A Desperate Character, by Ivan Turgenev


The six tales now translated for the English reader were written by Turgenev at various dates between 1847 and 1881. Their chronological order is:—

Pyetushkov, 1847

The Brigadier, 1867

A Strange Story, 1869

Punin and Baburin, 1874

Old Portraits, 1881

A Desperate Character, 1881

Pyetushkov is the work of a young man of twenty-nine, and its lively, unstrained realism is so bold, intimate, and delicate as to contradict the flattering compliment that the French have paid to one another — that Turgenev had need to dress his art by the aid of French mirrors.

Although Pyetushkov shows us, by a certain open naïveté of style, that a youthful hand is at work, it is the hand of a young master, carrying out the realism of the ‘forties’— that of Gogol, Balzac, and Dickens — straightway, with finer point, to find a perfect equilibrium free from any bias or caricature. The whole strength and essence of the realistic method has been developed in Pyetushkov to its just limits. The Russians are instinctive realists, and carry the warmth of life into their pages, which warmth the French seem to lose in clarifying their impressions and crystallising them in art. Pyetushkov is not exquisite: it is irresistible. Note how the reader is transported bodily into Pyetushkov’s stuffy room, and how the major fairly boils out of the two pages he lives in! (pp. 301, 302). That is realism if you like. A woman will see the point of Pyetushkov very quickly. Onisim and Vassilissa and the aunt walk and chatter around the stupid Pyetushkov, and glance at him significantly in a manner that reveals everything about these people’s world. All the servants who appear in the tales in this volume are hit off so marvellously that one sees the lower-class world, which is such a mystery to certain refined minds, has no secrets for Turgenev.

Of a different, and to our taste more fascinating, genre is The Brigadier. It is greater art because life’s prosaic growth is revealed not merely realistically, but also poetically, life as a tiny part of the great universe around it. The tale is a microcosm of Turgenev’s own nature; his love of Nature, his tender sympathy for all humble, ragged, eccentric, despised human creatures; his unfaltering keenness of gaze into character, his fine sense of proportion, mingle in. The Brigadier, to create for us a sense of the pitiableness of man’s tiny life, of the mere human seed which springs and spreads a while on earth, and dies under the menacing gaze of the advancing years. ‘Out of the sweetness came forth strength’ is perhaps the best saying by which one can define Turgenev’s peculiar merits in The Brigadier.

Punin and Baburin presents to us again one of those ragged ones, one of ‘the poor in spirit,’ the idealist Punin, a character whose portrait challenges Dostoievsky’s skill on the latter’s own ground. That delicious Punin! and that terrible grandmother’s scene with Baburin! How absolutely Slav is the blending of irony and kindness in the treatment of Punin, Cucumber, and Pyetushkov, few English readers will understand. All the characters in Punin and Baburin are so strongly drawn, so intensely alive, that, like Rembrandt’s portraits, they make the living people, who stand looking at them, absurdly grey and lifeless by comparison! Baburin is a Nihilist before the times of Nihilism, he is a type of the strong characters that arose later in the movement of the ‘eighties.’

A pre-Nihilistic type is also the character of Sophie in A Strange Story. But the chief value of this last psychological study is that it gives the English mind a clue to the fundamental distinction that marks off the Russian people from the peoples of the West. Sophie’s words —‘You spoke of the will — that’s what must be broken’ (p. 61)— define most admirably the deepest aspiration of the Russian soul. To be lowly and suffering, to be despised, sick, to be under the lash of fate, to be trampled under foot by others, to be unworthy, all this secret desire of the Russian soul implies that the Russian has little will, that he finds it easier to resign himself than to make the effort to be powerful, triumphant, worthy. It is from the resignation and softness of the Russian nature that all its characteristic virtues spring. Whereas religion with the English mind is largely an anxiety to be moral, to be right and righteous, to be ‘a chosen vessel of the Lord,’ religion with the Russian implies a genuine abasement and loss of self, a bowing before the will of Heaven, and true brotherly love. The Western mind rises to greatness by concentrating the will-power in action, by assertion of all its inner force, by shutting out forcibly whatever might dominate or distract or weaken it. But the Russian mind, through its lack of character, will-power, and hardness, rises to greatness in its acceptance of life, and in its sympathy with all the unfortunate, the wretched, the poor in spirit. Of course in practical life the Russian lacks many of the useful virtues the Western peoples possess and has most of their vices; but certainly his pity, charity, and brotherliness towards men more unfortunate than himself largely spring from his fatalistic acceptance of his own unworthiness and weakness. So in Sophie’s case the desire for self-sacrifice, and her impregnable conviction that to suffer and endure is right, is truly Russian in the sense of letting the individuality go with the stream of fate, not against it. And hence the formidable spirit of the youthful generation that sacrificed itself in the Nihilistic movement: the strenuous action of ‘the youth’ once set in movement, the spirit of self-sacrifice impelled it calmly towards its goal despite all the forces and threats of fate. Sophie is indeed an early Nihilist born before her time.

We have said that the lack of will in the Russian nature is at the root of Russian virtues and vices, and in this connection it is curious to remark that a race’s soul seems often to grow out of the race’s aspiration towards what it is not in life. Is not the French intellect, for example, so cool, clear-headed, so delicately analytic of its own motives, that through the principle of counterpoise it strives to lose itself and release itself in continual rhetoric and emotional positions? Is not the German mind so alive to the material facts of life, to the necessity of getting hold of concrete advantages in life, and of not letting them go, that it deliberately slackens the bent bow, and plunges itself and relaxes itself in floods of abstractions, and idealisations, and dreams of sentimentality? Assuredly it is because the Russian is so inwardly discontented with his own actions that he is such a keen and incisive critic of everything false and exaggerated, that he despises all French rhetoric and German sentimentalism. And in this sense it is that the Russian’s lack of will comes in to deepen his soul. He surrenders himself thereby to the universe, and, as do the Asiatics, does not let the tiny shadow of his fate, dark though it may be, shut out the universe so thoroughly from his consciousness, as does the aggressive struggling will-power of the Western man striving to let his individuality have full play. The Russian’s attitude may indeed be compared to a bowl which catches and sustains what life brings it; and the Western man’s to a bowl inverted to ward off what drops from the impassive skies. The mental attitude of the Russian peasant indeed implies that in blood he is nearer akin to the Asiatics than Russian ethnologists have wished to allow. Certainly in the inner life of thought, intellectually, morally, and emotionally, he is a half-way house between the Western and Eastern races, just as geographically he spreads over the two continents. By natural law his destiny calls him towards the East. Should he one day spread his rule further and further among the Asiatics and hold the keys of an immense Asiatic empire, well! future English philosophers may feel thereat a curious fatalistic satisfaction.


October 1899.


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