Down and Out in the Garden of Eden, or Last Thoughts on "What Is To Be Done?"

I have no idea what book the original readers of Nikolai Chernyshevsky's 1863 novel What is to be Done? thought they were reading. When I learn about the reception of the novel among Russian revolutionaries, I am baffled. I suppose we all read into books what we hope to find, and the revolutionaires of the latter 19th century saw a call to action, a spur to overthrow rather than to reform. Perhaps it's just the distance of 152 years that makes Chernyshevsky's concerns seem naive and rather quaint instead of urgent and something upon which a sweeping social change could be built. Vladimir Lenin claimed that What is to be Done? "ploughed him up." I just can't see it, kids. Certainly the novel (which, I am led to believe, only made it past the tsar's censors with some luck and possibly ironic help from the state itself) calls for changes, most especially for the liberation of women from the patriarchal limits of traditional society. Certainly Chernyshevsky alludes to the problem of the serfs, tying that question to the question of American slavery (this novel was written just before the outbreak of the Civil War but after some fierce battles had already been fought in the American Midwest about the geographic limits of slave-holding territory), and certainly Chernyshevsky mentions Uncle Tom's Cabin in the last section of the novel, implying that serfdom is as morally reprehensible as Negro slavery is, and also implying that the repression of women is slavery. And there's more political speech squirming along all through the book. But in my reading, this is not really a political book.

I cannot help but feel that What is to be Done? is primarily wish-fulfillment fantasy, a novel in which Nikolai Chernyshevsky (a frustrated and socially awkward young intellectual whose dreams of teaching at the university level have been quashed because of his politics, a married man whose wife is unconcerned with social issues and wants primarily to be furnished with a comfortable bourgeois life, an essayist and editor of a literary magazine who finds himself imprisoned on trumped-up charges) attempts to create a fictional world in which he personally would be happy. Chernyshevsky is obviously in love with Vera, the liberated woman. The book is written so that Vera can be liberated. Chernyshevsky wants to liberate his real-life wife Olga, but apparently Olga had no real wish to be liberated, educated, empowered and employed in meaningful work. Chernyshevsky's male intellectual radical characters are also clearly stand-ins for the author, and the author makes sure that all of these characters have happy endings.

That happy ending is so false, so clumsy. The important work all takes place around page 300, when Vera is given her freedom by her first husband, Dmitry. After that, Chernyshevsky has no real idea where to go with his novel. He spends a lot of energy (and a lot of pages) explaining how important it is that Vera has been freed, though society does not yet allow her full freedom (as evidenced when agents of the tsar take Vera's new husband aside and warn him that Vera's dress shop has been given a name that the tsar would not like, a name that references French revolutionary literature, and Vera bows to the pressure and changes the shop's name). Vera has an involved dream showing the historical process by which woman will be freed and given compass to act in her own interests, though as Tom pointed out last week, Vera will likely have a lot more dreams before that ultimate and complete freedom is granted. So Chernyshevsky gives us a Vera/Olga who could conceivably lead a useful and productive and liberated life in 1863 if she so desired, and then he's stuck. What next? What next? A new character is introduced, Katya, daughter of a wealthy man who wants to do something with her life. She starts a sewing collective patterned upon Vera's work. Vera's first husband comes back into the book, equipped with a Dickensian false identity, gets a job running a factory and marries Katya. He and Katya settle down next door to Vera and Vera's second husband. Vera is now a medical doctor. The two couples entertain lots of young intellectual radicals, have a swell time. Everyone is smart and educated and considerate and working toward the ultimate social good (which is where all Russia is a land in which Nikolai Chernyshevsky would be happy and comfortable). All of this action is essentially more explanation of the importance of Vera's emancipation. What next? What next? None of this is leading anywhere new, for scores of pages. Finally, Vera and Katya and their husbands host a winter party, complete with sleigh rides. On one sleigh is a young woman dressed all in black. It is Olga, Olga Chernyshevsky. She wears mourning because her beloved husband is in prison, writing the novel she now inhabits. Olga is happy to share the company of intellectual radicals and she sings songs predicting the ultimate liberation of all people. Finally, her husband, the Nikolai Chernyshevsky who is writing the novel he now fully inhabits, walks into the final chapter, kisses his Olga, predicts a revolution will take place in 1865, and blows the audience a kiss. Curtain, bows, applause, flowers.

The last quarter of the novel is a mess, is what I'm saying. It reveals itself to be the author's personal fantasy, a fantasy that becomes a tragedy for the modern reader who is able to learn that Chernyshevsky is not freed from prison after all. He's sentenced to 18 years hard labor. He only serves seven years of the sentence before he is exiled to southern Russia where he lives out his life in poverty, only seeing his beloved materialistic Olga once in all this time. The 1865 revolution doesn't come. Nikolai Chernyshevsky dies in exile, aged 61, in 1889. Somehow his novel, the only novel he wrote and the last significant literary work to come from his pen, becomes a rallying point for the radicals of Russia, who do rise up and paint the east red. Like I say, I am not at all sure what book they thought they were reading. But somehow, desperate shy defeated Nikolai Chernyshevsky became a hero, an influential novelist, a man who went down in history.

