Thursday, March 13, 2014

Competing causes of the doom of the Golovlyovs - blind, unexpected, haphazard

“It would be lovely to have soup with goose giblets or mushrooms fried in sour cream,” the thought flashed through her mind so vividly it made her mouth twitch.  (124)

Absolutely.  I am still fussing over The Golovlyov Family.  The tough old matriarch has mistakenly handed the estate over to her worthless son Porphyry and is on short rations, which turns out to be the beginning of the blah blah blah descent into the void.  “She had been afraid of death before, but now she seemed to have completely forgotten about it” (124) – in this novel’s world, forgetting about death is the first step to death.

Porphyry, the hypocrite, make a great pretense of piety, and even prays frequently.  His argumentation is so perverse that it at times turns religion into blasphemy, which is perversely one of the pleasure of the novel, watching Porphyry go too far:

“No road, no path showing – all covered with snow.  And there are wolves too.  But here with us it is lights and comfortable, and we are not afraid of anything…  We won’t drink more than we need, but will drink just as much as we should.  And why is this?  It is because God is kind to us.  If it had not been for him, for the King of Heaven, we might be wandering about the fields now, in the cold and the dark, dressed in some wretched old jerkin tied with a shabby belt, with bark shoes on our feet.”  (136)

Porphyry’s mother interrupts now, objecting that she is a lady and would never wear bark shoes, which is not exactly what I meant by going too far.  I see at least two other ironies, here.  One, that Porphyry is himself a kind of wolf, and two, that later in the novel he takes to the hard stuff in despair, so that “all sense of pain disappeared and both the past and present were obliterated by a luminous void” (326).  Perhaps this is part of a religious crisis.  In the last few pages of the novel Shchedrin almost offers the possibility of redemption, before cruelly kicking it away.  Not for these characters.

In the middle of the novel, one of Porphyry’s nieces returns for a time.  She and her sister had escaped Golovlyovo to become provincial actresses, and she is able to escape again.  A naïve reader, like I was at that point, could wonder if the novel had taken something like a feminist turn.  Strong, independent women striking out on their own, throwing off the poison of their horrible family.  Maybe in a less stringently pure novel.  The result here is poverty, prostitution, alcoholism, suicide, disease.  But they could have done worse.  They could have stayed home.

In a remarkable passage near the novel’s end, Shchedrin briefly turns in to Émile Zola, offering a materialistic explanation for the “kind of doom” destroying the Golovlyovs.  “Everything in those pitiful families’ existence – both success and failure – is blind, unexpected, haphazard” (321).  It is all just luck.  They have had enough bad hereditary throws of the dice that they fall apart, like Zola’s Macquarts or Faulkner’s Compsons.

Yet only a few pages later, the religious theme dominates.  Maybe the characters are being punished for their sins.  Maybe there is no way to tell the competing explanations apart.


  1. Completely random question based on your Currently Reading: Did you like Mr. Seguin's chevre? Reading that short story is one of the happiest memories from my childhood.