Digital Oblomov

A digital companion to Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov

Oblomov’s compassion

This quote comes from the scene of Penkin’s visit when the two men argue over a new novel Penkin suggests Oblomov read. Oblomov refuses, criticizing these modern writers for lack of sympathy to human character. Goncharov allows the reader to sympathize with Oblomov’s romanticism because it is poetic and idealistic. He has the human capacity to dream and believe in the persistence of the human spirit. In characterizing him in this way, Goncharov allows him to step into the shadows of all Don Quixotes of literature.

            “What, would you have me depict nature? Roses, a nightingale, or a frosty morning, meanwhile everything around us is seething and in motion? All we need is the naked physiology of society. We don’t have time for songs now.”

            “A human being. Give me a human being!” said Oblomov. “And love him” (29).

            “Love a moneylender, a hypocrite, a thieving or dim-witted official? Do you hear what you are saying? It’s obvious you don’t read literature!” said Penkin heatedly. “No, they have to be punished, cast out from civil life and society.”

            “Cast out from civil life?” Began Oblomov, suddenly inspired and standing before Penkin. “That means forgetting that this unworthy vessel contains a higher principle. He may be a depraved man, but he is still a man, just like you. Cast him out? But how can you cast him out of the circle or mankind, the lap of nature, and God’s mercy?” he nearly shouted, his eyes blazing.

Oblomovshchina

In poetic language, Oblomov describes for his friend Stolz the ideal life he has created and planned for himself. This life is characterized by quiet strolls, homemade ice cream and the simple delicacies of estate life. Stolz criticizes this dreamlike existence, saying, “You’re drawing me the exact same thing your fathers and grandfathers had” (194). From Oblomovs view, his lifestyle represents a type of “paradise lost” (196) that his ancestors attained. Stolz disagrees, and in introducing his opinion, he coins the word that is now permanently a part of the Russian language.

            Stoltz first uses the word “Oblomovshchina” on page 196. Since then, the word—обломовщина—translated in various English translations as “Oblomovism,” has become a noun in the Russian language that appears in every Russian dictionary.  

            “Until we’re old and gray, to the grave. That’s the life!”

            “No, it’s not!”

            “How is it not? What’s missing? Just think about it. You would never see a single pale face full of suffering, a single care, a single question about the Senate, the stock exchange, shares, reports, meetings with the minister, ranks or allowance increases. And all the conversations to your liking! You would never have to move from your apartment—that alone is worth it! That isn’t the life?”

            “No, it’s not!” repeated Stolz stubbornly.

            “Then what is it, in your opinion?”

            “It’s …” Stolz began to think and search for what to call this life. “It’s … Oblomovshchina,” he said at last.

            “O-blo-mov-shchi-na!” Ilya Ilich pronounced it slowly, amazed at this strange word and breaking it into syllables. “Ob-lo-mov-shchi-na!”

            He stared strangely at Stolz.

            “Where does life’s ideal lie, in your opinion? What is it if not Oblomovshchina?” he asked timidly, deflated. “Doesn’t everyone want what I dream of? Gracious!” he added more boldly. “You mean the purpose of all your running, passions, wars, commerce, and politics isn’t your portion of serenity, not the desire for this ideal of paradise lost?”

            “Even your utopia is Oblomovan,” objected Stolz. (196)

обломовщин|а,ы f. ‘oblomovism’ (sluggishness and indecision, as typified by the hero of Goncharov’s novel ‘Oblomov’). Oxord Russian-English Dctionary. 2nd ed. 1984.

обломовщин|а,ы f. Oblomovism, lethargy, apathy. Oxford Russian Dictionary. 3rd ed. 2000.

(Note: the word can be found between обломаться—”to break off,” “snap,” or “fail” and обломок—”fragment” or “debris,” the diminutive of облом, (the noun from обломаться) meaning “breaking off,” “failure” or “misfortune.”

