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Characterisation of Russian Government and Society

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The concept of the “superfluous man” began appearing in Russian literature in the 19th century. It refers to a man who often has superior intellect, leading him to feel misunderstood and victimized in a society that does not give him the opportunity to fulfill his capabilities. These men are superfluous because they are extra people in society, ones who cannot find their place and instead withdraw into themselves. Scholars speculate that authors’ wrote about the superfluous man to represent the struggle between Russia’s progressive thinkers and their oppressive government. While this may be true, the superfluous man has key characteristics that are meaningful to analyze in order to understand his character type. Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, and Turgenev’s Fathers and Children are novels about superfluous men named Pechorin, Ivan, and Bazarov, respectively, who all experience conflict in their love lives. The source of this conflict, whether it’s their lack of fulfillment, lust for power, frustration with being misunderstood, or repressed passion, sheds light onto the inner turmoil that characterizes superfluous men.

Lack of fulfillment is characteristic of the superfluous man; he has many ambitions that are crushed by society and can’t fulfill his potential. Pechorin’s relationship with Princess Mary is conflicted because of the unsatisfied feeling he constantly has. Pechorin pursues the princess but begins to withdraw when he wins her love because she does not fulfill him. Speculating upon this in his journal, Pechorin writes: “I’m no longer capable of losing my head in love. Ambition has been crushed in me by circumstances…”[1] When he says that he can’t lose his head in love, he means that he does not gain fulfillment from his love relationships. The reason for this is Pechorin blames society for his feelings of disappointment, and he projects this disappointment onto those around him. If everyone around him is disappointing and mediocre, he will ultimately see any women in this way, no matter who she is. In a conversation with his friend, Grushnitsky, he says: “The princess, I fancy, is one of those women who want to be amused, and two dull minutes with you finish you for good.”[2] He generalizes that she is the same as all other women, just another common product of society, and uses his intellect and insight on human nature to manipulate her.

So why, then, does Pechorin pursue Princess Mary? He writes in his journal that he yearns for power over others: “to inspire in others love, devotion, fear – isn’t that the first symptom and the supreme triumph of power?”[3] This yearning for power is characteristic of the superfluous man because it is a reaction to feeling unfulfilled. By nature, when one feels a void they try to fill it with something. In the context of imperial Russia, power is the greatest thing a man can have. The superfluous man then inexhaustibly chases after power, believing that it will fill his void. Since power can only fulfill a person temporarily, the superfluous man’s craving for it is insatiable; he becomes power hungry. Power for these men can come from many sources, such as acceptance in society through a high ranking job, or the love and acceptance of a woman, as in Lermontov’s case. Lermontov recognized that this type of power is only an illusion, describing it as “food to sustain [his] spiritual powers.”[4]

Tolstoy’s superfluous man, Ivan Ilych, is comparable to Pechorin. Ivan Ilych’s relationship with his wife, Praskovya, suffers because his inner conflicts spill manifest themselves in it. Just as Pechorin yearns for power, society shapes Ivan to yearn for it too. Instead of looking for power over a woman, Ivan strives to rise up in society’s rankings because he believes that this will make him fulfilled. His main problems arise when his “official duties”, as he calls them, are no longer just in his work but also in maintaining his marriage and family. After a year of marriage, Ivan realized that “[marriage] is in fact a very intricate and difficult affair toward which in order to perform one’s duty, that is, to lead a decorous life approved of by society, one must adopt a definite attitude just as toward one’s official duties.”[5] When Ivan’s duties, his work and his marriage, are going considerably well, Ivan is satisfied. It is when he becomes sick and is no longer able to perform them that he fully takes on the psychological state of the superfluous man. Ivan feels victimized by society because of the nature of his sickness; an accident where he fell and bumped his side cost him his life. His opportunities to fulfill his role as a member of the court of law are then taken away from him, and he becomes disillusioned with society. Since his work and marriage duties are intertwined, Ivan simultaneously becomes disillusioned with his wife. While lying sick in bed, he heard his wife and daughter singing in another room and exclaimed, “It’s all the same to them, but they will die too! Fools! I first, and they later, but it will be the same for them. And now they are merry…the beasts!”[6] Hearing them enjoy life alienates Ivan because he can only see life as unfair and unsympathetic. His wife takes on these qualities as well when she does not bother understanding the full capacity of his sickness and exacts blame onto him for not getting better.[7] As he gets closer to dying, Ivan progresses further into the superfluous type. He begins to question the decisions he made in his life: “it occurred to him…those scarcely noticeable impulses that he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. And his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false.”[8] Ivan is wondering if getting married and all his other duties are just constructs of society, but not how life should really be lived. It is clear from Ivan and Pechorin’s introspection that the superfluous man is very self-aware.

In Turgenev’s Fathers and Children, Bazarov’s relationship with Anna Odinsteva reveals the mindset of a superfluous man who has rejected society and isolated himself by choice. Bazarov is a nihilist and a man of science, so he rejects all romantic ideals and even reduces emotions to nervous system interactions. His hardened emotions and strict scientific outlook make him an outlier in society, and he chooses to isolate himself so that he can live in harmony with his ideologies. This conscious isolation effort exhibits itself in his relationship with Anna. When talking to Anna, “he expressed even more strongly than before his careless contempt of everything romantic; but when left alone he acknowledged with indignation the romantic in himself.”[9] Bazarov is experiencing cognitive dissonance; his mind is telling him he believes in science, but his passion for Anna is overwhelming any logical thought. A romantic relationship would contradict his nihilist beliefs, so he struggles to suppress passions that rise within him. While Bazarov does eventually give in to his passions, he is rejected and then brushes it off as a misunderstanding. This is another attempt to suppress a true inner feeling, but this time even Bazarov knows he is fooling himself. His relationship with Anna causes him to confront society head on, and for the superfluous man that often does not end well.

In conclusion, the characters Pechorin, Ivan, and Bazarov all show exemplary characteristics of the superfluous man in Russian literature. The relationships they manage with women allow us to clearly see these characteristics manifest themselves. The superfluous man struggles with feelings of dissatisfaction, a yearning for something more in life. In addition to this, he will seek power to fill a void created by that dissatisfaction, and often become frustrated when he is misunderstood. In order to try to avoid this frustration, the superfluous man may suppress his feelings altogether. The relationships the superfluous man upholds make it clear that he is an individual at odds with the rest of the world.

Works Cited

Lermontov, Mikhail Yuryevich. A Hero of Our Time. Trans. I. P. Foote. London, Eng.: Penguin, 2001. Print Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilych. The Portable Nineteenth-century Russian Reader. Ed. George Gibian. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin, 1993. Print. Turgenev, Ivan Sergeevich. Fathers and Children. Trans. Michael R. Katz. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009. Print. [1] Lermontov, Mikhail Yuryevich. A Hero of Our Time. Trans. I. P. Foote. London, Eng.: Penguin, 2001. 127. Print [2] Lermontov, Mikhail Yuryevich. 108. [3] Lermontov, Mikhail Yuryevich. 127. [4] Lermontov, Mikhail Yuryevich. 127. [5]

Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilych. The Portable Nineteenth-century Russian Reader. Ed. George Gibian. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin, 1993. 453. Print. [6] Tolstoy, Leo. 468. [7] Tolstoy, Leo. 465. [8] Tolstoy, Leo. 486. [9]

Turgenev, Ivan Sergeevich. Fathers and Children. Trans. Michael R. Katz. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009. 74. Print.

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