Sunday, 10 October 2010

Oblomov the Lazy Aristocrat: Courage, Desire, Hope, and the Art of Life

He was painfully aware that entombed within himself there was this precious radiant essence, moribund perhaps by now, like a gold deposit lying buried deep in the rock that should long ago have been minted into coin and put into circulation. This treasure was, however, buried deep under a great heap of sludge and silt. It was as if someone had stolen the gifts that life hand handed to him on a plate and locked them away in his inmost recesses. Something was preventing him from throwing himself wholeheartedly and uninhibitedly into life's race and from letting the wind fill his sails. It was as if the dead hand of some unknown enemy had been laid on him at the starting line and hurled him far outside the course of his normal human destiny.

...I'm like a shabby, threadbare coat, worn out not because of exposure to the elements or hard work but because for twelve years a light has been burning inside me, unable to find an outlet and doing nothing but illuminating the walls of its own prison and, finding no opening to the outside world, has just been snuffed out for lack of oxygen.
--Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov


These quotations are some of the most poignant found in the 19th-century Russian novel Oblomov, by Ivan Goncharov, ostensibly a satirical and comedic work on the banal and shambolic. It is essentially a novel about a slothful young gentleman living in St. Petersburg who fails to arise from bed for the first 150 pages of the novel. Servants, "friends," and his own thoughts on his troubles and the state of his existence come and go, with seemingly little impact on Oblomov. Goncharov intended this novel as a parody of the idle landed elites, and as such his wit and satire certainly finds its mark. Yet I believe, as reflected by the quotations above, that this novel simultaneously contains some deep and profound universal themes beneath the comical dross. These ideas speak to the generalized fears and desires within us all.

In short (I know you aren't going to read it, so I may reveal the "plot," such as it is): he does rise from his bed eventually, meets a lovely girl (Olga), and is temporarily revitalized and excited by the possibilities of life, love, and the transformation of his rural estate. Yet everything goes wrong; he fails to adequately apply himself, he ruins the relationship with his sweetheart who breaks off with him and marries his dynamic best friend Stoltz (who remains his best friend and furthermore sorts out his estate income problems for him). He takes to his bed once again, never returns to his estate, marries his St. Petersburg landlady (because it is comfortable and easy and quite possibly so that he won't have to endure the hassle of moving), accomplishes virtually nothing (though he does have a son), dies young, and is largely forgotten. In other words, "Oblomov" is not coming to a cineplex near you as an inspirational and heart-warming film.
Yet for all his shambolic characteristics, Oblomov, the aristocratic loafer, nevertheless shares some qualities of the "everyman." He expresses the frustrations, hesitancy and uncertainty of life, the fear of being hurt or, worse, hurting others. He is a likable, even lovable, character. He does not accomplish anything great, but neither does he do any harm. The profundity of the novel rests on the fulcrum between idleness and action, the hope that our protagonist will finally seize the courage necessary for him to fully embrace life, followed by the realization that he somehow cannot. He knows that he should return to his estate and face his circumstances like a man, but Olga's exhortations are not enough for him. His "light" will not find its true outlet to the world. This quest would require courage, as it does for us all. We may not all, like Oblomov, remain almost literally in a state of inertia or an ability to act. But in some way we can all identify with the feeling that tremendous barriers stand between us and our destiny.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

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