Oblomov’s purpose

In this scene, Olga and Oblomov discuss the purpose of life. Olga appears distressed at Oblomov’s lack of happiness, drive and purpose. She states that the purpose is, “to live” (254). With this series of exchanges, Goncharov criticizes the danger of purposelessness. Oblomov exhibits the attitude of someone who 20th Century psychologists would call depressed. Goncharov may be trying to say something about he importance of having a purpose—some type of work—in order to live successfully. This philosophy appears in many 19th Century Russian novels; for example, Turgenev tackles the harmfulness of living without a clear purpose in his Fathers and Sons and Chekhov does similarly in his plays The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard.

            “Let’s walk as far as the wood,” she said, letting him carry her basket, while she herself opened her parasol, straightened her dress, and set out.

            “Why aren’t you more cheerful?” she asked.

            “I don’t know, Olga Sergeyevna. Why should I be cheerful? And how??

            “Take up some interest, spend more time with people.”

            “Take up some interest! You can take something up when you have a purpose. What purpose do I have? None.”

            “The purpose is to live.”

            “When you don’t know what you’re living for, you don’t care how you lived from one days to the next. You’re happy the days has passed and the night has come, and in your sleep you bury the tedious question of what you lived for that day and what you are going to live for tomorrow” (254).

You can only fall in love once

This sequence of Olga’s thoughts uses the theory that you can only true fall in love once to justify the possible imperfection in her relationship with Stolz. In a sense, she has already loved Oblomov, so it is difficult to love like that again. This passage also illustrates the sincerity of her love for him, which she names as love. Goncharov inserts passages like these to ask the reader to identify Oblomov as worthy of extreme love, and ask just what qualities he offers to encourage that feeling.

“Even if she wanted to leave this love behind, how could she? The deed was done. She already loved him, and one could not shed love at will, like a dress. People love only once in life, she though. Anything else is immoral, or so they say. So she studied her love, tested it, and met each new step with a tear or a smile and pondered it. Then would appear that concentrated expression that concealed both tears and a smile and that frightened Oblomov so. Of these thoughts and this struggle, though, she made no mention to Oblomov” (298).

Love me as I am

These two passages explore the failure of Olga and Oblomov’s love to come to fruition. Plagued by Oblomov’s lack of confidence and final surrender, Olga remains mystified as to the root cause of this seemingly useless struggle.

            In the end, Oblomov answers the question himself, repeating Stolz’s earlier diagnosis. The scene demonstrates one of the central tensions of the text. For readers, Oblomov presents a challenge: Is Oblomov a character to be pitied? The contrast between the genuine agony of this failure of love—the cold and hot tears—and the comedy of Oblomov’s “disease” presents readers with a choice. Should we appreciate the sentimentalism of the text or accept the impossibility of Oblomov to get off his metaphysical couch and seize this love? Can we do both?

            “Farewell, farewell,” burst from her between sobs.

            He was silent and listened, aghast, to her tears, not daring to hinder them. He felt pity neither for her nor for himself; he himself was too much to be pitied. She lowered herself into her chair, pressed her handkerchief to her head, leaned on the table, and wept bitterly. Tears did not gush in an exploding hot stream, as from sudden sharp pain, as before in the park, but fell dismally, in cold streams, like an autumn rain mercilessly flooding the fields.

            “Olga,” he said at last, “Why are you torturing yourself? Perhaps I am not worthy of happiness, but spare yourself! You love me. You won’t survive our separation! Take me as I am. Love what is good in me.”

            She shook her head but did not look up.

            “No,” she finally gathered the strength to say. “Fear not for me and my grief. I know myself. I will cry these tears and then will cry no more. But now, don’t keep me from crying. Go away. Oh, no wait! God is punishing me! It hurts, oh, it hurts so much—her in my heart.”

            The sobs recommenced. (405-406)

It follows with one of the most poignant passages of the novel—and one that we chose to analyze in our Translation section of the Tumblr:

            “What if you die?” he said, suddenly aghast. “Think about it, Olga.”

