The literary realist movement blossomed towards the middle of the nineteenth century following the decline of the intense emotions of Romanticism. In general terms, the realist movement focused on depicting subjects in a manner that was true to reality. Realism in Western Europe focused on the truthful representation of the reality of the middle class. This social depiction of ordinary life was thought of as “inductive, observational, and, hence, objective” (Lawall 511). The realist movement centered on the middle class lifestyle was strongest in Germany, France, England, and Italy. However, Realism differed in the boundaries of the Russian Empire under the Tsar. Due to Russia’s Imperialist monarchy at the time, a middle class was relatively nonexistent in the empire. Additionally, Russia also fell behind on relevancy in Europe as the country was seen as backwards both technologically and ideologically. As a result, Russian Realism focused more on the reformation of towards more Western ideals through both political and social commentary. Russian realist literature often contained the archetypes of a superfluous man and a strong, grounded female. A superfluous man is often defined as “an ineffectual aristocrat at odds with society…dreamy, useless…incapable of action…idealist…who fails to act…because of personal weakness” (Chances 112). Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, depict relationships between a dissatisfied, superfluous male lead and a willful, grounded female foil by providing these characters with both very similar and different characteristics.
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Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, a novel written in verse, is a classic example of Russian realist literature. The novel was partly written while Pushkin was exiled by the Tsar during the Decembrist uprisings. Pushkin’s novel focuses on a male protagonist, Eugene Onegin, and a female foil, Tatiana. Eugene Onegin is portrayed as a bored, cynically, and superficial man who comes from Russia nobility. On the other hand, his counterpart Tatiana is quiet, strong, and grounded country girl turned aristocratic society’s centerpiece. The presence of these two characters exemplifies a common literary theme in Russian Realism of the superfluous man and spirited female. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, published nearly thirty years after Eugene Onegin, is a novel that is written as memoirs from a diary of a cynical, nihilistic hermit. The hermit, referred to as the Underground Man, fulfills the role of the Russian superfluous man. The strong female in Notes from Underground is Liza, a willful yet innocent prostitute who endeavors to support the Underground Man even as he attempts to manipulate and toy with her. Both Eugene Onegin and Notes from Underground portray the male protagonist as the superfluous man. The male protagonists of both novels have similarities that create a common “superfluous man” and differences in characteristics that set the characters apart.
In Eugene Onegin, a defining characteristic that sets Eugene apart from the Underground Man is his shallowness. Only 26 years old, Eugene Onegin is described as a “youth with charm and mind” of many talents which included the ability to “express himself and write, dance the mazurka, treading light, and bow in manner unaffected” (Pushkin 8). This very early description of Eugene Onegin creates the image of an individual born into wealth that is talented and is knowledgeable about aristocratic etiquette. Eugene also immerses himself in the superficial lifestyle of operas and parties that he attends only to be recognized when he is “dreadfully dissatisfied…with all the finery and faces” at the same time (Pushkin 15). Additionally, the lengthy description of Eugene’s obsessive manicuring and fashion sense further contribute to his portrayal as a superfluous man. Eugene “was most careful about his dress” and “at least three hours he spent preparing in front of mirrors” (Pushkin 17). Eugene’s pointless and superficial lifestyle point to a character that fits into societal norms out of boredom and conformity yet chooses to privately disregard them at the same time out of spite. Pushkin’s representation of Eugene as a fake individual who overtly cares about his appearance demonstrates his egotism that compensates for a lack of true personality. This is a trait of the literary superfluous man.
The Underground Man on the other hand does not attend petty gatherings, nor is he part of the aristocracy like Eugene. In fact, the Underground Man completely alienates himself from the superficiality of Russia upper class society. Dostoevsky chooses to make the Underground Man a weak superfluous man in a different way than Pushkin. Unlike Eugene, the Underground Man is merely a retired lowly civil servant who has no distinguishable skills. He is neither born into wealth nor does he live a lavish style. The Underground Man occupies a tiny apartment that “is nasty, squalid, [and] on the outskirts” of St. Petersburg (Dostoevsky 549). While the typical Russian superfluous man is an aristocrat, Dostoevsky immediately places the Underground Man in a position of poverty. By making the Underground Man a poor man who only “worked in order to have something to eat (but only for that reason),” Dostoevsky makes the character superficially weak due to his lack of wealth and enjoyment of life. In addition, while Eugene obsessively takes care of his appearance and is involved in society the Underground Man rarely leaves his apartment and is a recluse. His reclusiveness further establishes him as a superfluous man in that he disregards social values.
