Analysis of Ivan Goncharov’s Novels

Ivan Goncharov’s (1812-1891) novels mark the transition from Russian Romanticism to a much more realistic worldview. They appeared at a time when sociological criteria dominated analysis and when authors were expected to address the injustices of Russian life. The critic Nikolay Dobrolyubov derived the term Oblomovism from Goncharov’s most famous novel, using it to denote the physical and mental sluggishness of Russia’s backward country gentry. Thus, Goncharov is credited with exposing a harmful national type: the spendthrift serf-holding landowner who contributed nothing to the national economy and resisted progress for fear of destroying his carefree existence.

By presenting this type in his rather ordinary surroundings and endeavors, stripped of the Romantic aura with which Alexander Pushkin’s classical and Mikhail Lermontov’s Romantic verse had imbued him, Goncharov gained renown as a critical realist. While all three of his novels remain popular classics in his homeland, only Oblomov has found a wide readership and critical acclaim abroad. Emphasis on that work has caused modern Western scholars to value Goncharov as highly for his artful psychological portraits of stunted adults adrift in a changing world as for his sociological contribution.

Oblomov’s “return to the womb” predates Sigmund Freud by several decades. On the artistic level, Goncharov far transcends the realistic label often applied to him. His talent for transforming an endlessly mundane provincial existence into a delicate poetic network of pre-Petrine Russian values set standards for the budding Russian novel; his stream-ofconsciousness approach points ahead to James Joyce and Marcel Proust. Goncharov has firmly established a place for himself within the genre of the modern psychological novel.


“My life began flickering out from the very first moment I became conscious of myself.” Thus, Ilya Oblomov explains his arrested development to his successful business friend, Stolz, who is making a last try to rouse Oblomov from his fatal lethargy, and thus Goncharov points the reader to the cause of Oblomov’s inertia: his childhood in a sleepy, backward manor house, attended by an army of serfs, every moment structured to reinforce an existence of indolently blissful inactivity, a paradise to which the adult strives all of his life to return. Oblomov’s failure as a man and his search for a surrogate childhood in a simple St. Petersburg family fit perfectly the scheme of the psychological novel. From this perspective, the seemingly typical Russian landowner Oblomov becomes a universal figure, and the old-fashioned Russian village becomes merely background.

Such a perspective, however, has its drawbacks. If one considers Oblomov apart from Goncharov’s other novels, as is often the case in the West, the wider artistic sweep of his fiction is neglected. Each of his novels gives expression to a different facet of the contradictions encountered by the Russian patriarchal order as it confronted sociopolitical reform. Goncharov’s characters can be said to embody the two warring dominant philosophies of nineteenth century Russia: Slavophilism and Westernization. The author’s own struggle between these two opposing forces is cast into sharp focus in the novels, as his progress-oriented mind gradually loses ground to his tradition-loving, Slavophile heart.

Ivan Goncharov/Pinterest

Neither Goncharov’s personal dissatisfactions nor his conservative turn impair his stature as an accomplished novelist. The expert use of several literary devices contributes to this renown. There is, first of all, his power of observation, the ability to create such a lifelike image of an ordinary event through accumulation of detail that his scenes are compared to Flemish interiors. Authorial ambiguity also enriches the narrative. The first two novels conceptually demonstrate the advantages of a progressive economy and the futility of perpetuating serfdom, but Goncharov presents a dying way of life with such a wealth of attractive imagery that social indifference, indeed exploitation, infantilism, and stagnation, are turned into a languidly cozy, almost noble way of life, feeding on nostalgia and winning sympathy for its prejudices.

No less impressive is Goncharov’s skill in suggesting the delusions of the regressive personality. Oblomov’s insecure psyche reshapes his ordinary village into a harmless, safe refuge, smoothing craggymountains into gentle hillocks,swift rivers into murmuring brooks, extremes of climate into eternally pleasant weather, passions into lethargy. Readers are scarcely aware that the descriptions are no longer objective, but the distortions of a frightened mind.

Finally, Goncharov excels in drawing exquisite female portraits; his women also symbolize the synthesis between the old and new. In A Common Story, Lizaveta is able to balance the contradictory forces that pull the male characters into adversary position; in Oblomov, Olga combines the best of old Russia, its cultural heritage, with an inquisitive mind and an active personality; in The Precipice, Vera eventually unites the positive features of her patriarchal upbringing with the progressive forces of a commercially enterprising spouse.