            “No,” she interrupted, raising her head and trying to look at him through her tears. “I learned only recently that I loved in you what I wanted there to be in you, what Stolz pointed out to me, what he and I had invented. I loved the future Oblomov! You are meek and honest, Ilya. You are as gentle as a dove. You hide your head under your wing—and want nothing more. You are prepared to coo in the rafters all your life. But I’m not like that. That is not enough for me. I need something else, but what that is, I don’t know! Can you teach me, tell me what it is, what I am lacking, give me all this so that I—But tenderness…that is easy to find!” (406)

Goncharov provides an answer to this dilemma—this failure of love—on the following page. It isn’t a lack in her, but a manifestation in him.

            ““Why did it all dies?” she asked suddenly, looking up. “Who cursed you, Olya? What did you do? You’re so good, and smart, and kind, and noble…and… you’re dying! What destroyed you? There is no name for this evil.”

            “Yes, there is,” he said, barely audibly.

            She looked at him with eyes full of questions and tears.

            “Oblomovshchina!” he whispered, and then took her hand and was about to kiss it but couldn’t so he pressed it firmly to his lips, and his hot tears fell on her fingers. Without looking up or showing her his face, he turned and left” (407).

Agafya Matveyevna

            As Oblomov falls in love with the hard-working white elbows and full bosom of his landlady that he can view through the doorway to the kitchen, it is clear that Agafya Matveyevna returns some of these sentiments. This section of text demonstrates her religious devotion to his well-being. Her love for him has gone beyond a simple, curious infatuation with everything that separates him from her past husband—his white, manicured hands; his slow, purposeful purposelessness; and his natural nobility.

            Goncharov demonstrates similar feelings for Oblomov in Agafya, Olga and Stolz. Each character appears inexplicably drawn towards something in him. Perhaps it is his honesty, or the fact that he doesn’t expect much from others. Agafya, like Olga, wants to care for Oblomov, and in a way cure him, as she does in forcing him to get regular exercise later in the story as his health deteriorates. Perhaps it is this unnamable attractive quality that draws both characters and readers to Oblomov.

            “Her entire household—the pounding, the ironing, the sifting, and so forth—everything had taken on a new and vital purpose: Ilya Ilich’s tranquility and comfort. Previously, she had seen this as her obligation; now it had become her pleasure. In her own way, she had begun to live fully and variously.

            She was unaware of what was happening to her, though. She never questioned herself and took up this sweet yoke unconditionally, without resistance or enthusiasm, without a murmur, without passion, without vague presentiments or languors, and without any play or music of her nerves.

            Suddenly it was as if she had converted to another faith, which she confessed without debate as to what kind of faith it was or what dogmas it held, submitting blindly to its laws.

            This had come to rest on her all of its own accord, and she bore it like a cloud, neither taking a step back nor running ahead. She came to love Oblomov very simply, as if she had caught a chill and been gripped by an incurable fever.

            She herself never suspected a thing. If someone had told her, it would have been news to her; she would have grinned and blushed” (419-420).

And a paragraph later, Goncharov writes:

            “Had anyone asked her whether she loved him, she would have grinned again and replied in the affirmative, but she would have replied he same way when Oblomov had only lived with her for a week” (420).

Now or Never

One of the big questions of the novel deals with whether Oblomov will leave his home in Saint Petersburg and join his friend Stolz abroad. Though his attitude suggests the impossibility of this move, Stolz’s eagerness provides a window of possibility. This conversation occurs after his time—over a year—spent abroad. He confronts Oblomov as to the reason he never accepted his invitation to leave Russian and settle in Europe with him. Here, he repeats that essential Oblomovian paradigm, “Now or never,” concluding that Oblomov clearly chose ‘never.’

            “After dinner, once the table had been cleared, Oblomov had the champagne and seltzer water left in the arbor and remained there alone with Stolz.

            For a while they said nothing. Stolz looked at him long hard.

            “Well, Ilya?” he said at last, but so sternly and pointedly that Oblomov looked down and said nothing.

            “Well I guess it’s ‘never’ then?”

            “What’s ‘never’?” asked Oblomov, as if he didn’t understand.

