Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Sieve: The Strong-Woman Motif

Given that I may or may not have been literally sleeping in a library for the past few days, I've spent a lot of time browsing shelves. Around 4am a few nights ago I happened upon a dusty old volume titled The Transformation of Russian Society, originally published in 1960. It's essentially a thick collection of academic papers addressing various aspects of Russian and Soviet culture, but the one I'm about to excerpt for you, "The Strong-Woman Motif", stuck out to me. It doesn't seem to be available anywhere online, either, so consider this my mitzvah for the day. Bolded are bits I especially liked/found provoking.
"The glorification of women in current Soviet fiction is more convincing than that of men. The heroine, in contrast to the hero, shows consistently fullness of character: tsel'nost'. It is a multifaceted character of wide range, encompassing positive qualities such as selflessness, endurance, generosity, ability to adjust to stress, ability to solve immediate problems. One of the foremost properties of tsel'nost', a term much less fuzzy than 'wholeness,' is unselfconsciousness. Moreover, in contrast to the man, the woman represents strength which is derived from an ability to relate actively to society, to the collective, to the family.


The strong-woman motif finds no parallel in a series of male counterparts, who, to begin with, frequently stand for ideas. The heroine preempts the hero's place. She might even personify a reproach against the restlessness, escapism, and narrowness found in the Onegins, Chatskys, Pechorins, Beltovs, Raiskys. Strong men seem to be punished for their masculinity and self-assertion with early death. This is the case with Bazarov, Insarov, Bolkonsky. The longevity and softness of the slumbering Oblomov, the giant of low vitality, makes the point.

...Men qua men are disappointing. Oblomov is incapable of the simplest salvation offered him by Olga. The technicalities of a wedding are too much for him. Onegin, stronger by far and man that he is, assumes the frustrating posture of brotherly love...

The singularly non-Victorian heroine gives herself spontaneously and, if need be, commits adultery for the sake of full participation. Tatiana's dream marks the acceptance of Onegin's dangerously evasive reality and her strength is expressed in that frustrating surrender... The very motif of the strong woman makes it possible to mention Ostrovsky's untutored, primitive Katerina side by side with the refined gentlewomen. He presents her as a result of an oppressive milieu of the heavy and cruel kupechestvo. But the important thing is that Katerina acts when driven toward fulfillment. Having enacted the storm of her life, she leaves her weak husband to his desolation and in envy of her courage. Her lover likewise is weak while in contrast Katerina's strength is monumental.


The courage to involve oneself fully was seen in its connection with the feminine ability to love and to act. The nuptial scene in On the Eve is a motto for many novels. Insarov warns Elena of the hardships ahead: exile, poverty, humiliation. To all this she replies: 'I know. I know everything... I love you.' 'Welcome, then, my wife in front of the people and in front of God!'

Elena knows. But Nekrasov's countess, Volkonskaia, does not. A bride at eighteen, raised in the greenhouse of the Pushkin era, she has no notion of her husband's political activities. She hardly knows him. When he is arrested, unquestioning loyalty determines her martyrdom--in her mind, he cannot be dishonorable. ... When she joins her husband in a Siberian mine, she kneels before him and kisses his chains. Astonishing as it may seem, this romantic narrative has never been considered sentimental. This is germane to the argument of the extra-literariness of the motif. Nekrasov measures integrity in terms of commitment to primary loyalty in the face of threats, both intrinsic and extrinsic. If there is anything this young woman knows it is that the state, the tsar, the mighty are wrong. Her loyalty is of an ecstatic nature, and her strength rests in love.

It is notable that the 'strong man' is reluctant to entier into primary loyalties. Chernyshevsky spelled out the program of abstinence for his bristling radical. Innocence, generosity, spontaneity, essential ingredients of tsel'nost', are not Rakhmetov's qualities. He has no drives--he is all brain...

Gorky's victim of 1905, the revolutionary Pavel, admonishes an underground comrade against marriage: 'You shall live for the sake of a piece of bread, for your children, for your house; and you shall both be lost to the cause, both!'

...The denial of love is an essential attribute of the revolutionary man who fears dissipation of strength, diffusion, submersion in autrui...

Oblomov can do only one thing: submit. Raskolnikov's cerebration, far from being submissive, represents also only one state: alienation. The split in Raskolnikov, as the name implies, describes him fully. He indeed stands in contrast to tsel'nost'. In Russian fiction, only a man can be so split. To be sure, only a man can be a Prince Myshkin. The Idiot's impotence, Raskolnikov's alienation, Oblomov's phlegma, all are unthinkable in a heroine."
This will not be the last you see of this article.

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