In his final novel, Goncharov’s moralizing instincts undermine his mastery of style, as didactic elements intrude too explicitly. The author’s own estrangement from the present and his nostalgia for a less complex existence color his perceptions. His slow-paced upbringing, his later insecurities, his realization that progress was necessary, his struggle between old and new, and his final withdrawal from society are the building blocks of all of his works. He delicately managed to balance these elements before yielding to his own preferences.

A Common Story

The unstinting praise of Russia’s foremost social critic, Vissarion Belinsky, assured the success of A Common Story the moment it appeared in the literary journal Sovremennik. Ironically, the work was hailed as an exposé of the degenerate gentry class and a call for modernization. Critics and readers alike noted only the main character Alexander Aduev’s final acceptance of St. Petersburg’s progressive lifestyle, not his mentor-uncle’s disillusionment with it. They also overlooked the author’s cautious suggestion that the city’s competitive utilitarianism was no more satisfying than the monotony of the backward village.

This misperception attests Goncharov’s balancing skill. Alexander is lured from his peaceful, idyllic estate, lovingly presented in the fragrance of its lilacs, berries, bushes, and forests, by visions of cosmopolitan dazzle. Once he is taken in hand by a “new man,” his coldly efficient, philistine uncle, Peter, one disappointmentsucceeds another. Like an early Oblomov, Alexander adjusts only superficially, never able to integrate his rustic values with St. Petersburg’s diverse phenomena. Like a young Goncharov, Alexander blunders from one unsuccessful love affair to another. His literary endeavors, characterized by overblown sentimental clichés, are equally fruitless. Despite all efforts by Peter, he turns into a rather ridiculous figure, an out-of-place relic in the bustling city. Goncharov’s ambiguous attitude, however, gives enough scope to elicit a measure of pity from the reader, to mark the young man’s discomforts and his inability to cope.

Peter’s young wife, Lizaveta, compassionately brings out Alexander’s positive traits. When all attempts at acclimatization end in failure, he returns to his quiet country home and recovers his bearings. yet the lessons of the city are not lost. At a distance, its hectic multiplicity develops into a fair alternative to the boring idyll of the placid province. In the end, Alexander sets out for St. Petersburg once more, cured of his romantic expectations, determined to copy his uncle’s career through realistic adaptation and lowered sights. His success is presented in the epilogue. He parallels Peter faithfully: fat and balding, engaged to a young heiress, adjusted, mature, eager for progressive endeavors.

While this conclusion heartened liberal critics, Goncharov’s reservations are apparent in the incompletely dramatized and therefore unconvincing psychological transformation of Alexander. The artistically unmotivated ending causes a change of focus. The carefully developed juxtaposition of old versus new, village versus city, Slavophile versus Westernizer assumes the outline of a bildungsroman. Peter and Alexander represent two stages of identical development. Alexander’s romantic striving mirrors Peter’s own youthful immaturity, while Peter’s rational, mature stage serves as a marker for Alexander’s similar destiny. At the moment of Alexander’s arrival at that stage, Peter’s dry and joyless stance casts doubt on the wisdom of these very accomplishments, foreshadowing eventual disillusionment for his nephew. The general inattention to this downbeat element is a result of the shortage of bourgeois heroes in Russian literature.

The Romantic characters of Pushkin, Lermontov, and the early Turgenev are immobile, purposeless, and contemptuous of practical activity. Liberal critics had long called for a positively depicted, businesslike nobleman, and they accepted Alexander in his final guise enthusiastically as such. The careful reader is left questioning both men’s aspirations and sharing Lizaveta’s wistful awareness that St. Petersburg’s progress is far from ideal. The alternative of seeking that ideal in Russia’s past surfaces only in Goncharov’s later works, although the absence of a criticalstand against serfdom and landowner privileges already serves to modify the seeming victory of Westernization.