Regardless of their differences, both Eugene Onegin and the Underground Man fulfill the archetype of the Russian superfluous man through some similar ways. Both Eugene and the Underground Man tend to have no distinguishable and solid personality. Eugene’s superficial characteristics feed into the notion that he has no true personality. His obsession over how others perceive him demonstrate that he requires the attention of others to have some form of self-importance. Eugene’s ultimate show of weakness surfaces when Tatiana scours through his library. She finds numerous books with different male protagonists in which fingernail and pencil marks revealed that “[Eugene’s] soul was by such signs…expounded whether by cross, by succinct word, or question mark” (Pushkin 153). This revelation by Tatiana shows Eugene’s deception of not only the public, but his deception of himself. A combination of Eugene’s shallow characteristics and his life based on a combination of fictional characters ultimately demonstrate Eugene’s existential crisis. His boredom and lack of meaning in life lead him to become weak through deception, fulfilling the role of a superfluous man. The Underground Man’s boredom and reclusiveness cause him to follow a similar path of creating a fluctuating personality based on literary protagonists. His boring life and childhood as an orphan result in the Underground Man’s nihilistic outlook on life, causing him to adopt the thoughts of writers such as Gogol as his own (Dostoevsky 565). Both characters also attempt to compensate for their weaknesses by asserting dominance over others through supposed higher intelligence. Eugene is a man who “learned the skill of feigning, of seeming jealous, hiding hope, inspiring faith…appearing somber and to mope” along with other “talent[s] for appearing novel” such as flattery and manipulation (Pushkin 11). Eugene’s deception of others serves only to entertain him and give him satisfaction. At other times, his elevated sense of righteousness is fatal, shown when he kills Lensky in a duel. Eugene’s lack of empathy for his fellow man further brings out his weakness as a superfluous man. Similarly, the Underground Man uses his sense of power from his supposedly superior intelligence to fuel his rare interactions with others. The Underground Man chooses to causes conflict and distress in his interactions with people such as Zverkov who is regarded as “a cunning fellow and expert on good manners” and the good-hearted Liza who is content and sees through the Underground Man’s façade of intelligence. Both Eugene’s and the Underground Man’s lack of empathy and elevated sense of righteousness demonstrate personal weakness and fulfill the archetype of the superfluous man.
The portrayal of a strong, grounded female foil is often more streamlined. Both Tatiana in Eugene Onegin and Liza in Notes from Underground share more similarities that establish them as strong female leads than differences. The relationships between the superfluous male and strong female also culminate in the male realizing his mistakes. While Tatiana is portrayed as a hopeless, weak romantic in the first half of Eugene Onegin, she transforms into a strong female lead later in the novel in Moscow. Tatiana is the opposite of Eugene. She is a country girl who is truly passionate, willful, and genuine. Pushkin reveals Tatiana’s moral strength when Eugene encounters her as a princess. When Eugene tries to tempt her into abandoning her husband and coming back to him, she stands her ground and tells Eugene to “leave me now…I love you, but I am someone else’s wife, to him I shall be true for life” (Pushkin 195). Tatiana shows her enduring honesty to both her husband and Eugene. Although she still cares for him and goes as far as saying he has an honest heart, she refuses to go back to him because she is married and respects societal norms. Her actions are noble and demonstrate her ability to stand her ground. Finally, Tatiana forces Eugene to see his own deception when she points out he only wants her for superficial reasons because she is “wealthy and renowned” and it would “feed the flames of tittle-tattle and win [him]…seductive notoriety” (Pushkin 193). As she tells him to leave, Eugene finally realizes how meaningless his life has been and how his stubbornness and superficiality cost him happiness and love. The relationship between Eugene and Tatiana is also symbolic in that Eugene is a “parody of a type…Onegin is emblematic of the foreign, which Pushkin, through Tatiana rejects” (Busch 450). Additionally, Tatiana represents “a thoroughly Russian and authorial moral ideal” (Busch 450). By having Tatiana reject Eugene and show him his true colors, Pushkin fulfills a common facet of Russian realism by having the strong female lead (traditional Russia) trump the superfluous male (foreign influence).
Similarly, Liza the prostitute is able to see through the Underground Man and attempt to reach out through him. Liza is everything he is not: caring, willful, good-hearted, and a heroine. While he continues to abuse her and attempt to take his pent up dissatisfaction and anger out on her, Liza attempts to show him caring and love. Even after his tirade when Liza visits the Underground Man a second time, she “threw herself at [him], put her arms around [his] neck…knelt down, embraced [him] and remained motionless” (Dostoevsky 592). However, since the Underground Man’s elevated sense of self-importance and hatred was stronger than his empathy he continued to abuse and hurt Liza. In his final act of cruelty, he forces a “crumpled blue five-ruble note” into her hand to remind Liza of her perceived lower social status as a prostitute (Dostoevsky 594). Liza’s final act in Notes from Underground solidifies her undying strength as she throws his “payment” on the table. Liza appropriately has the strength to respond to the Underground Man’s lack of respect for other people. Her act of strength is also a final veiled act of kindness in which the Underground Man is forced to accept how vile his actions were.
As Russian realist works, Eugene Onegin and Notes from Underground contain a superfluous male protagonist who exudes weakness and a grounded female foil who is strong and willful. Both the superficial, aristocratic Eugene Onegin and the poor, reclusive Underground Man share traits of weakness. These include a lack of empathy, inflated ego and intelligence, indistinguishable personalities, and a disregard of societal norms. The female leads are foils to the male characters and cause a reevaluation of the male protagonist. On a deeper level of understanding, the male protagonists of the two novels represent a new, foreign Russia who are brought back to their senses by the females who represent the traditional motherland. Even now, the issues brought up by 19th century Russian realism continue to arise as the question of “Should Russia continue to westernize?” is relevant to international politics.
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