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  • Consequences of Consciousness: Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy
  • Anna Schur (bio)
Donna Tussing Orwin . Consequences of Consciousness: Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy. Stanford University Press. 2007. 256. US$55.00

Donna Tussing Orwin's fine examination of nineteenth-century Russian psychological prose begins with a discussion of its preconditions and peculiarities. Orwin argues that the models of identity emphasizing autonomy and individualism essential for the emergence of psychological realism were imported, via philosophy and literature, from the West. Striving to reproduce, in their own lives, the behaviour of the characters they admired, educated Russians were at the same time conscious of the fact that they were imitating foreign models. And it was this self-consciousness of the Russian modern self that gave Russian psychological prose its distinctive shape and theme. In a series of insightful readings, Orwin traces how Russian literature from Karamzin to Tolstoy was growing increasingly critical of the 'bookish' character of denaturalized Russian identity wrought by imitation of Western characters and ideas.

Another characteristic of Russian psychological realism stressed by Orwin is what she sees as an unusually high respect for subjectivity. Focusing above all on the early writings of Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, Orwin masterfully examines their different strategies for representing subjectivity without 'demeaning it.' Turgenev shows respect for subjectivity by never describing it 'in detail or precisely.' Dostoevsky does not explain his characters but, rather, allows them 'to explain themselves.' And even Tolstoy, who unlike Dostoevsky often flaunts his authorial presence, still gives his characters, including morally problematic characters like Stiva Oblonsky, 'the freedom to speak [their] mind and to defend [themselves].' All three authors value the individual, the particular, the subjective over the general, the abstract, the theoretical. All three assert the ultimate unknowability of other people's internal worlds and allow the subject to retain its [End Page 359] 'original 'subjective' appearance and complexity.' And all three point to the yearning for wholeness and completion typical of the self-conscious Russian self.

It is not always clear, however, what Orwin means by subjectivity. Initially, she defines subjectivity as 'the inner life and perspective of each individual.' Soon afterwards she restricts subjectivity to 'the emotional, pre-rational material' that she opposes to reason and analysis. Sometimes, subjectivity seems to be associated with self-consciousness; other times with spontaneity. Subjectivity means one thing when Dostoevsky is described as 'the most subjective of the Russian psychological realists' because he most insists on the uniqueness of the individual personality. And it means something else when Dostoevsky is said to be 'especially careful to cleanse his works of subjectivity, and to put as great a distance as he could between himself as a story teller and his finished product.'

Besides theoretical clarity with regard to subjectivity, one may also occasionally wish for a fuller substantiation for some of Orwin's opinions. The reader of Flaubert, for example, may puzzle over Orwin's assertion that Tolstoy shows 'greater respect' for Anna's subjectivity than Flaubert does for Emma's. And the reader of, say, George Eliot or Thomas Hardy may ask for evidence to support the related broader claim that European psychological prose 'tended to be more reductive' than Russian prose. Other assertions might have been strengthened by engaging opposing arguments. Orwin's choice of Dostoevsky's Gorianchikov as an example of introspection and 'reflection' is a case in point. As Orwin explains, the word reflection in the special Russian sense she uses it means excessive self-consciousness. But it is precisely Gorianchikov's ability to analyze and to know himself that has been compellingly questioned by a number of critics. And although Orwin cites one of them in her footnotes, her decision not to address the challenge these opposing arguments present is regrettable, for it adversely affects her own reading.

In spite of these problems Orwin's study is a must-read for anybody interested in nineteenth-century Russian literature and in literary representations of consciousness more broadly. Orwin's original readings of literary texts and her illuminating examination of their intellectual contexts have much to offer to specialists and non-specialists alike. But Orwin's most impressive contribution lies in tracing the complicated interactions between Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy...


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pp. 359-360
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