A “superfluous man” is a label used for those heterogeneous heroes lacking a clear scope in life and realizing their “social uselessness”. In 19th century Russian literature, the “superfluous man” presents itself as a nationally unique phenomenon of great social significance. Trailblazers endowed it with multifaceted characteristics, a contradictory essence, and both positive and negative features, emphasizing the ideological meaning and symbolic nature of this literary phenomenon. Both Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Griboyedov’s Alexandr Chatsky are famous “embodiments” of such a movement.
According to Russian literary critic Belinsky, Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin should be considered as “an encyclopedia of Russian life”. This novel (in verse) provides insights into virtually every aspect of Russian society during the first half of the 19th century, down to what people ate and how they dressed. Eugene Onegin is an authentic portrait of what were the habits, customs, and beliefs of the Russian people at the time.
Well-fed, nestled in luxury and used to careless fun since childhood, Saint Petersburg’s aristocrats are depicted as the delineation of happiness.
A wealthy aristocrat, a darling of fate, a favorite of women – Eugene Onegin has everything a man of the time could dream of. Well-fed, nestled in luxury and used to careless fun since childhood, Saint Petersburg’s aristocrats are depicted as the delineation of happiness. Nevertheless, proceeding throughout the novel, the reader can clearly see that the main character is far from happy. Why? Because as any “superfluous man” who is “involuntarily selfish”, Onegin became an exception to the rule.
Eugene Onegin’s intelligence and wit are at the root of his hardships. He is too smart to enjoy a barren, empty existence like his. The hero, who grew up in an aristocratic family, knows nothing about constructive jobs, compassion, support, and the simple joys of an honest life. And neither did his father nor any of his relatives who never engaged in physical labor. Onegin cannot take up any activity seriously or devote himself to something for a prolonged time. Everything is disgusting, sickening, and uninteresting to him. Crafted by the aristocratic society he was raised within, the hero turned out to be “superfluous” to the same aristocracy.
Unable to appreciate life’s little pleasures and dimmed by its lazy and inconclusive attitude, Onegin jumps from one habit to another, bored of anything he leaves behind. Laziness is Onegin’s one faithful companion, controlling his hands, soul, and mind.
It is interesting to see how the typicality of Onegin’s character becomes his uniqueness in Pushkin’s novel. Supposed oddity, alienation from aristocratic life – all these are just a facet. Indeed, Onegin is subservient to others’ opinions and, in the fear of condemnation, he strives to meet societal expectations.
Woe From Wit
The comedy Woe from Wit is the main and most valuable creation of Alexander Griboyedov. The play satirizes the manners of Moscow’s aristocratic society during the time of serfdom. Woe from Wit reflects upon those aristocratic vices that are rooted, and have flourished, among the elitist society of the time. Hypocrisy and bureaucracy, arrogance and respect for rank, love of foreignism – all these are central themes to Griboyedov’s play. The main dynamic of the play sees the confrontation between the “new” and “old” way of living, the eternal conflict of generations, where Famusov represents the old way of life, and Chatsky embodies modern trends.
After all, it is easier to accuse someone of being insane, rather than drastically unsettling the established regime to accommodate radical niches and ideologies.
The core theme of the play is already embedded in its title. Chatsky’s progressive views do not correspond to the generally accepted norms of the conservative nobility, which is why he’s often labeled as insane. After all, it is easier to accuse someone of being insane, rather than drastically unsettling the established regime to accommodate radical niches and ideologies. Indeed, both individual and societal assumptions would need to be revised, leading to national, cultural, domestic, and political change.
Chatsky is a straightforward, proud, and nobleman who boldly expresses his opinions. He does not want to live in the past or accept the cruelty of the landlords. The hero opposes serfdom, careerism, respect for rank, ignorance, and the wrong attitude of society towards the slavery morals of the past century. Because of his just and benevolent nature, Chantsky can’t stand immoral, deceitful, and vile people, and struggles to find his place in society. Unlike the aristocrats surrounding him, the hero respects common people, advocates for humanity, and service to the cause as opposed to service to the man. Chatsky bears progressive ideas of modernity and believes in the prosperity of art and science while respecting national culture.
In the conflict between Chatsky and the representatives of the aristocratic society, Griboyedov raises a number of philosophical, moral, and cultural questions. Within such a framework, the author discusses social issues such as serfdom, service to the state, education, and family structure, all through the dialogues between characters. Under the pretense of understanding the human mind, the comedy guides the readers through a better understanding of past and present societal issues.
But the “superfluous man” has not waned with the end of the 19th century. The same features that distinguished Onegin and Chatsky reappear in the stories and characters of 20th-century literature. To this day, Russian writers and literary critics keep referring back to the “superfluous man” movement, looking for commonalities and possible explanations to modern social phenomena.
Cover: Aliis Sinisalu
Editor: Cecilia Begal