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  • Moral Apostasy in Russian Literature
  • Andrew R. Durkin
George J. Gutsche. Moral Apostasy in Russian Literature. DeKalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1986. 185 pp. No price given.

Moral Apostasy in Russian Literature consists of studies of six works of Russian literature in various genres (novel, povest' or novella, story, verse narrative, and lyric) and ranging chronologically from the 1830s (Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman) to the 1960s (Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward). As the title suggests, the author focuses on the ethical themes of the works, rather than on formal, genetic, or contextual issues, although these aspects of the works are brought into play where appropriate.

Although moral criticism may seem anachronistic at a time when literary studies have been dominated by successive waves of formal, structural, deconstructive, and psycho-social modes, it can be argued both that these approaches seldom offer a cogent defense of value, either aesthetic or ethical, in literature and that for a variety of reasons (the relative closeness to the religious tradition, the frequent restriction of other avenues for moral or political discourse) precisely these values have been particularly prominent, even dominant, in modern Russian literature. This is not to say that Gutsche treats all the works he discusses simply as protests against official injustice, as didactic Soviet critics were at one time wont to do. For instance, his discussion of Turgenev's On the Eve challenges the picture of its two central characters as paragons of political virtue (a view originating in Dobroliubov and still canonical in Soviet treatments) and points out the psychological sterility underlying their social commitment: objective moral rectitude may in fact be its own form of stultifying convention. Similarly, the treatment of Gorky's "Twenty-six Men and a Girl" stresses the moral autonomy and maturity of a true individual (the girl) as superior to the convention-bound attitudes of the group (the twenty-six men, who are usually taken as the moral center of the work). [End Page 749]

In his analysis of Pasternak's 1930 lyric "Summer," Gutsche argues cogently that the sound structure and literary-historical allusions in the poem point to a deeply encoded but still forceful rejection of brutal government policy (specifically collectivization); one can observe in embryo the philosophical and ethical stance of the later Doctor Zhivago in this poem.

These chapters, along with the one on Cancer Ward, offer stimulating observations; but it may have been preferable to reduce or exclude the chapters on The Bronze Horseman or Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Il'ich," both of which have been commented on extensively in earlier critical literature, in favor of other works by these authors or by such writers as Dostoevsky, Chekhov, or Trifonov, among the numerous Russian authors who directly address moral issues. These objections aside, however, Moral Apostasy in Russian Literature admirably demonstrates the potential of criticism directed toward moral issues.

Andrew R. Durkin
Indiana University


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pp. 749-750
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