The thinking oyster: Turgenev's “drama of dying” as the decay of Russian realism

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The pearl is the illness of the oyster, and style, maybe, the flowing out of a pain more profound. – Gustave Flaubert, in a letter to Louise Colet And we need neither Kant, nor Herodotus To know that an oyster goes not in the nose, but in the mouth. – From the comic poems of Turgenev The theme of this chapter is the interpretation of the agony and death of one of the founders of Russian realism, Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883), in Russian culture of the late realist and early modernist periods. In the first four sections, I will consider the writer's “drama of dying,” which was striking to his contemporaries from a dual point of view: through the prism of his work – the focus of this analysis will be an existential “ante-mortem metaphor” that the writer often used in reference to his grave condition – and the ontology of nineteenth-century Russian realism. In the last sections, I will turn to the idiosyncratic interpretation of Turgenev's demise offered by a leading symbolist poet and critic, Innokentiy Annensky (1855–1909). I conclude that in the eyes of a new, modernist generation, Turgenev's illness and death metonymically expressed the fate of the movement that the writer founded – its inevitable disillusionment, disintegration, and eventual transformation into a new aesthetics, promoted by the Russian symbolists and their descendants. The rhetoric of resistance “Death,” wrote Turgenev's biographer L. S. Utevsky, “is one of the problems [the writer] studied throughout the course of his whole life; he feared death and never forgot about it.” It is one of the main themes that runs through the entire extent of his work. In literary martyrology of the writer, “[t]here is the death of the fighter and the death of the victim, the death of the unlucky and the death of the gambler who fearlessly stakes his life on a card for a moment's pleasure.” The theme of human consciousness in the face of death and the “seemingly inescapable indifference” of nature to human sufferings occupies a central place in Turgenev's works.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationRussian Writers and the Fin De Siecle
Subtitle of host publicationThe Twilight of Realism
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781139683449
ISBN (Print)9781107073210
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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