Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Golovlyov death - window, window, window

The author of The Family Golovlyov is hardly the artistic equal of Leo Tolstoy, nor does he have the strong personality of Fyodor Dostoevsky or the imagination of Nikolai Gogol.  But he has comic integrity.  I want to look at the first major death in the book.  This will not convince anyone that the novel is comic.

Stepan Vladimiritch Golovlyov, also called (by his mother) Styopka the dolt, is bad with money and a drunk.  I have a five dollar bet with myself that each of the novel’s seven chapters were first published in a magazine.  The first chapter, anyways, stands on its own.  It is Styopka the dolt’s story, his life and death.  He has squandered his (advanced) inheritance and moves back to the estate with his chintzy mother.  He does nothing but drink, when he can get the money, and stare out the window.

He sat in his room all day gazing through the double glass of the window at the row of peasant huts sunk in the mud.  None the worse for the summer’s hard work, people were flitting to and fro like black dots in the autumn fog.  (54)

He has begun his descent into oblivion.

He had nothing to do except sit at the window and watch the heavy masses of clouds… The clouds stood there as though spell-bound: an hour, two hours, three hours passed and they were still in the same place, without the slightest change in their shape or color.  (55)

The description of the clouds is elaborate.  It was about here that Shchedrin’s writing began to get my attention, as where a cloud is hanging over a village “as if to strangle it.”  “Clouds, clouds, and clouds – all day long.”

Is that the first triplet?  No, see just above, hours, hours, hours.  Keep an eye out for triplets.

A sickly languor lay heavy on Stepan Vladimiritch’s mind, in spite of his idleness his whole body felt unreasonably, unendurably tired; one fretting, gnawing thought obsessed him; that thought was – “This is my grave, my grave, my grave!”  Those black dots flitting by the village threshing-yards against a dark background of mud were not obsessed by that thought…  (56)

Styopka is numbing himself with drink.  But I do not believe this is merely a naturalistic description of the effects of vodka.

… at last the darkness disappeared and was replaced by space filled with phosphorescent brilliance.  It was a dead, endless void, sinister and luminous, without a single sound of life…  He felt frightened; he wanted to stifle his consciousness of the outside world so completely that even this void should cease to exist.  (58)

Even the void should cease to exist.  This is interesting.  Styopka’s mother calls him “a bottomless pit” (61), but she is referring to his expenses, to money.

He had not a single thought, not a single desire.  The stove was in front of him, and his mind was so occupied with taking it in that it was impervious to any other impression.  Then the window replaced the stove; window, window, window…  He wanted nothing, nothing at all.  (58-9, ellipses in original)

A reader of Schopenhauer might suggest that we are witnessing the eradication of Styopka’s Will.  The chapter is almost over.  Nothing is what he is going to get.  The clouds return.

It was as though a black cloud enveloped him from head to foot and he did nothing but watch it, following its imaginary curves, and at times with a shudder trying as it were to ward it off.  This mysterious cloud swallowed up both the outer and the inner world for him.  (64)

In subsequent chapters, each member of the family succumbs to the cloud.  It is a kind of theme and variations structure.  Perhaps it sounds a bit narrow.  I suppose it is.


  1. The structure of theme-and-variations might be explained by the fact that the novel was first published as a serial. This page says, "Saltykov-Shchedrin's loosely constructed Golovlevs continued for six years (1876-1881) in The National Annals (Otochestvennye zapiski)." You owe yourself five dollars.

  2. It was really the self-contained nature of each chapter, except perhaps the last, so the magazine reader could enjoy each chapter's numb descent into darkness without knowing the whole history of the family.

    One could theoretically use the recurring characters to tell different kinds of stories each time.

    1. That's an idea that could blow the whole field of fiction wide open.