English and Modern Languages
Master of Arts (MA)
Carl C Curtis
Primary Subject Area
Literature, Slavic and East European; Literature, General
Dostoevsky, Griboedov, Lermontov, Pushkin, Russian literature, superfluous man
The "superfluous man" is one of the most important developments of the Golden Age of Russian literature--that is, the period beginning in the 1820s and climaxing in the great novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. To understand the superfluous man is to understand a key cultural struggle, the battle for self-understanding of a Russian intellectual elite looking for solid ground along the fault between sophisticated Western philosophy and a Slavic heritage understood more instinctively than intellectually. The superfluous man is the bastard child of a volatile, centuries' long love affair between the Western mind and the Slavic soul--between a technologically advanced yet spiritually impoverished world that glorifies the individual and a seemingly backward world marked by centuries of Orthodoxy and collectivism. And yet it would be hard to imagine a term more loosely applied or more inadequately defined. Turgenev's Rudin and Bazarov, Goncharov's Oblomov, Dostoevsky's Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, and Tolstoy's Andrei Bolkonsky are just a few characters who have made the register of superfluous men simply by not fitting in or evincing a general disillusionment with life, the system, or the status quo. If being a misfit or a rebel, however, adequately defines the character type, why not expand the list to include Dickens's Ebenezer Scrooge, Hugo's Enjolras, or Byron's Don Juan? It is what makes the superfluous man a peculiar phenomenon of the Russian mind, a representation of a particular cultural conflict in a particular place and time, that sets him apart from other more or less socially awkward or dissatisfied members of the literary canon. The superfluous man is the dual product of Russian culture and Western education, a man of exceptional intelligence who is increasingly and painfully aware of his failure to synthesize knowledge and experience into lasting values, whose false dignity is continually undermined by contact with Russian reality, and whose growing alienation from self and others leads to an unabashed indulgence of cowardly, ludicrous, and sometimes destructive instincts. These characteristics emerge most strongly and definitively in four characters: Chatsky, Onegin, Pechorin, and Stavrogin. In Alexander Griboedov's Woe from Wit, the hero Chatsky attains a hyperawareness of his own alienation from Russian society; in Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, the title character explores the consequences of the alienation and moral lethargy in his hybrid soul; in Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of our Time, the character Pechorin represents a will, unrestrained by any values or a holistic sense of self, increasingly bent on punishing others for his own emptiness; and in Dostoevsky's Demons, the character Stavrogin will play out the full spiritual and social implications of the death of the soul. The increasing darkness and emptiness of these characters represents an arc in the Russian consciousness of being caught between two worlds that resist synthesis and through their conflict threaten to unravel the spiritual fabric of the nation.