(Note:  Lessons Ten and Eleven in these “Supplementary Materials” were prepared by Prof. Catherine Kulesov (retired) to whom grateful acknowledgement is made.)

Suggested Reading

D. S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature:

Belinsky, pp. 172-176

The Russian Realistic Novel, pp. 177-181

The "Study Notes are intended to introduce you to the basic concepts of Russian realism and the most famous works of Goncharov, Saltykov, Ostrovsky, and Leskov. Retain as much information as you can, for this material will be very useful in your further studies of Russian literature.

Study Notes

The seeds of realism were planted in the 1840s, a decade of transition from the romantic tradition. The realist period covered approximately the years 1845 to 1905. There were four (4) major realists: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Chekhov. (Dostoevsky is studied in Russ 3421; the others are covered in this course.) In the second tier among the realists were four (4) writers whom you will meet in this lesson: Goncharov, Saltykov, Ostrovsky, and Leskov. Finally, we will mention three radicals (Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov, and Pisarev) along with the nameless, "minor writers” of the period.

One of the realists was a poet (Nekrasov) and another a dramatist (Ostrovsky); the others were all novelists and story-tellers. Virtually all of them were born to and became more or less estranged children of the landed gentry. Thus, there were chronological and historical, cultural and psychological ties, in addition to the purely literary ones connecting these writers.

Belinsky                        When the majority of the realists broke into print (1845- 1847), their writings were "blessed” by Vissarion Belinsky, a talented literary critic and herald of the "new literature. Belinsky's criticism played an important role in the first stage of Russian realism, introducing it to the public and building support for it. He had his own agenda, however, an therefore misinterpreted the new writings to some extent. Advocating social reform, he saw more of it in these writings than was really there. His interpretation of Nikolai Gogol, a writer of the previous generation, is a prime example. Here is what American critic, Renato Poggioli says about it:

Belinsky believed that Russian reality was the real object of Gogol's contemplation, and that Gogol represented the ugliness of that reality not only to exalt It to the beauty of art but also to help his readers to change it. Belinsky also assigned this program to those writers whom he gathered under the banner of what he called the "natural school. But the program cannot be attributed to Gogol; nor can it be fully or literally applied even to those masters of Russian realism who were aware of the social mission of art, but unable to interpret it with the narrow-minded dogmatism and the fanatical zeal of those radical critics who were Belinsky's offspring.

Exposé                         In other words, Belinsky used Gogol as a springboard to promote his own ideas regarding oblichitel'nava literatura, i.e., exposé literature, or critical realism. He disputed the Romantic concept of "art for art's sake and firmly believed that social evils and the shortcomings of individuals should be analyzed and exposed in literature.

Realism, he argued, should Inspire and encourage the reading public to improve society.

Also using the term, "natural school,” to Identify the new literature, Belinsky promoted it by the publication of two anthologies, The Physiology of Petersburg and Petersburg Collection, which he edited along with the poet, Nikolai Nekrasov. These anthologies were full of mostly plotless sketches or "slices of life pertinent to lower class, urban life in Russia.

Radical Critics              After his death in 1848, Bellnsky's ideas continued to live among the Radical Critics- -Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov, and Pisarev. The radicals had "extra-narrative interests which were mostly political. Unable openly to express socialist ideals in Russia, the radicals used literary criticism and fiction to promote their convictions. The best example is Chernyshevsky's novel, What To Do? (sometimes translated as What Is To Be Done?). This novel popularizes utilitarianism and Charles Fourier's brand of socialism. Chernyshevsky describes a utopian, socialistic society based on the beliefs that man Is basically good, is motivated by enlightened self- interest, and can arrive at incontrovertible truth through science and reason. He concludes that a society formed along purely scientific lines will be an earthly paradise.

(The radical movement will be further discussed in connection with Turgenev's work.)


Classical Realism          The major writers of this period are sometimes called "classical realists to distinguish them from the minor writers. They were strikingly talented and individualistic, and their literary output was overwhelming in scope, a cornucopia of ideas, themes, characters, and styles. Yet they shared some common characteristics, all believing more or less in Belinsky's goal of improving society through art and all relatively indifferent to narrative concerns and plot structure. They were opposed to excessive emphasis on style and form. This for two reasons: (1) it could lead to aestheticism, or moral neutrality toward the content of art; (2) it could lead to naturalism, or cynical curiosity for what Is morbid and sordid in life. Instead, the realists accepted the social mission of art and the need for moral restraints upon the artist.

These restraints are quite evident when you compare French and Russian treatments of sex in literature. The relative "sexual innocence of the great Russian realists differentiates them from French masters, Stendhal and Balzac, who were interested in "the amorous animal.” Mikhail Saltykov wrote on this point:

The extent of our realism is different from that of the modern school of French realists. We include under this heading the whole man, in all the variety and actuality of his definitions; the French for the most part interest themselves in the torso, and of the whole variety of his definitions dwell with greater enjoyment in his physical abilities and amorous feats.

Psychological Truth       The realists sought to give an In-depth account of personality, providing a social background and credible motives for the actions and reactions of their characters. The psyche or inner life of a character became the medium through which the realists would reveal what motivated the behavior of their heroes and heroines. The demand to explain motivation placed great importance on psychological truth. Thus, psychological depth of character analysis became the outstanding feature of classical Russian realism, its “extra-narrative interest,” as Mlrsky puts it. (Mirsky does not explain this.)

Finally, existential problems of men and women interested the Russian realists more than social and political issues. So they did not agree one hundred per cent with Belinsky that the primary goal of literature is to stimulate social improvement.