PROSE fiction has a more prominent position in the literature of Russia than in that of any other great country. Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy occupy in their own land not only the place of Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot in England, but also to some degree that of Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, or Ruskin.
Their works are regarded as not merely diverting tales over which to spend pleasantly an idle hour, but as books full of suggestive and inspiring teaching on moral and social questions. “Fathers and Children” and “Crime and Punishment” are discussed and read not merely for their artistic merit, as reflections of Russian life, but as trenchant criticisms of that life. The difference is of course one of degree not of kind: Dickens and George Eliot have a definite attitude towards social questions, and in Russian literature there are writers who may be compared to Carlyle and Matthew Arnold. The fact remains, however, that while Turgenev and Dostoevsky find readers by their power as artists, discussion of them is less apt to turn on their purely Æsthetic qualities than on the ethical and social point of view which, in part unconsciously, they show in their work.
This serious character of Russian fiction is due in some degree to the development of Russian literature under a despotism that forbade or at least hampered open discussion of public questions. Russians could not discuss with any freedom, either on the debating platform or in the periodical press, such questions as the emancipation of the serfs or the relations of church and state. But in a novel a writer could at least indicate his point of view; he could show the callousness and inhumanity bred by serfdom, as Turgenev did in “A Sportsman’s Sketches”; he could give a sympathetic portrait of the radical young nihilists (who in the beginning were not terrorists, but materialistic skeptics, with a passion for natural science), as he did in “Fathers and Children”; or, on the other hand, he could show the havoc wrought in the minds of such young radicals by alienation from the national religion and the national traditions, as Dostoevsky did in “Crime and Punishment.” Thus the censorship, while it compelled public discussion to turn on sympathy and sentiment rather than on accurate study of social facts, really deepened the content of Russian fiction.
Governmental repression merely strengthened the innate tendency of the Russians to vague, half-philosophic half-sentimental discussion of national problems. “When ten Englishmen meet,” Turgenev tells us in “Smoke,” “they immediately start talking about the submarine telegraph, the tax on paper, or methods of tanning rat skins; that is, of something positive and definite. But when ten Russians meet, the question immediately arises of the significance, the future, of Russia, and in the most general terms, without proof or result. They chew and chew on that unfortunate question, like children on a piece of rubber, without juice or sense.” Lavretsky, debates with Mihalevitch and Panshin. Raskolnikov’s meditations in justification of the crimes of gifted men, Levin’s arguments with Serge Koznyshev, are all examples of this tendency. For such discussion fiction offered a free field.
Thus Russian novels are apt to have a political background. In “Fathers and Children” (1862) Turgenev draws a picture of a representative of the younger generation who boldly casts aside all political, social, and religious traditions, and, a skeptic to the core, devotes himself to science as the key to all truth. Though he does not identify himself with Bazarov, though he pitilessly portrays his crudity and intolerance, he nevertheless even against his will, arouses sympathy for the movements that he represents. Dostoevsky, when he exalts the infinite humility and submissiveness of Sonya in contrast to the moral arrogance of Raskolnikov, makes an attack on that same movement.
Yet Russian novels rarely present their social message in so direct and uncompromising a form as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or Sinclair’s “Jungle”; such plain speaking would be impossible in Russia. They are rather of the type of “David Copperfield” or Mr. Herrick’s “A Life for a Life,” presenting the ills of the social order without any very definite suggestions for its betterment. Hence the novelists have often been misunderstood and misinterpreted. Gogol, the founder of Russian realism, became the idol of the Liberal party through his satiric portraits of venal officials; he later showed his true character by an ardent defense of the autocracy and the state church and by an attack on all attempts at popular education. Tolstoy, because of his fervent support of the sanctity of marriage in “Anna Karenin,” was hastily denounced as a reactionary; the young radicals had rejected marriage as an outworn institution along with the autocracy and the state church, and were ready to distrust any man who might speak in its defense.
