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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Ivan Goncharov (1812–1891)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Nathan Haskell Dole (1852–1935)
 
AMONG the Russian novelists of the first rank stands Ivan the son of Alexander Goncharov. His life has been almost synchronous with the century. He was born in 1812 in the city of Simbirsk, on the Volga below Nízhni Nóvgorod. His father, a wealthy merchant of that flourishing town, died when the boy was only three years old, leaving him in the care of his mother, a conscientious and lovely woman, who, without a remarkable education, nevertheless determined that her son should have the best that could be provided. In this she was cordially assisted by Ivan’s godfather, a retired naval officer who lived in one of her houses and was a cultivated, lively, and lovable man, the center of the best society of the provincial city. His tales of travel and adventure early implanted in the boy a great passion for reading and study about foreign lands, and the desire to see the world.  1
  He was at first taught at home; then he was sent to a private school which had been established by a local priest for the benefit of neighboring land-owners and gentry. This priest had been educated at the Theological School at Kazán, and was distinguished for his courtly manners and general cultivation. His wife—for it must be remembered that the Russian priesthood is not celibate—was a fascinating French woman, and she taught her native tongue in her husband’s school. This remarkable little institution had a small but select library, and here young Goncharov indulged his taste in reading by devouring the Voyages of Captain Cook, Mungo Park, and others, the histories of Karamzin and Rollin, the poetical works of Tasso and Fénelon, as well as the romantic fiction of that day; he was especially fascinated by ‘The Heir of Redclyffe.’ His reading, however, was ill regulated and not well adapted for his mental discipline. At twelve he was taken by his mother to Moscow, where he had the opportunity to study English and German as well as to continue his reading in French, in which he had already been well grounded.  2
  In 1831 he entered Moscow University, electing the Philological Faculty. There were at that time in the University a coterie of young men who afterwards became famous as writers, and the lectures delivered by a number of enthusiastic young professors were admirably calculated to develop the best in those who heard them. He finished the complete course, and after a brief visit at his native place went to St. Petersburg, where he entered the Ministry of Finance. Gogol, and Goncharov himself, have painted the depressing influence of the officialdom then existing. The chinóvnik as painted by those early realists was a distinct type. But on the other hand, there was a delightful society at St. Petersburg, and the literary impulses of talented young men were fostered by its leaders. Some of these men founded a new journal of which Salonitsuin was the leading spirit, and in this appeared Goncharov’s first articles. They were of a humoristic tendency. His first serious work was entitled ‘Obuiknavénnaya Istóriya’ (An Ordinary Story),—a rather melancholy tale, showing how youthful enthusiasm and the dreams of progress and perfection can be killed by formalism: Aleksandr Adúyef the romantic dreamer is contrasted with his practical uncle Peter Ivánovitch. The second part was not completed when the first part was placed in the hands of the critic Byelínsky, the sovereign arbiter on things literary. Byelínsky gave it his “imprimatur,” and it was published in the Sovreménnik (Contemporary) in 1847. The conception of his second and by all odds his best romance, ‘Oblomov,’ was already in his mind; and the first draft was published in the Illustrated Album, under the title ‘Son Oblomova’ (Oblomov’s Dream), the following year.  3
  In 1852 Goncharov received from the Marine Ministry a proposition to sail around the world as private secretary to Admiral Putyátin. On his return he contributed to various magazines sketches of his experiences, and finally published a handsome volume of his travels entitled ‘Phregat Pállada’ (The Frigate Pallas). In 1857 he went to Carlsbad and completed ‘Oblomov,’ on which he had been working so many years. It appeared in Otetchestvenniya Zapíski (Annals of the Fatherland) in 1858 and 1859, and made a profound sensation. The hero was recognized as a perfectly elaborated portrait of a not uncommon type of Russian character: a good-natured, warm-hearted, healthy young man, so enervated by the atmosphere of indolence into which he has allowed himself to sink, that nothing serves to rouse him. Love is the only impulse which could galvanize him into life. Across his path comes the beautiful Olga, whom the Russians claim as a poetic and at the same time a genuine representative of the best Russian womanhood. Vigorous, alert, with mind and heart equally well developed, she stirs the latent manhood of Oblomov; but when he comes to face the responsibilities, the cares, and the duties of matrimony, he has not the courage to enter upon them. Olga marries Oblomov’s friend Stoltz, whom Goncharov intended to be a no less typical specimen of Russian manhood, and whom most critics consider overdrawn and not true to life. The novel is a series of wonderful genre pictures: his portraits are marvels of finish and delicacy; and there are a number of dramatic scenes, although the story as a whole lacks movement. The first chapter, which is here reproduced, is chosen not as perhaps the finest in the book, but as thoroughly characteristic. It is also a fine specimen of Russian humor.  4
  Goncharov finished in 1868 his third novel, entitled ‘Abruíf’ (The Precipice). It was published first in the Viéstnik Yevrópui (European Messenger), and in book form in 1870. In this he tries to portray the type of the Russian Nihilist; but Volokhóf is regarded rather as a caricature than as a faithful portrait. In contrast with him stands the beautiful Viera; but just as Volokhóf falls below Oblomov, so Viera yields to Olga in perfect realism. One of the best characters in the story is the dilettante Raísky, the type of the man who has an artistic nature but no energy. One of the most important characters of the book is Viera’s grandmother: the German translation of ‘The Precipice’ is entitled ‘The Grandmother’s Fault.’  5
  Goncharov has written a few literary essays, and during the last years of his life contributed to one of the Russian reviews a series of literary recollections. But his fame with posterity will depend principally on his ‘Oblomov,’ the name of which has given to the language a new word,—oblomovshchina, 1 Oblómovism,—the typically Russian indolence which was induced by the peculiar social conditions existing in Russia before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861: indifference to all social questions; the expectation that others will do your work; or as expressed in the Russian proverb, “the trusting in others as in God, but in yourself as in the Devil.” He died September 15, 1891.  6
 
Note 1. Oblomov is the genitive plural of the word oblóm or oblám, a term expressive of anything broken or almost useless, or even bad; a rude, awkward, unfinished man. [back]
 
 
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