The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

The superfluous man

BEFORE

1812–24 English poet Lord Byron’s characters Childe Harold and Don Juan are the precursors of the superfluous man in Russian literature.

AFTER

1840 Mikhail Lermontov’s only novel, A Hero of Our Time, builds on the superfluous man theme with its hero Grigory Pechorin, a Byronic figure desperate for activity that will stave off his world-weariness.

1850 In the figure of the Hamlet-like Tchulkaturin, Ivan Turgenev’s novella The Diary of a Superfluous Man further develops the idea of the idealistic, inactive man.

1859 Idle dreamer Oblamov, in Ivan Goncharov’s novel of the same name, epitomizes the laziness and inertia of the superfluous man’s character.

Like the main protagonist in Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) was killed in a duel. In spite of this early end to his career, he is considered to be Russia’s greatest poet. His work was extremely influential, particularly his masterpiece Eugene Onegin, whose eponymous hero established the concept and character of “the superfluous man”.

A disillusioned individual, often born into wealth and privilege, the superfluous man regards the society around him with boredom, cynicism, and lack of interest, at the same time feeling himself to be morally and intellectually superior.

A life unfulfilled

Set in imperial Russia during the 1820s, Eugene Onegin is written in the form of “a novel in verse”, as Pushkin called it. It follows the life and destiny of Eugene Onegin, a bored landowning man about town; his friend Vladimir Lensky, a young, romantic dreamer; and the beautiful and intelligent Tatyana Larina and her vain and flirtatious sister, Olga. Tatyana falls in love with Onegin, but is rejected by him because he does not want “life restricted to living in domestic bliss”. Unable or unwilling to prevent tragedy, he fights a duel with Lensky, leaves his estate for some years, and returns to find that Tatyana has married someone else.

Lonely destiny

Writing in a lively and often ironic tone, Pushkin not only describes the lives of his main characters, but also introduces a large cast of other individuals. He realistically depicts scenes from Russian life and there are numerous wide-ranging literary references and philosophical observations, some satirizing the society of the time.

At the end, Eugene Onegin, who has spent most of his life distancing himself from those around him, is left regretting his lonely destiny. Pushkin’s superfluous man was adopted by other writers and embedded as a recurring motif in much Russian literature of the 1840s and 1850s.

See also: Tristram Shandy • A Hero of Our Time