Thus a foreign reader may safely neglect the social implications of Russian fiction over which Russian critics wrangle so fiercely. He will be more impressed by the moral earnestness of this literature. For Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy regard the men and women whom they create with such marvelous skill, not as animals, actuated merely by greed and lust and restrained from crime merely by fear of punishment, but as responsible moral beings, whose whole existence is affected by moral impulses, for whom conduct is the central part of life. This does not warp their judgment or make them untrue to the facts of life; their characters are not the puppets of the Sunday-school book, created to enforce a moral lesson, but stumbling, aspiring individuals, half clay and half something finer that animates it. They present moral forces because without them no true picture of men and women can be drawn.
The ethical point of view of Russian writers is, however, far different from that familiar to men of Anglo-Saxon stock. With the word good we associate instinctively the idea of self-command, self-mastery, control over one’s animal nature. Along with our admiration for self-command we have an equally instinctive respect for practical success: a man must be virtuous, but he must so shape his virtue as to win the regard of his fellow men; if he be a reformer, he must be guided by common sense as well as by moral fervor. The brave and thoughtless heroes of Scott’s novels are only an exaggeration of the English ideal; David Copperfield is a type of it. Colonel Newcome is overtaken by misfortune in his old age, but he too is of English stock; in his earlier years he commanded respect by his energy and capacity as well as by the fine essence of a gentleman’s character.
The heroes of the Russian novels, on the other hand, win our hearts by geniality and kindliness, without any Puritanic sternness, and they are usually failures in practical life. Lavretsky in “A House of Gentlefolk” is a truly Russian type; gentle and sweet of disposition, he possesses small vital force, and he sinks into oblivion without gaining any outward triumph. In “Fathers and Children” Nikolay Petrovich and his brother Pavel are likewise types of the ineffective Russian nobility, who gain our affections either by a timid gentleness or by a chivalric refinement of nature. Turgenev, speaking of his own book, remarks characteristically (in a letter of April 14, 1862) that Æsthetic feeling made him choose good representatives of the nobility as a class, that it would have been coarse and untrue to select “officials, generals, plunderers, and the like.” And when Turgenev tried to create in Bazarov a character marked by crude energy, he was not wholly successful. Bazarov’s energy is in aspiration rather than performance; like the Antony of tradition, he allows his passion for a woman to wreck his life, and his creator kills him at the close of the book rather than let him continue an ineffective, blighted existence.
In Dostoevsky the case is still stronger. Raskolnikov, the hero of “Crime and Punishment,” is a weak and vacillating murderer, whose native sympathy and generosity make the reader find him a higher type of humanity than the callous business man Luzhin. Absolute humility and self sacrifice make the prostitute Sonya the most ideal figure in the volume.
The Russian adulation of kindliness rather than energy, of aspiration rather than performance, is at first sight not so prominent in the works of Tolstoy. For Tolstoy was himself a man of fiery passions and of strong will. In “War and Peace” he created in Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, a hero of somewhat the English type. Yet the hero of “Anna Karenin” is not the vigorous officer Vronsky, nor the cold politician Karenin, both of whom know how to win success among men of the great world, but the clumsy farmer Levin, who attracts us by his kindly nature, and by his obstinate search for a moral ideal that shall guide him through life. His story at first reading may seen mawkish and commonplace, but as we review the novel, perhaps after the lapse of years has added to our own experience, it acquires an enduring charm. Levin loves his farm and his family; he is happy in the respect paid him by neighbors and still happier in that of his peasant laborers—but his real triumph is in his own heart; he knows that, no matter how blundering and imperfect his conduct may be, his moral ideals, the ethical philosophy by which he guides his life, are constantly becoming broader and deeper.
It is characteristic of his infinitely broad range of sympathies that Tolstoy, who of all the great Russian novelists seems in “War and Peace” (1865-69) closet to our point of view, developed in his later years an ethical system founded on the principle of nonresistance to evil. This is illustrated by his parable “Ivan the Fool” (1855), in which the submissive hero wins by his humility the triumph denied to his vigorous elder brothers.
