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oblomov

27 april 2012

It is a commonplace that one of the worst things about slavery is what it does to the master. A commonplace, and an absurdity: the original "white people's problem." But it's also true that the enjoyment of absolute power over others corrupts the enjoyer. It makes slaveholders mean, brutal, and delusional. Or it can make them terminally lazy. The hero of Ivan Goncharov's great novel Oblomov is such a slaveholder. Owning "three hundred souls" has made him lazy to the point where his name is a Russian synonym for fecklessness. But for all his slovenly inconsiderateness – and worse, his positive viciousness – he has a goodness at his core that means the reader can't help but perversely like him.

One running motif in Oblomov is the title character's inability to pull on his own stockings (or sometimes his boots). An elaborate dream sequence early in the novel shows the young Oblomov coddled through his growing-up, when all he really needed was to take part in the snowball fights that his aristocratic parents protected him from. Yet for all these indications that the novel is in large part about the corrosive effects of slaveholding luxury, some critics apparently deny that the system of serf and master has any role to play in interpreting the novel. In an afterword to Marian Schwartz's 2008 translation, contemporary Russian novelist Mikhail Shishkin says this:

Oblomov's genetic roots lie not in the Russia of serfs, as the first "revolutionary democratic" and the Soviet critics who followed them demanded . . . . Oblomov is not a satire on the fetters of serfdom, as we were taught in Soviet schools, but the vivid tragedy of a man desiring to live his life while preserving his human dignity. (545, 548)
Touchy, much? First of all, I don't see why Oblomov can't be both a satire of a class system and an individual tragedy. But second of all, let's say that it behooved Soviet-era literary critics to find that every unproscribed literary work was forged in analysis of the class struggle. Even on the principle that a stopped clock is correct twice a day, they would still have been right sometimes.

Shishkin does seem on target, though, with his sense of Goncharov's deep-seated pessimism. "Can anyone take care of business in Russia and remain an honest and decent person?" (547) Oblomov certainly does remain honest and decent, of course, and takes less care of business than anyone else in the history of literature. In fact, Oblomov shows us over and over that if you do try to be decent and forbearing, bullies will simply take everything away from you.

Shishkin is suspicious of the one character who takes no money from Oblomov, in fact restores our hero's possessions to him: the half-German Stolz, full of all the energy that Oblomov lacks. Though Stolz is a bully in his own way, constantly trying to make Oblomov into somebody he isn't, just to fulfill Stolz's preconceptions about how people should act. And Stolz does marry Oblomov's fiancée Olga. He gets Olga on the rebound, mind you – she and Oblomov have broken their engagement by that point. But one can't help feeling for Oblomov: he lives in a world where, if you can't keep moving fast enough, even your most devoted friends will strip you to the bone in the interests of sheer hurry.

Oblomov has a simple but energetic story. Despite Goncharov's interest in philosophy and social commentary, he knew that the novel is a plot-driven genre; readers will never get as far as the "ideas" if there's nobody to care about, to root for or against. Readers have consistently cared about Ilya Ilich Oblomov. He can barely get out of bed, but he's lovable in some of the same ways that Falstaff is lovable: he knows what's good, but he can't keep himself from indulging his weaknesses. One might call Oblomov a depressed Falstaff: hugely incapable of indulging anything except his lack of energy. There is so much to do in life, and Oblomov can't bear to do anything but sleep through it.

Yet Oblomov is threatened by blocking characters, and wins the love of two women: he does things that other novel heroes do, in other words, without getting out of bed very often. Shishkin sees Oblomov's fiancée Olga Sergeyevna as some sort of symbol of a new, heartless, pragmatic Russia, but I'm not so sure. Goncharov is careful to give us access to Olga's thoughts, to make a complete character of her. It's true that she marries Oblomov's best friend, without giving our hero a second chance, and that that best friend Stolz stands for energy, enterprise, and the "German" element in Russian life. But seriously, Olga and Oblomov, however attracted to each other, wouldn't live together happily. Their rejection of each other is as much a Jane-Austen move as a metonym for changing class relations in developing Russia.

The woman Oblomov does marry, Agafia Matveyevna, barely registers in Shishkin's commentary, and seems to have little enough inner life. And she is not someone who would figure in the denouement of a Jane Austen novel. The widow of a very minor official, Agafia Matveyevna lives very close to things and processes. But she lives, in ways that Henry James's characters so often regret not doing. She cares for Oblomov in specific and highly practical ways, and he cleaves unto her. I don't think they're symbolic, and I don't think that Agafia Matveyevna is a silly character or a comic afterthought (though I'm sure she's been seen that way). The hero of a W.H. Auden sonnet is in love with someone like Agafia Matveyevna:

With all his honors on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else
And in Oblomov, the hero doesn't even have any honors on. He dies happy, having raised stepchildren, and a son of his own, that he can relate to, because he's a big kid himself. (Ironically, he's closer to his stepchildren, who have no social value, than to his own son, who is snatched up by Stolz and Olga as the representative of an aristocracy that can't be allowed to sink into the obscurity represented by his own mother.) Oblomov is not a tragedy; it's the story of someone who knows his limits and lives fully within them. His limits consist of barely being able to cope, but how many of us can say more – and how many of us get into great trouble by listening to others who insist that we should try to transcend those limits?

Goncharov, Ivan Alexandrovich. Oblomov. 1859, revised 1862. Translated by Marian Schwartz. New York: Seven Stories, 2008.

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