Ivan Aleksandrovich Goncharov

views updated May 11 2018

Ivan Aleksandrovich Goncharov

The Russian novelist Ivan Aleksandrovich Goncharov (1812-1891) is one of the great realists of Russian literature. His novel "Oblomov" is a classic of Russian fiction.

Ivan Goncharov was born of a well-to-do family. Although the family background was of the merchant class, he was brought up in the patriarchal atmosphere of Russian manor life. After leaving the University of Moscow, he entered the civil service, where he labored patiently for many years without conspicuous success. His rise to literary prominence came in 1847, when he published his first novel, A Common Story. Hailed enthusiastically by the great Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky, this work dealt with the transformation of a young provincial idealist into a somewhat vulgar and practical young man.

In 1849 Goncharov published "The Dream of Oblomov," a short sketch that became the core of his greatest novel. In 1853 he accompanied an expedition on a 2-year voyage to the Far East. He did not enjoy the trip, but he was a perceptive reporter and his account of the journey appeared as The Frigate Pallas in 1856.

In 1858 Goncharov finished the novel Oblomov, and it was published the following year. Oblomov has become an archetypal character, the embodiment of vegetable comfort, of disinclination to action, and of lassitude. He is the dreamer rather than the doer, and he is contrasted with Shtolz, the new man, the energetic, self-willed man, who unsuccessfully attempts to inspire Oblomov to a more active existence. As a superfluous man, Oblomov is part of a gallery of great Russian fictional creations, which includes Aleksandr Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Mikhail Lermontov's Pechorin, and Ivan Turgenev's Rudin. The word Oblomovshchina (Oblomovism) has passed into the Russian language to signify a special kind of high-minded indolence.

Goncharov's last important novel, The Ravine, appeared in 1869. The theme of the novel, as in A Common Story, has to do with the new and the old, the ideal and the useful. The novel expresses what is perhaps the most important conflict in Goncharov's work: the conflict between a love for the patriarchal, leisurely, fixed ways of old Russia and an interest and curiosity in the liberal and radical elements that were breaking through the crust of old Russia.

Goncharov also wrote an autobiographical apologia, Better Late than Never (1870, published in 1879), in which he attempted to prove to the younger generation that he understood the spirit of his age as well as they. Among his other publications are My University Reminiscences (1870); A Million Torments (1872), a work of criticism; and Notes on Belinsky's Personality (1874). A posthumous work entitled An Uncommon Story came to light in the 1920s and confirmed the psychopathic side of his personality; it is an account of imagined plots against him and imagined attempts by others to plagiarize his work.

Further Reading

Janko Lavrin, Goncharov (1954), is a short and useful study. The chapter on Goncharov in D. S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature, from Its Beginnings to 1900, edited by Francis J. Whitfield (1958), is informative and interesting and provides the best background information on the period available in English. □