Madness in Russian Literature

Within Russian literature the theme of madness is central to many famous pieces. Works by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol and Aleksandr Pushkin all discuss the issue of madness. This theme of madness stems from the large separation between the classes in St. Petersburg. All of the main characters in these stories hold positions that are the lowest possible within the social order of Russia. Their madness stems from a lack of freedom. The root cause of the epidemic of insanity is lack of freedom among the peasant class.

One of Pushkin’s most famous works, “The Bronze Horseman”, tells a story of Eugene, a civil servant from the poor city of Kolomna. As a civil servant Eugene goes unnoticed. This demonstrates the unimportance of his position is within society. Eugene is engaged, but has no prospects of becoming a person of any importance. He envies the “men of leisure” who are “endowed with luck … not with brains” (135). His discouraging situation gets worse after a storm ravages the city of St. Petersburg. As a result, Eugene looses his house and his fianci?? but most importantly he looses his mind.

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Eugene was faced with having to start his life over from scratch, but even before the storm he had almost nothing. What drove Eugene mad was not that he was starting with nothing, but that even after working hard to restore his life he would still be living a life that had no hope. Peter established the social structure that prevented Eugene from doing anything beyond a civil servant. Within this social framework equality is not possible; a rich man would stay rich just as a poor man would stay poor.

Towards the end of the poem Eugene facedthe bronze statue of Peter the Great and cursed him for all that he lost in the storm. During his crazed state Eugene imagines Peter chasing him atop his horse. Eugene’s actions point out the fact that the social structure will not allow an unimportant man to be anything but unimportant. The second story, Nevsky Prospect, written by Nikolai Gogol describes the same social phenomenon to Pushkin’s. The story follows two acquaintances, each of whom follow a beautiful woman they see on the street.

The first part of the story tells of a poor, romantic painter named Piskarev. Piskarevfollows a dark-haired woman to a brothel. Howeverhis interest in the woman is innocent, and he is shocked to find her true nature and runs off. He returns home and begins dreaming of her and decides that they are in love. His imagination turns to madness when he decides to propose to her. Realizing that he is madshe mocks him, he returns to his home and cuts his throat. No one attends his funeral. The second part of the story follows an officer, Lieutenant Pirogov.

Pirogov is very much Piskarev ‘s foil, in that he is realistic, high ranking, has power and never goes mad. Pirgov follows a blonde woman to her home. After seducing her, heis caught with the woman in his arms and is beaten. Pirogov is at first furious and determined to seek revenge, but calms down by eating puff pastries, reading a newspaper and spending an evening dancing. This story presents two characters who differ in one important aspect; they are from two very different social standings. The outcome of their situations is a result of the social framework that they exist in.

Lieutenant Pirogov was a man respected in St. Petersburg society. He had choices and a sense of freedom and when he was beaten up and lost the woman he was in pursuit of he was able to move one because he did not have as much vested in the relationship. He knew that he had a future and that he would find another woman. Piskarev the painter wasan outcast, “(he) belonged to a class which represents quite a strange phenomenon… (he) belonged as much to the citizens of Petersburg as a person who comes in a dream belongs to the real world” (252).

He may have been unusual but it was not his strangeness that resulted in madness, it was the social position he could not escape from. Because he was so low within the socioeconomic framework of St. Petersburg he realized that he had no chance of being a suitor for a beautiful woman, prostitute or not. Without a sense of hope he was left to fabricate a life that could never be. When he was mocked and turned away from his love, he lost his last shred of hope. He had nothing left to live for and killed himself. The final story, The Double,by Fyodor Dostoevsky presents a more complex character in a more complex situation.

Golyadkin isa “minor” civil servant in search of a life greater than his own. The story opens with Golyadkin setting out on a trip to town in an expensive carriage. He carries around 750 roubles, an amount accumulated after years of saving, all to be spent on that day. He goes around town pretending to be a rich man; he makes orders for clothes, furniture and other items he will never buy. His years of saving in preparation for this day tells us that he is not happy with his social standing and wants to feel like someone who holds a higher position.

It becomes clear that Golyadkin’s situation has driven him mad when we learn of his double. He describes his double as sounding the same, looking the same and even having the same name. He begins working at the same office as Golyadkinand to torment Golyadkin in public. Towards the end of the story it becomes clear that the double represents Golyadkin’s subconscious. His subconscious reveals the split between the physical and the mental and his double begins to be all that Golyadkin wants to be; he is decisive, well-liked and successful.

The source of Golyadkin’s madness is not as clear as in The Doubleor The Bronze Horseman, however, it is a result of a man driven crazy by a lack of freedom and hope. Once again we see a man in a very low position within the social structure in St. Petersburg’s, driven mad because he knows that he is unable to improve his circumstances. After looking at each situation, it is necessary to redefine what madness is within the context of these stories. None of these characters actually lost their mind because they were mental, they were slowly broken down by St. Petersburg’s social structure. All of the characters were not mad because they were all right, in a way they were very much in touch with reality.

They did not deny their position, they saw that the circumstances were not fair; they simply could not do anything to change them. Instead of denying their status, they accepted their fate and realized there was no reason why they should remain helpless. For these reasons these characters should not be labeled as mad. Rather their behavior was mad relative to those outsiders who did not understand the flaw in the social structure.

In all three works the theme of madness is fundamental. However, madness is not individual but rather a social phenomenon, which results from the separation between the classes in St. Petersburg. The three authors point out how St. Petersburgwithholds freedom, leaving each character unable to escape their position in society. It is only when all hope is gone that madness takes over. These stories foreshadow the restructuring of the social framework that would take over in the form of communism.

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