reduced to asking for charity (137–38). Khmurin also affects the plot by telling Domna Olukhova’s father-in-law that Domna is no longer living with Olukhov junior as woman and husband; though Olukhov senior never appears directly in the novel, Khmurin telling him this causes Domna Olukhova to break up with Begushev to reconcile with her husband (who had cheated on her), so that the husband won’t lose his chance at a five-million-ruble inheritance (138). Olukhov the father then dies, and so does young Olukhov, Domna Olukhova’s husband, while on a binge (138). After the collapse of Khmurin’s business, these are the most significant external events in The Bourgeois (138).

The author, however, seems to emphasize the fact that he pays little attention to these “very important” events, describing them in the language of a journalistic summary (138). He does pay a lot of attention to the relationship between Domna Olukhova and Begushev (138). Olukhova’s first husband is merely sketched, but her second husband, the practical Dr. Perekhvatov (who initially appears in the novel separately), is given more attention (138). What interests the novelist most is making sense of the emergent social situation, questions of historical development (138). For this reason he goes off in different directions unrelated to the main thrust of the plot outlined above (138). He also introduces new characters in the middle of the novel (Begushev’s sister, General Trakhov and his wife, Dolgov the journalist) who all have the same purpose: to help the reader understand what Begushev is all about (138).

Begushev as a hybrid of Gertsen and Pisemskii

And the entire point of Aleksandr Ivanovich Begushev is that he stands in for Aleksandr Ivanovich Gertsen (138). Like Gertsen, Begushev was disappointed in the outcome of the revolutions of 1848; he also loved a Natalie who died young; he also had a negative opinion of young Russian émigrés (138). But instead of Gertsen’s activism as a militant political journalist, Begushev only has arguments and conversations (138).

Pisemskii had every reason to fear readers would take Begushev to be an ideal nobleman contrasted to the “bourgeois,” to the Taganka and Iakimanka areas of Moscow (138). This is why he introduces the character of Adelaida Begusheva, a fierce defender of the interests of the nobility as a social estate (138–39). She puts all her effort and a lot of money into supporting economically ruined Russian aristocrats (139). This activity of hers has little direct effect on the major characters of the novel; what is important is the reader’s and her brother Begushev’s attitude toward her charitable work (139). The reader sees a series of “aristocratic monsters honored and practically deified by Adelaida Begusheva” and is delighted to learn that the déclassé Begushev doesn’t share his sister’s sympathy for them (139). Begushev has his own class sympathies, on which more below (139).

Having ensured that readers didn’t see Begushev as an idealized portrayal of a typical Russian nobleman, Pisemskii now had to prevent readers from seeing Begushev as a caricature of Gertsen (139). To this end he creates a caricature of his old university friend Sergei Iur’ev, who had published In the Whirlpool, in the character Dolgov (139). The real Iur’ev was known for translating Lope de Vega and was an expert on world theater; Dolgov spoke Spanish, English, French, Latin, and Greek, and “read Shakespeare in the original” (139). Dolgov has plans to write an article about the theory of drama and the distinctive qualities of Russian drama, but his ideas are so lofty and abstract that Count Khvostikov can’t understand the point he wants to prove (139). Dolgov calls himself a democrat, but his actions are to help members of the nobility (like Khvostikov), includine those who dabble in Slavophilism and spiritism (General Trakhov’s wife) (139). He wants to publish a newspaper with Count Khvostikov whose purpose would be “to raise the spirits of the Russian people, to realize the interrupted historical link between ancient and modern Russia, to remind Russia that it exists!” (139). Dolgov is mocked at several points in the novel for lacking any connection to reality, preferring to flit about between heaven and earth (139–40). Pisemskii was doing three things with this caricature: 1) attacking late Slavophiles associated with Ivan Aksakov, 2) getting even with Iur’ev for the obstacles Iur’ev had put in his way during the publication of In the Whirlpool, and 3) making sure that Begushev wasn’t perceived as a caricature of Gertsen (140).

Through Dolgov (as Iur’ev) we also come to see that Begushev is not exclusively based on Gertsen, but also partly autobiographical (140). Begushev and Dolgov had been friends at the same age as Pisemskii and Iur’ev (140). When Begushev gets in arguments about workers and capitalists (taking the workers’ side), we see not Gertsen, but Pisemskii; in an early draft of The Bourgeois, Begushev refers to the workers’ question as his “favorite question” (140). A sympathetic interest in workers’ welfare had long been a fixed feature of Pisemskii’s worldview, going back to his work as editor of Library for Reading, his novels Troubled Seas and In the Whirlpool, and the writings of his allies (140).