No moral or social enthusiasm could have won the three classic Russian novelists their enduring fame were not each of them in his own way a great artist. No finer master of literary form in prose fiction ever wrote than Turgenev, no greater master of psychological analysis than Dostoevsky; and no man has ever possessed so perfect a command of realistic portraiture of human life in its most varied aspects as Tolstoy.
“A House of Gentlefolk” and “Fathers and Children” are the each short novels, yet what a wealth of emotion, of poetic insight into the finer and more tender sides of human character they contain! Turgenev builds each of his books around a love story; the events of his plot cover but a few weeks and deal with but few people. His method is that of French classic tragedy, of Corneille and Racine. By portraying a man and a woman at the moment when their whole being is concentrated on one great passion he lets us see the inmost springs of their characters. He tells of the ancestry of Lavretsky, describing briefly those crude squires, his great-grandfather and grandfather, and picturing at greater length his doctrinaire father, who brings up his son in an atmosphere of bookish dreams, and his gentle peasant mother, who passes to her son the sincerity and simple kindliness of the Russian common people. The boy grows up unworldy but emotionally sound. His life is ruined by the marriage into which his inexperience leads him, then happiness seems to open before him in the love of the sweet, pure Lisa; at last disaster overtakes the lovers and they bow their heads before it in resignation; for them the moral law is more potent than the supreme passion of their lives. Bazarov, in “Fathers and Children,” spurning emotion as foolish sentimentalism, dedicates himself to the study of science. But nature is stronger than intellect, and he yields to a passion for a woman whose selfish force will not submit to even his strength of personality; his tragedy, with its anguish of thwarted powers, is more profound than that of the gentle Lavretsky. Each of these plots is developed in the Russian countryside, with poetic pictures of quiet natural beauty, amid types of Russian gentlefolk, each drawn with a few fine strokes.
Like Turgenev, Dostoevsky bases each of his novels on the events of a few weeks, in order to give an atmosphere of tense, concentrated emotion. But in all else he is in direct contrast to his rival. His novels deal with city life and with actual physical misery and suffering. Each of his most important works of fiction centers about a murder. Reading “Crime and Punishment,” one becomes weary of the long analysis of Raskolnikov’s agonies and determines to skip a few paragraphs, only to find some fifty pages later, that he has missed some essential point in the close-knit narrative. An awful, uncanny power pervades this story of a diseased mind. Here the most obscure windings of self-concentrated reflection, on the downward path toward insanity, are laid bare. We may reject the author’s quiescent point of view, his prescription of suffering as a panacea for the ills of humanity, but we are spellbound by the skill with which he portrays the special cases that interest him.
Far different from either of these writers is the healthy, energetic Leo Tolstoy, the man of loftiest individuality among Russian authors. No supreme author was ever so independent of literary conventions and traditions and in such close touch with the varied life around him. His “Sevastopol,” are almost formless, bits of reminiscence method is to select with unerring instinct concrete details of everyday life that throw light on character. He deals with small emotions, exposing the thoughts and feelings of which each of us has been conscious, but which each of us has fancied unknown to anyone but himself. His masterpiece, “War and Peace,” is at the other pole from the dainty work of Turgenev; it is a vest chronicle of the fortunes of five families during seven years, from 1805 to 1812; it with whom it makes us acquainted as with brothers and sisters, and by the surpassing interest of each individual incident. 16
Even “Anna karenin,” Tolstoy’s most widely read novel, is far more than the story of the heroine’s love for the handsome officer Vronsky. Any one of the dozen French novelists could have told that story in one-third the number of pages that Tolstoy uses, and in one sense more effectively. Tolstoy aims not merely to tell that story, but to draw a picture of a whole world of conflicting interests, cares, and ambitions. Dolly’s anxieties over her children’s clothes in preparation for the communion service are as close to his heart as Anna’s struggles between her love for her son and her passion for Vronsky. ...