Turgenev’s popular A Nest of Gentlefolk threatened to overshadow Oblomov, which was first printed in Otechestvennye zapiski, until critic Dobrolyubov’s 1859 article “Chto takoyo Oblomovshchina?” (“What Is Oblomovism?”) swiftly drew national attention to the work. Following Dobrolyubov’s cue, most readers and succeeding generations saw in Oblomov the hero’s inertia the psychological consequence of total dependence on serf labor. By lavishing endless pages on the harmful effects of Oblomovism and the virtues of Stolz, a Western-influenced business type, Goncharov seemed to strike a forceful blow at the roots of Russia’s economic and social evils.

Oblomov appears as the epitome of the superfluous nobleman, the lazy, alienated dreamer who cannot adjust to change or find a place for himself in the present. Different embodiments of this type exist in Pushkin’s Onegin, Lermontov’s Pechorin, and Turgenev’s Rudin. Oblomov differs from these characters in that he rejects even the search for an alternative, preferring instead the never-changing ways of his childhood Oblomovka. The location of this estate on the Asian border aptly suggests the Asian fatalism and circular philosophy that represent Oblomov’s and, by extension, Russia’s Eastern Tartar heritage. The hero’s Asian dressing gown, serving as his security blanket and finally his shroud, is an equally fitting symbol.

The reader is initiated into all the details of Russian provincial backwardness through Oblomov’s lengthy dream of his sleepy backwater. The dream, a thematic outline of the work and its centerpiece, had been published separately as a sort of overture as early as 1849. The finished novel shows the deadening effect of this “blessed spot” on those who cannot free themselves from the dependencies it fosters. Little Ilya was born a normal child, willing to experiment, to rough it, to develop. The atmosphere of Oblomovka snuffed out all of these inclinations. Tradition stipulates that a Russian gentleman sit, surrounded by hordes of serfs who attend to his every whim, that he eat and doze most of the day, phlegmatically observe the seasonal and ecclesiastical rituals, ignore any attempt at change, be it literacy or postal service, and hope that the waves of Peter the Great’s Westernizing reforms never reach his quiet hamlet. Inevitably, they do reach Oblomovka, and the product of its upbringing must serve his term in St. Petersburg.

The innumerable ways in which the transplanted Oblomov manages to ignore the city’s reality take up a good portion of the narrative. Each failure on the realistic plane is paralleled by a success on the imaginary level, which always features a happy Oblomov in a paradisiacal Oblomovka. Eventually, Oblomov gains a questionable victory. A motherly widow’s shabby lodging transforms itself into a blissful surrogate of Oblomovka for the by-now infantile hero. He has returned to the womb and lives out a short but happy span, until mental stagnation and greedy overeating end his life.

Two people try their best to save Oblomov. First Stolz, the half-German entrepreneur, as lean as an English racehorse where Oblomov is fat and flabby, uses reason and intellectual appeal to convince Oblomov to change. Then Olga, already adapted to a modern intelligentsia but preserving a deep love for Russia’s cultural past, lures him with promises of selfless love. Sexually aroused, Oblomov briefly responds to her, but when he finds that Olga also demands intellectual arousal, constant mental awareness, he takes flight. The equally dull-witted widow offers both maternal and mistress services without the necessity of mental effort.

Stolz and Olga, who eventually marry, represent the best of traditional Russia fused with the best of imported progressive behavior. Stolz is an improved version of Peter Aduev. The latter’s negative traits and final pessimistic outlook have been replaced by Stolz’s cheerfulness and compassion. Even here, however, the author’s descriptive talents hover lovingly over the blubbery Oblomov—over his dreams, his reflections, his blunders—while Stolz comes across as artificial and wooden, the victim of uninspired portrayal. Olga, who loves and appreciates Oblomov’s values, is a more credible figure, and it is she who embodies and carries into the future the reconciliation of the conflict. In some respects, she acts as Goncharov’s mouthpiece. Her dissatisfactions, even with the faultless Stolz, echo the author’s own inability to believe fully in the spiritual benefits of a forwardmoving Russia. Goncharov had no such reservations when it came to praising the charms of Oblomovka. Its oneness with nature renders each inhabitant a paragon of virtue. No passionate outbursts or personal animosities mar the peacefulness. Serfs are not slaves, but content to be reflections of their masters. Their sloth and their ample participation in all the feasting, indulged by benevolent owners, help to deplete Oblomovka’s reserves. When this slothful behavior is transplanted to St. Petersburg in the person of Oblomov’s loyal valet Zakhar, it loses much of its bucolic enchantment, yet the touching interdependence of master and servant redeems the ineptness. It was simply impossible for Goncharov to carry to its logical conclusion his commonsense understanding that radical Slavophilism would result in national stagnation and regression.