Begushev on workers and capitalists

This position on the workers’ question makes the anti-capitalist zeal of The Bourgeois, as well as the contrast between Begushev and the likes of Khmurin, Iansutskii, and Ofon’kin, especially important, and it reveals a new perspective on the course of future social development (140). This is the main point of connection between In the Whirlpool and The Bourgeois (140). There are also many links between Begushev and two characters from In the Whirlpool, Prince Grigorov and Miklakov (140). Since Miklakov was himself based on Pisemskii, this similarity confirms our belief that Begushev is based on a hybrid of Gertsen and Pisemskii himself (140). In this the semi-autobiographical Begushev is a bit like the semi-autobiographical Pavel Vikhrov of Men of the Forties, who was based on a hybrid of Saltykov-Shchedrin and Pisemskii (140).

More on the romantic plotlines

In this light we should look at the love plot of The Bourgeois differently (140). It is significant that Vikhrov, Miklakov, and Begushev are all confirmed bachelors; this allowed Pisemskii to try all kinds of romantic combinations with these (semi-)autobiographical characters (140–41).

The love affair between Begushev, the opponent of the bourgeois world of Moscow’s “Taganka and Iakimanka,” and Domna Olukhova, the most fully developed representative of that world in the novel, is especially important (141). The aging Begushev’s attraction to Olukhova (who grew up in poverty and now cares a lot about money) is matched only by his contempt for her vulgar bourgeois values; he refers to her as a пошлянка и мещанка and even compares her to a camellia (141). This mixture of love and hate is reminiscent of Baklanov and Sophie Leneva in Troubled Seas or Vikhrov and Kleopatra Fateeva in Men of the Forties (141). But this is the first time the hatred side of the feeling was rooted in social and ideological hostility (141).

The event that causes Olukhova and Begushev to break up is from the bourgeois world; the fear of her husband losing out on a large inheritance is stronger than Olukhova’s feelings for Begushev (141). She tries to get him to compromise: they can have an ordinary adulterous affair, but with her husband living with them under the same roof to protect the money (141). This shows how much she thinks in terms of “Taganka and Iakimanka” and fails to understand her lover’s entire system of values (141). She thinks of everything in terms of return on investment, and therefore, though she lacks nothing, thinks about the gifts Begushev might give her rather than anything related to Begushev’s core interests (141).

The rest of Olukhova’s story is tied to the five-million-ruble inheritance (141). After her young husband’s unexpected death, it would seem that the stage was set for her to reconcile with Begushev, but instead she falls for Dr. Perekhvatov (141). She refuses to marry Iansutskii, making him into her relentless enemy (141). Eventually she succumbs to a psychosis that Perekhvatov, now her second husband, does everything he can to augment (141). Just before her death she reaches out to Begushev for support, but at this moment his thoughts are far from her (141).

Begushev’s final affair with Liza Merova is unexpected for him but not for the reader, who has seen Merova’s attempts to win his heart (142). They had been kept apart by the same force that separated Begushev and Olukhova (142). Begushev was not capable of even considering the former kept woman of someone like Iansutskii as a romantic partner until extraordinary circumstances made him realize he loved the dying Merova (142).

Pisemskii mixes psychological and sociological techniques to create lifelike characters

Pisemskii’s gift and the secret to his success with readers was his way of combining a biological/psychological approach with a sociological one in creating characters like Domna Olukhkova and Lizaveta Merova (142). He wasn’t shy about putting unflattering things in his female characters’ biographies, which made him seem objective and made readers like Merova all the more (142).

The main character’s interest in religion allows the author to criticize the church

As he had in In the Whirlpool, Pisemskii goes after religion in The Bourgeois (142). Begushev’s sudden interest in religion, as the reader eventually realizes, was necessary so Pisemskii could dissect the decaying Orthodox Church (142). The writer also needed this to describe Gertsen’s insufficiently clear worldview and to motivate the love plot (142). In the novel the narrator paraphrases Begushev’s thoughts about religion, which he turns to out of boredom and “to at least partially extinguish the fire that was destroying his soul, in which an ocean of spite and an ocean of love raged at once,” but he soon discovers he can’t pray, as he knows too much about too many religions (142). When Begushev declares his intention to help the poor, a priest and a sexton so obviously try to divert his donations to people close to them that he gives up on the project (142–43).

Ideology and sociology are tightly bound together, as shown in Domna Olukhova’s psychosis

There is no division between the ideological and the sociological in The Bourgeois (143). For example, Olukhova’s psychosis develops in direct proportion to her fear of losing out on the inheritance (143). It is true that Pisemskii did depict Olukhova as psychologically fragile earlier in the novel; as a naturalist, he remained true to the scientific ideas of his time (143).

See chapter 10, “Последние романы [The Last Novels]” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 136–149.

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