I USED to ask my students which Russian novel had been a
surprise to them. The answer was always the same: Oblomov.
They had been amazed and delighted to discover Ivan Goncharov and
his lovable, indolent anti-hero, in whom they never failed to find
something of themselves.
This is strange, because Oblomov is representative of a specific
class of superfluous noblemen, at a particular stage of Russian
history before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. They lived
luxurious and parasitical lives, with immense wealth, and
limitless, undemanding sex with serf-girls; they sought (but did
not find) relief from boredom in gambling and duelling; and they
remained politically and personally immature, sheltered from the
responsibilities and challenges of life and love. Oblomov (the name
sounds like a big, fat blob of falling snow) takes the deadly sin
of sloth to pathological extremes.
The story begins: "Ilya Ilyich Oblomov was lying in bed one
morning . . ." and he stays there for the first 168 pages, until
mid-afternoon, incidentally preserving, as in a play, the classical
unities of space, time, and theme.
A fast reader could manage this part in real time, following
Oblomov's agonies of procrastination, introspection, timidity, and
self-delusion; meeting his ghastly, predatory visitors; getting to
know his equally lazy and collusive manservant, Zahar; and dreaming
the dream of his ancestral village, Oblomovka, where, every
evening, "The peasants thanked God that nothing had happened that
day and prayed that nothing would happen tomorrow, either."
Yet Goncharov makes him attractive, with the guileless charm of
a chubby child, all wrapped up and cosy, open-hearted and
endearing, trusting and affectionate. In contrast, one of his
visitors is an investigative journalist, who describes his own work
as consisting of "Burning malice, bitter denunciations of vice,
contemptuous laughter at fallen humanity - that's everything!"
Oblomov's response is "Give me man, man. Love him!" He
represents the broad humanity (chelovechnost') of the
Russian (and Russian Orthodox) tradition at its best: its endless
sympathy with sinners; its understanding of the injured and the
insulted, the poor in spirit, the unsuccessful, and the losers in
He is, after all, one of them himself, and he helps us see that
we are, too. Sloth or laziness is the one sin of which almost all
penitents accuse themselves. Perhaps one of the reasons why we feel
guilty is that we sense that sloth involves wasting time, time that
is a uniquely valuable gift of God, indistinguishable from the gift
of life itself.
Two friends actively try to save Oblomov from himself. One is
half-German. His name, Stolz, means "proud" or "pride". The other
is Olga, the idolised and idealised Russian woman who loves him,
and whom he scarcely raises the energy to love in return.
Like Molière before him, Goncharov knows that the only power on
earth that can penetrate the defences of a strong man, armed with
his own neuroses, is the power of love. The personal tragedy in
what is otherwise a social comedy is that Olga's self-sacrificial
love is not enough. Oblomov sinks back into his dressing gown, and
into the arms of his buxom landlady, Agafya, more mother than wife.
Olga and Stolz marry each other, united by their love of their
The dressing gown is a prime example of an ordinary, everyday
object, which becomes a symbol. It was the origin of a new word in
the Russian language - khalatnost', the quality of life
lived in a dressing gown. Other examples, among many, are the dirty
windows, which make the outside world seem so uninviting, and
Agafya's plump and dimpled elbows.
Goncharov combines clear-sighted introspection with acute
observation. He excels in the transformation of the obvious into
the significant; and it is this semi-sacramental understanding of
the meaningfulness of the ordinary and everyday which keeps us
turning the pages of a book in which very little happens.
He unites the personal and psychological with the social and
political; he makes the individual universal; and, like the Dickens
he loved, he knows how to interweave a tragic tale with uproarious,
Goncharov himself led an uneventful life. He never married, he
spent more than a decade on Oblomov, and he wrote
practically nothing in the last 23 years of his life. Meanwhile,
the notion of Oblomovshchina (another new word spawned by
the book) played a part in political debates in which he took no
Still, he did sail round the world in the frigate
Pallas, itself a symbol of the ambiguity of the concept of
sloth. Is the circumnavigation of the globe an adventurous
activity, or is it an excuse for prolonged inactivity?
Oblomov would be the ideal book to take on a long cruise,
while pondering this question, but not actually doing anything
Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov is published in Everyman's Library
Classics (among other editions) at £10.99; 978-1-85715-124-4.
Ivan Goncharov has been compared favourably to Dostoevsky and
Tolstoy. Would you agree that Oblomov is a
classic of Russian literature?
How easy was the book to read?
Do you need to be conversant with Russian history to appreciate
the novel, or is its story accessible to all?
What social problems lie in the background to Oblomov's
Why does Oblomov find it so hard to make decisions or rouse
himself to action?
"He came to rack and ruin, though for no apparent reason." What
name would you give to the "disease of Oblomovka"?
How would you compare Oblomov's and Stolz's approaches to
Was Oblomov's and Olga's relationship doomed from the start?
Why do you think Oblomov consented to marry Agafya? What did she
offer that Olga did not?
Why was Zakhar so loyal to the memory of Oblomov?
Unlike Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but like Turgenev and Chekhov,
Goncharov does not deal with specifically religious questions.
Where is faith to be found in Oblomov?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 July, we will print extra
information about the next book. This is A Walk across
the Sun by Corban Addison. It is
published by Quercus at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20);
Corban Addison was born in 1979, and spent his childhood in
Indiana and Southern California. His first degree was in
engineering from the California Polytechnic State University, which
he followed with a second at the University of Virginia, in law. He
practised as a corporate lawyer before turning to writing
full-time. His literary work began when he was 15; he would write
reflections, essays, and travelogues for his own enjoyment. He now
lives in Virginia with his wife and two daughters. His interests
include international travel, and human-rights issues, including
Ahalya and Sita, teenage sisters, lose their family and home
when a tsunami hits their Indian coastal village. They decide to
seek shelter at the convent where they were educated, but are
abducted as they make their way there, and sold to a Mumbai
brothel-owner. Thomas Clarke is a lawyer from the United States
taking a sabbatical after a family tragedy, who uses the break from
work to accept a post with an anti-trafficking organisation. When
he learns of the sisters and their fate, he decides to make their
rescue a personal mission.
Books for the next two months:
August: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold
Fry by Rachel Joyce
September: Burying the Typewriter by