Today I'm recovering from the flu, and I've spent a good chunk of time not thinking about Mr Chernyshevsky, instead reading Rebecca West's 1918 novella The Return of the Soldier. It's a small masterpiece, is that book.


  1. Amateur Reader (Tom)April 15, 2014 at 9:15 PM
    I had been keeping up but this was not such a good weekend for reading, so you pulled way ahead. Or perhaps I was balking, remembering what was in waiting for me after Vera's dream.

    Maybe I will write a little bit about the book's reception, all pinched from Joseph Frank - he knows what book they were reading. I have been reading the book the way you have, although I have the excuse that I am under Nabokov's influence. I do not believe you have read The Gift? It is almost as if you have.
    1. scott g.f.baileyApril 15, 2014 at 9:51 PM
      No, I've not read The Gift yet. I really want to see that Chernyshevsky chapter now.

      I hope you do write about this book. I thought I was going to be riding your coattails. But yeah, reception would be interesting to read about. I mean, they must've thought he was kidding, right? Abandon Petersburg and Moscow to build the agrarian paradise along the Black Sea, filled with shining aluminum furniture? What was in that prison water, anyway?
  2. marly youmansApril 16, 2014 at 12:29 PM
    Completely fascinating and illuminating journey through the book. That doesn't mean I will read it, of course.

    Perhaps they all stopped around p. 300... I always want to do something like that to "David Copperfield." As soon as he goes off to the "proper" school, I know it's downhill.
    1. scott g.f.baileyApril 16, 2014 at 2:10 PM
      Maybe there are a lot more readers like me than I thought: I can tell you the middle of lots of novels but draw a blank when I get to the final act. That's convenient for me as a re-reader. As a writer, that makes me put a lot of effort into the middles of my own books, I think. Or perhaps it makes me a middling reader/writer. I have not figured that out yet.

      There is no compelling reason for you to read What is to be Done? except to compare it to other books. I might have a different opinion after I re-read Notes from Underground, but I doubt it.
    2. marly youmansApril 17, 2014 at 8:09 PM
      I'm always glad to have a bad memory when I reread a favorite book...

      You don't read for plot, so why should it matter about the final act?

      I hope the flu is gone!
  3. RTApril 16, 2014 at 4:15 PM
    I cannot say anything sensible about what you are reading or what you are saying, but I can -- with full commitment to the sentiment -- wish you a speedy recovery from the dreaded flu. Ah, those viruses are amazing, aren't they? Tiny, microscopic critters can make us miserable. They can destroy us. We are humbled by them. But we can fight them. So, fight the good fight! Get well soon!

    BTW . . . I look forward to what you have to say about Notes from Underground. When I read it, I was mesmerized. Is that too strong of a word? Perhaps. But I really was blown away by it. Enjoy!
    1. scott g.f.baileyApril 16, 2014 at 4:34 PM
      Thanks for the exhortation to fight the good fight! I sometimes hope that a draw is my best chance. Two months ago the flu got me into the hospital. I am trying to have better luck this time out.

      I've read Notes twice already, once about 25 years ago (maybe longer ago than that), and again about eight years ago. So it will be interesting to see what I think.
  4. RTApril 16, 2014 at 4:37 PM
    Repeat readings are always adventures. Those readings have a way of "correcting" our first impressions in interesting ways. I will stay tuned for whenever you comment about that little gem of a book.
  5. Amateur Reader (Tom)April 16, 2014 at 6:51 PM
    End of April, I'll get writing at the end of the month. I don't like to write seriously about a book until I have finished it. I think of this as training, but I can also think of some less flattering words, like neurosis.

    Now, RT's word, "mesmerized" - that sounds about right.

    Now I will go read a chunk of the end of Chernyshevsky's novel while listening to the Jackson 5's Greatest Hits, which I hope will cheer me onwards.
    1. scott g.f.baileyApril 16, 2014 at 9:08 PM
      Easy as 1-2-3.
    2. scott g.f.baileyApril 17, 2014 at 10:54 AM
      I have found, to my surprise, that I most enjoy writing about novels while I'm in the thick of reading them, while I'm caught up in the author's web of tricks. When I'm done, my enthusiasm is always tempered with the urge toward evaluation, which acts as a wet blanket on my initial joy of the reading experience. So I try to write while the flame is still burning, as it were. Otherwise, I find myself doing little but summarizing and forgetting to mention the really brilliant or surprising parts of the book.

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