            “Have you already forgotten? ‘Now or never!’”

            “I’m not like that now, like I was then, Andrei,” he said at last. My affairs are in order, thank God, I don’t lie around idly, my plan is nearly complete, I subscribe to two journals, and I’ve read nearly all the books your left me.”

            “Why didn’t you go abroad?” asked Stolz.

            “I was detained from going abroad by….”

            He stammered.

            “Olga?” said Stolz, looking at him expressively.

            Oblomov blushed furiously. (428)

The Slap

This action stands out in Oblomov because it is the only time Ilya Ilich actually acts out of character. His violence here, however, is justified; perhaps it is even due. Tarantiev had been swindling Oblomov by taking his money and not managing his estate. In this scene, Oblomov defends the honour of his two true friends—his best friend Stolz and his former lover Olga. Though he may be lazy, Oblomov does not suffer fools lightly. This sincere action—when he slaps Tarantiev—illustrates the seriousness of his affection for these two people.

            “I’m going to shout,” howled Tarantiev. “Let that blockhead disgrace himself! Let that German swindler cheat you, seeing as now he’s ganged up with your lover.”

            A loud slap rang out in the room. Struck in the cheek by Oblomov, Tarantiev fell silent instantly, dropped into a chair, and rolled his addled eyes in astonishment (491).

Coffin of his existence

Goncharov demonstrates three things with this passage here. First, he alludes to the “nature versus nurture” dialectic to depict Oblomov’s lifestyle as a reflection of his past—the lazy, spoon-fed existence of the aristocracy at Oblomovka. Oblomov will never grow up to be a gladiator because he wasn’t trained as on. Second, he suggests that the choice Oblomov makes—to secede to this easy and aristocratic impulse—represents a moral and psychological death. Rather than act independently and with firm agency, Oblomov chooses what is easy. And third, Goncharov contrasts this death with evidence of normal life. He shows that Oblomov’s decision doesn’t result in death; he continues to live. His capacity to live on in this limited, privileged environment says something about the evils of the 19th Century Russian gentry, who remained rich and happy by exploitation and sloth.

            “This was the philosophy worked out by the Oblomovks Plato, a philosophy which lulled him amid the issues and strict demands of duty and purpose! He had been born and reared not like a gladiator, for the arena, but as a peaceful spectator of the battle. It was not for the meek and lazy soul to endure either the alarms of happiness or life’s blows. Consequently, his person expressed one of life’s extremes, and he did nothing to achieve, change, or repent.

            With the years, upheavals and remorse arose less often, and he quietly and gradually fit himself into the simple and wide coffin of the remainder or his existence, a coffin made by his own hands, like the elders in the desert who, turning away from life, dig themselves a grave.

            He had ceased to dream of organizing his estate or of the entire household there. The bailiff installed by Oblomov sent him quite a decent income punctually, just before Christmas and muzhiks brought in their grain and poultry, and the house bloomed with abundance and merriment” (522).

Oblomov’s new family

            At the end of the novel, after many years have passed, Stolz comes to collect Oblomov at his home in Petersburg. He wants to bring him out to live with him and his wife Olga. The German is newly astonished at Oblomov’s lack of progress—as if, without his trusting friend, he might have escaped the “coffin” (522) he created of his life. Olga waits for Oblomov in the carriage outside while Stolz tries unsuccessfully to convince him, once and for all, to change. He is shocked that Oblomov not only did not marry Olga (who is now his wife), but married his landlady and had a child by her.

            “Is this you, Ilya?” he reproached him. “You’re pushing me away, and for her, for that woman! My God!” he nearly shouted as if from sudden pain. “This child I just saw…Ilya! Run away from here. Let’s go, and quickly! How you have fallen! This woman….what is she to you?”

            “My wife!” Oblomov said the words calmly.

            Stolz turned to stone.

            “And that child is my son! I named him Andrei in your honor!” Oblomov finished in one fell swoop and calmly caught his breath, having shed his burden of candor” (532).