Shchedrin: The Golovlyov Family

January 16, 2014

Jane Austen famously described Emma as a heroine her readers would not like very much; Shchedrin creates an entire family of repugnant individuals and yet manages to fascinate the reader with their lives.

The Golovlyovs possess a number of linked estates somewhere in the vastnesses of nineteenth century Russia, around the time of the emancipation of the serfs (1862). They are all obsessed with money, are greedy, wastrels, feckless – they have almost no redeeming features. The hero of the story is a hypocrite in the tradition of Tartuffe, using religion to bolster himself and persuade others of the rightness of what he does (although the author interrupts his narrative to explain to us that he is not a Tartuffe!) or a Bulstrode, who feels that God shines on him and blesses his ill-gotten gains.

Any yet, the successive generations of the family acquire wealth without gaining any happiness or contentment from it; ultimately (when it’s too late) they come to some vague realisation that there was no point to what they spent their entire lives doing; they die miserable, lonely, unloved deaths, or kill themselves.

I often found myself asking what Shchedrin wanted to achieve with this novel. Obviously, wealth does not bring happiness; obviously there are hypocrites everywhere; perhaps ‘look at these worthless people who inhabit our Russia today’? Not really the basis for a three-hundred page novel…

I wouldn’t want you to get the impression I didn’t enjoy the book. On the contrary, it’s compulsive reading: I wanted to know how low the characters would actually stoop in trying to score points off each other, would they eventually get their come-uppance, were there any decent people at all in the Golovlyov family? Shchedrin’s creation and development of his characters is masterly: they sink convincingly into obsession and mania.

I found myself again thinking: how very different from what English writers were producing at the same time; then I remembered Samuel Butler‘s The Way of All Flesh.

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