Goncharov, Ivan

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GONCHAROV, IVAN (1812–1891), Russian realist novelist.

Ivan Goncharov's An Ordinary Story (1847) is frequently acknowledged as the first Russian realist novel, but it was his second novel, Oblomov (1859), that established his literary legacy both in Russia and abroad. Its main hero, the novel's namesake, was first perceived as a symbol of the lethargic and parochial society of Russian serfdom, but has since come to symbolize the warm-hearted, dreamy, and apathetic qualities of the Russian national character. The novel as a whole, at once a compassionate and ironic study of the rich ambiguity of the human condition, anticipates the sensibility of modernist fiction by writers such as Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf. Oblomov, both the character and the novel, inspired the life and work of Samuel Beckett. In Russia, Goncharov's first two novels had particular influence on Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Anton Chekhov. Goncharov's last novel, The Precipice (1869), was seen as inferior to his earlier work. In addition to the three novels, Goncharov wrote a travelogue, The Frigate Pallada (1858), and several pieces of minor fiction, poetry, and criticism, which have received relatively little attention.

Goncharov was born into a wealthy family of provincial merchants in 1812. Following his father's death when Goncharov was seven, his childhood passed under the exceedingly protective influence of his mother and intellectually stimulating guardianship of a godfather, a retired navy officer. After eight oppressive years at the School of Commerce in Moscow, Goncharov, a voracious reader since an early age, enrolled in the Department of Philology at Moscow University. After graduating in 1835, he entered government service in St. Petersburg for a lengthy and moderately successful career, first as translator at the Ministry of Finance, then in 1852–1855 as secretary on a diplomatic mission to Japan (the trip that gave him material for his travelogue), and after 1856 as a government censor. In a generation dominated by the ideologically engaged and socially critical members of the gentry, Goncharov, a bureaucrat of merchant origin, remained an outsider. At the university, he avoided the student circles that produced revolutionary-minded men such as Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin; in the 1840s, he was less intensely involved in the literary world than writers such as Turgenev and Fyodor Dostoyevsky; and during the social change at the turn of the 1860s, he, unlike his contemporaries, did not develop a strong ideological position. In his politics, he was a moderate Westernizer, believing that, in addition to the abolition of serfdom and corporal punishment, what Russians needed was to observe existing laws rather than introduce new ones. Fellow literati disliked Goncharov, considering him an apathetic, ironic, and comfort-seeking person.

Goncharov's first novel, An Ordinary Story, is a coming-of-age narrative that tapped into the European tradition of the bildungsroman (novel of formation). The personal growth of the hero, Alexander Aduev, recapitulates the cultural developments of the 1840s: Alexander overcomes the Romantic affectations of his youth and embarks on a realistically practical path toward "a fortune and a career." However, Alexander's alter ego, his uncle Peter, has already traveled this path, achieving both—only to recognize that he has been stifling the emotional lives of both himself and his wife. This pattern of ambiguous circularity, with neither side of the apparently clear opposition between spiritual and pragmatic values receiving a preference from the author, is characteristic of Goncharov's best work. The novel's early reviewers focused on its objectivity and its rejection of the Romantic idiom as exemplary of realism in literature.

Goncharov's next novel, Oblomov, published during a time of social reforms and seen as an indictment of moral corruption in society, solidified his literary fame. Although he did not challenge the prevalent readings of his first two novels, Goncharov was puzzled by them, for he thought of himself as an intuitive and self-absorbed writer whose art was averse to ideology. Oblomov tells the story of a person who takes dozens of pages to get out of bed and more than a hundred to leave his room. His childhood friend succeeds in forcing him out of his apathy for a brief period of time before he finally recedes to his original state of dreamy inactivity, culminating in an easy death. Unlike its early critics, the novel's aesthetically minded readers have come to appreciate it for its mastery in the portrayal of a life devoid of narrative, for its skill in revealing the frequent absurdity of dialogue, for its skepticism about the value of teleological aspirations in human experience, and for its evocations of poetry and symbolism contained in the objects of everyday life.

See alsoChekhov, Anton; Dostoyevsky, Fyodor; Gogol, Nikolai; Tolstoy, Leo; Turgenev, Ivan.


Primary Sources

Goncharov, Ivan Aleksandrovich. The Frigate Pallada. Translated by Klaus Goetze. New York, 1987. Translation of Fregat Pallada.

——. Oblomov. Translated by Natalie Duddington. New York, 1992.

——. An Ordinary Story. Translated by Marjorie L. Hoover. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1994. Translation of Obyknovennaia istoriia. Also translated as A Common Story and The Same Old Story.

——. The Precipice. Translated by Laury Magnus and Boris Jakim. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1994. Translation of Obryv.

Secondary Sources

Ehre, Milton. Oblomov and His Creator: The Life and Art of Ivan Goncharov. Princeton, N.J., 1973.

Diment, Galya. The Autobiographical Novel of Co-Consciousness: Goncharov, Woolf, and Joyce. Gainesville, Fla., 1994.

Peace, Richard. Oblomov: A Critical Examination of Goncharov's Novel. Birmingham, U.K, 1991.

Setchkarev, Vsevolod. Ivan Goncharov: His Life and His Works. Wurzburg, Germany, 1974.

Konstantine Klioutchkine