Saturday, March 10, 2012

Superfluous superfluous superfluous

A theme consistent throughout the Russian literature we have read is the superfluous man. We have discussed this topic a lot in class, and pretty much beaten it to death. But I want to bring it up once again. This is going to be a summary type of post, maybe with some analysis thrown in.

We first saw the superfluous man in The Captain's Daughter with Pyotr. He's a wealthy, ignorant (to begin with) officer in the military whose goal is simply to be with the girl he loves. He manages to avoid properly fighting for his own army while maintaining neutrality with the enemy. He doesn't produce anything for the greater good of society, except maybe his memoirs. Pyotr is superfluous, but he is in a position as an officer where he could be of distinct use to his country if he was so inclined.

Next we meet Pechorin, the anti-hero superfluous man. He is a military officer as well, but he doesn't seem to really have any true responsibilities. Unlike Pyotr, most of his time is spent not being in love with people and telling the reader just how much he doesn't love people. He contributes absolutely nothing to the greater good, except maybe his journals.

In Fathers and Children we have more than one superfluous man. The prime example is Pavel. The majority of his life was spent in pursuit of a woman who didn't even love him back. The men in Fathers and Children illustrate the path the Russian novel has taken from the adventure of military life to a focus on domesticity.

At this point, it seems that all of the authors are writing for the nobility of Russia (the only people who were truly literate) about topics that they could relate to. This trend doesn't disappear after this, but we see a change with Dostoevsky' Crime and Punishment. Despite the shift away from adventure and the military, the Russian novel still refuses to break from the theme of the superfluous man.

Raskolnikov is different from the previously observed types of superfluous men. He isn't part of the nobility, he hasn't ever had any real job, and he lives in poverty. He is interesting because he doesn't think that he is superfluous (hence his theory of exceptional men), but he doesn't do anything for society except think about it. At leas Pechorin seems to understand that he is superfluous, but Raskolnikov is blind to it.

Lastly we see Vronsky, who starts off as a very classical military officer superfluous man to a artistic/romantic superfluous man. As a military officer his duties seem to be keeping everyone entertained. As a romantic, his time is spent avoiding getting bored. Vronsky's character seems to be the best amalgamation (I'm pretty sure that's the right word) of all the different superfluous men we have seen. He has the military bearing and wealth of Pyotr, the boredom of Pechorin, the throwing-it-all-away-for-love of Pavel, and he has the total uselessness of Raskolnikov. It seems that Russian novels are written by taking the idea of the superfluous man and putting him in different situations to see what happens.

Both the readers and the authors of these books (for the most part) could relate to superfluous men, so it makes sense that it is an important theme. Also, stories about people who have to work all day everyday are boring, so it is simply more interesting to read about than other types of characters.

Now I hope you guys are as tired of reading the word 'superfluous' as I am of writing it...


  1. I think that it is interesting that you say that 'stories about people who have to work all day everyday are boring, so it is simply more interesting to read about than other types of characters.' I agree, but what is interesting I think is that the superfluous men in the novels that don't work all day every day end up feeling useless and boring after all. It's almost as if people have this romanticized notion of not having a purpose would be (I mean, I think we all do when we feel busy and overworked) and these novels sort of show how lackluster the reality of that romantic notion is.

  2. Do any of the superfluous men in any of these novels actually 'work'? All of them live lives of idleness and I believe that this idea is well shown in the local election scene. While reading this weekend, I can help but continue to criticize the character of Anna. Does anyone else view Anna akin to these superfluous men with no purpose?

  3. Lara, I like this idea of the main characters "romanticizing not having a purpose". Bordem has come up several times in the novels we have read. What's interesting is they don't really do anything about this bordem - they just talk about it. I also agree that Anna is kind of like these superfluous men with no purpose because so far the problems in the novel have been centered around a small group of elite. Although, in some parts of the novel we do see some of the characters starting to think outside of their group.

  4. Vronsky might be the superfluous man on his last legs: he is not nearly as vivid or interesting a human being as Pechorin, for example (this doesn't mean he isn't interesting as a character, though). Above all, he is false--and he lacks Pechorin's self-awareness. He is defined by being undefined, almost.

  5. What if the inner turmoil of characters like Vronsky and Pechorin has been front and center in the books we've read not because it's relatable, but simply because it's compelling? I guess I'm skeptical that Tolstoy was trying to cater to men like Vronsky in writing Anna Karenina(though Dostoevsky was probably talking to men like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment) or that we're supposed to sympathize with such men. Though aspects of their experiences might be familiar to Russian readers in the 1800's, most of them strike me as caricatures rather than the bureaucrats and officers they're supposed to be. I think Tolstoy might just be dramatizing the self-examination these characters engage in so his readership can experience it vicariously and escape the drudgery of government work instead of giving the superfluous men he seems to hate compelling figureheads they can compare themselves to.

  6. I'm not exactly sure how to phrase thoughts about all of this, so I apologize in advance if it doesn't seem cohesive and complete.

    We seem to be obsessed with calling people superflous. Why? If I had to guess the meaning of it from this post, I would gather that anyone who is not working to "produce anything for the greater good of society" is superfluous. Are we really so bent on reading stories where the main characters reshape the entire world based on their feelings and thoughts? As if, in order to be not superfluous, one be an actual super-hero.

    Moreover, we seem to be saying that having passions, or being passionate, is also superfluous -- it doesn't give back to society. Does everyone need to be building physical things? Do we truly respect the non-thinking statesmen who signs documents to make them official above a character who strives to find out what gives meaning to their life?

    Lastly (I suppose my train of thought is coming to a close), I don't think most characters romanticize having no purpose; in fact, Tolstoy major critique of the world around him is that people give themselves new mindsets to believe, have conversations for the sake of expounding they don't actually care about, and generally create a mirage of purpose for themselves. The characters that recognize that much of the world around them often feel bored because they notice all of the meaningly nonsense occupying everyone else. And in doing so, further themselves along the process that Levin (and Tolstoy) travels of figuring out what meaning there is in life.

    That's a long post, but I hope it conveys part of my thoughts.

    1. It seems like Gabe is arguing that superfluous people aren't actually superfluous because they have thoughts and feelings and emotions and the like. It appears that the superfluous characters we have encountered so far (excepting Pyotr) have been unhappy or conflicted. Lara points out that novels are showing how bad it is to be rich and useless. Perhaps all of the feelings and emotions the authors give their characters is simply a tool to illustrate that people should be working hard and being productive in order to avoid becoming like their characters.