All media forms, be they written or audio-visual reflect ideologies and themes of the era in which they are produced. 19th century Russian Literature similarly presents a pattern of themes and ideologies, relative to the social circumstances surrounding their creation. Many themes running through the Russian literature of this period parallels with the social change and political conflict of the time, bringing such issues to the forefront of society in an easily accessible and understandable fashion.
Not only did the writers of the 19th Century in Russia reflect change ithin society and regarding the political arena, they also wrote about emerging philosophies and ideologies surrounding such activity. One such writer to discuss emerging philosophies was Dostoevsky, who examined the concept of responsibility. Dostoevsky believed that people gained feedback for any action committed and thus they should be responsible and accountable every minute of their lives.
This social critique is evident in his novel, ‘Crime and Punishment’ which depicts the phenomena of contemporary social life in 19th Century Russia. Despite Dostoevsky’s approach to every day social interaction within Russia, he also broached the idea of political ideology and development. There have been a number of opposing theories regarding the political element of the novel. Two notable contrasting theories are those by Pisarev and Strakhov.
Pisarev takes the stance that the main ideological theme of ‘Crime and Punishment’ is that of exposing the guiltless evil system in place within contemporary Russian society that was engendered by poverty. However, on the contrary, Strakhov refutes the ideological stance of Pisarev and adopts he aesthetic perspective which assumes a more sympathetic view towards the main character, Raskolnikov. With two such opposing theories, it is possible to say that one of the main themes of the novel is the conflict inevitable conflict between theoretical analysis and life itself.
As well as this predominant theme, the subject of realism and symbolism appears within ‘Crime and Punishment’. The novel, like others contempoarary to itself presents the opposing themes of realist perspective and symbolic representation and thus it is hard to the reader to understand whether or ot Dostoevsky intends for the reader to take the narrative on face value or on a figurative front. Another novel of the 19th Century in Russia which combines emblematic narrative with realist perception is that of ‘Fathers and Sons’ by Turgenev.
Within ‘Fathers and Sons’, Turgenev uses his characters as representations of political and social movements in Russia at the time. Through these representations, one can realize the main themes of political and social conflict. These conflicts are evident on many different levels regarding the principle themes of Westernisation, liberalism and serf mancipation. These principle themes are not specific to ‘Fathers and Sons’ but subject matter approached by many writers of the 19th century.
A lot of the writers in Russia around the 19th century took a psychological perspective within their writing, with the emotional critique of individuals running as a predominant theme throughout many novels, plays and verse. Writers to adopt such a perspective include Chekhov, Tolstoy and Pushkin. All three of these writers, as well as embodying changing political and social climates as their main themes within their writing, dopted the psychological evaluation as a main thread of their narrative fabric.
Chekhov approached his writing with a mix of clinical assessment of ordinary life with a delicate poetic realism. This mnage of elements coincided with the key theme of naturalism entering the theatre within the 19th century. As well as Chekhov’s obvious psychological perspective, the main themes running through his works (particularly ‘The Lady with the Dog’) are work, love and the trivialities of every day life. Furthermore, as with novels such as ‘Fathers and Sons'(Turgenev) where generational onflict is explored, so Chekhov pursues this issue.
In ‘The Lady with the Dog’, Chekhov explores the idea that the younger generation are victims of illusion, whereas the older characters are also victims, but of disillusionment as opposed to illusion. As well as these fundamental principal themes within Chekhov’s writing, he strived to move away from the traditional limitations and restrictions of traditional dramatic conventions, thus ‘The Lady with the Dog’ appears as a considerably different contemporary literary text.
Another writer of the 19th century in Russia who’s main themes nclude psychological critique with philosophy and ideology regarding changing political climates is that of Tolstoy. Undoubtedly, Tolstoy’s most famous piece remains ‘War and Peace’ which acts not only as a commemorative tribute to important military battles, but also acts as a chronicle of five aristocratic families embodies many of the common main themes used by many writers of the time.
As with Chekhov, Tolstoy uses realism as a principle theme of ‘War and Peace’ mixed with a predominantly optimistic philosophy regarding the way of life contemporary to the text. Through his analysis of five aristocratic families, Tolstoy adopts his psychological, authorial perspective, which adds to the realist stance of the text. Furthermore, as with a number of contemporary Russian texts, Tolstoy deals with the role of women, and their developing position with a changing Russian society. This subject is tackled through his depiction of Natasha Rostova, who represents his own ideal of womanhood.
Throughout the text, Tolstoy presents Natasha’s development from a nave adolescent a mature woman; with her position in society representing that of many woman at the time of the novel’s production. It can be said that Tolstoy’s novel ‘War and Peace’ is a depiction of a zestful love of life in all its varying manifestations as well as a slate on which he can explore and examine his own iconoclastic views. Again the main themes of this novel are not dissimilar from other texts created contemporary to it.
Psychological analysis, being a main theme of Russian 19th century literature, is clearly evident in Pushkin’s most famous piece (later changed into an opera by Tchaikovsky) ‘The Queen of Spades’. In this novel, the main theme is that of breakdown, experienced by the main haracter who is addicted to gambling. As well as this being a psychological critique, ‘The Queen of Spades’ can also be said to be semi autobiographical as Pushkin himself suffered from breakdowns, as a consequence of his own gambling habit that stayed with him until his death.
As with Chekhov’s delicate, poetic approach to ‘The Lady with the Dog’, Pushkin produced his writing with a heavy romantic slant, in keeping with his contemporaries, Goethe and Byron. This romanticism in Pushkin’s writing is not dissimilar from that found in works by other Russian ontemporaries; though it can be said that Pushkin’s Russian counterparts did not achieve this newly found idealism with such success. Again, the predominant themes within Pushkin’s writing are that of life, love and psychological analysis through a privileged perspective.
These five writers alone cannot provide an entire perspective on Russian 19th century literature; however, they can afford the student of this subject with a mould and a series of focal themes, predominant in a number of literary texts of the time in question. Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Pushkin all seek to move away from tradition dramatic and literary conventions, thus they begin to manipulate the theory of realism and realist perspective.
Moreover, these writers begin to write about the ordinary as opposed to the extra-ordinary or fantastical, as the crucial elements of the texts created by the five writers mentioned are all based around the every day life of Russia and the changing social climates surrounding everyday happenings. As previously mentioned, the Russian writers of the 19th century no longer wanted to create texts surrounding the unimaginable but wanted to epict the happenings of daily life both with the aristocracy and with the serf community. 9th century literature became concerned with the changing political arena and its ramifications on the social climate. Therefore it can be said that the main themes of the Russian literature throughout the 19th century were of love, life, every day occurrences and the conflicts that transpired as a result of the developing social/political environment (i. e. in Turgenev’s ‘Fathers and Sons’, there is the conflict between Nihilist Russia and Militaristic Russia as well as the conflict between the ounger generation and the older, traditional generation.
These main themes occur throughout this contemporary literature and it can be said that these themes account for the tremendous success of these texts and why two centuries later, they remain as successful as they were when they were first created, as they remain attainable by all and furthermore, comprehensible by all, two qualities that were otherwise unachievable before the development of the realist text in the 19th century. What do you think have been the main themes of Russian writers in the 19th Century?