The Precipice

Goncharov’s unwillingness to endow his progressive characters with the vitality necessary to make them convincing and interesting asserts itself more fully in his last major work, The Precipice. It appeared in Vestnik Evropy at a time when emancipation was a fact, when Alexander II’s liberalism gave wide scope to social commentators, when literature closely echoed the zeitgeist of reform. Goncharov’s liberal representative is the political exile Volokhov, who, like Turgenev’s nihilist Bazarov, spreads unrest in a deeply conservative village. Volokhov’s positive qualities are quickly neutralized by his seduction of a virtuous country woman, Vera, who naïvely tries to straighten him out. Vera is also a link to the other male principal, Raisky, a St. Petersburg intellectual, who has failed to find a purpose in life and returns to his country estate in search of a footing. It is easy to see in him yet another embodiment of Goncharov’s favorite type: the neurotic male whose interests, convictions, and common sense pull him toward reform but whose temperament and deep-seated impulses chain him to the past. In each of these split personalities, Goncharov’s own schism finds expression. As before, he reserves the best of his descriptive talents for the backwoods, symbolized by the figure of the grandmother. It is in this traditional setting that the abused Vera finds regeneration and mental recovery; it is the rural past that bequeaths stability, sanity, and direction for the future.

Goncharov had once again drawn an exquisite cameo of old Russia, once again contrasted the conflicting values of old and new, once again pictured an artistically masterful “homecoming.” Despite the popularity of the somewhat meandering work, Goncharov’s point of view drew heavy moral indignation. Liberal critics were quick to point out that Goncharov had come down on the side of rural conservatism, that he favored the Slavophiles. Obviously and painfully out of step with the tenor of the time, and psychologically unable and unwilling to recapture his artistic independence, Goncharov withdrew. His subsequent writings did not approach the stature of his novels.

Goncharov’s significance in the development of the Russian novel and Russian intellectual history remains great. He brought to life the characters of old Russia, with a style peculiarly his own, at a time when that patriarchal order began to disintegrate. In his portraits of Slavophiles and Westernizers, he elaborated on the dominant conflict of midcentury Russia. He was the first Russian author to integrate psychological complexities successfully and expertly into his plots, and thereby he created universal types..

Major Works
Short fiction: “Ivan Savich Podzhabrin,” 1848; “Slugi starogo veka,” 1888.
Nonfiction: Fregat Pallada, 1858 (The Voyage of the Frigate Pallada, 1965); “Mil’yon terzaniy,” 1872; “Luchshe pozdno, chem nikogda,” 1879; “V universitete,” 1887; “Na rodine,” 1888; “Neobyknovennaya istoriya,” 1924.
Miscellaneous: Sobranie sochinenii, 1883, 1888, 1952 (8 volumes).

Diment, Galya. “The Two Faces of Ivan Goncharov: Autobiography and Duality in Obyknovennaia Istorija.” Slavic and East European Journal 32 (Fall, 1988).
_______, ed. Goncharov’s “Oblomov”: A Critical Companion. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages, 1998.
Ehre, Milton. Oblomov and His Creator: The Life and Art of Ivan Goncharov. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Frank, Joseph. “Being and Laziness.” The New Republic, January 29, 2007.
Lyngstad, Alexandra, and Sverre Lyngstad.Ivan Goncharov. New York: Twayne, 1971.
Maguire, Robert A. “The City.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Classic Russian Novel, edited by Malcolm V. Jones and Robin Feuer Miller. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Platonov, Rachel S. “Remapping Arcadia: ‘Pastoral Space’ in Nineteenth-Century Russian Prose.” Modern Language Review 102, no. 4 (October, 2007): 1105-1121.

Source: Rollyson, Carl E., and Frank N. Magill. 2000. Critical survey of Long Fiction. Pasadena, Calif: Salem Press.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis, Psychological Novels, Russian Literature

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