This dissertation explores the way nineteenth-century Russian writers depict the lower classes, in particular the Russian peasants, in realist literature. In both the pre- and post-emancipation periods, Slavophiles, Westernizers, radicals, populists, pan-Slavists, and academic authors such as historians and ethnographers all explored the mentality of the Russian people, or narod, and their supposed exemplary moral character. Under the influence of this cultural myth about the lower-class Russian masses’ morality and spirituality, critics of realist literature often claim that lower-class characters possess spiritual strength and collectively forge a Christian brotherhood. Close reading of realist literature, however, reveals that influential writers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Ivan Turgenev also depict the Russian peasants as morally flawed. By uncovering the way such writers subvert the myth of the people’s brotherly union, this research compares the ambivalent portrait of Russian peasants in literature with their idealized image in academic writings. I argue that the realist writers questioned the unambiguously optimistic vision of the Russian people’s unity and called for a universal endeavor to build a Christian brotherhood.
Demarcated from both nineteenth-century intelligentsia and contemporary academics, the realist writers in the age of radicalism were concerned that the spiritual brotherhood of the Russian people was far from emerging. To demonstrate their ambivalent and pessimistic observations on the peasants’ moral condition, I first explore the realist writers’ portrayals of their communal life. In the first chapter, I demonstrate that although academic studies tend to regard peasant communes in Imperial Russia as models for realizing villagers’ mutual love and egalitarian values, realist writers depict peasant characters’ rage, violence, and conflicts in their seemingly collectivist communities. Second, while by traditional lines of inquiry, the Russian people are usually analyzed as humble souls who are willing to suffer for one another, realist writers deviate from this optimistic evaluation in their fiction and portray the peasants as self-destructive, unable to love each other, and even irrationally evil, as I will show in Chapter Two and Chapter Three. Third, realist writers’ portrayals of peasant women and Old Believers, discussed in Chapter Four and Chapter Five, reinforce the impression that the lower-class people fail to realize mutual care and Christian love in their earthly world. In literature, peasant women are shown to be seductive and tragically evil, while sectarian characters are violent and deprived of faith. These peasant figures demonstrate an absence of mutual love and the fall of collective brotherhood in the fictional world of realist writers.
In several chapters, I also pay attention to realist writers’ non-fictional statements in their journalistic or public writings, which may further contrast, complicate, or nuance the seemingly positive images of their peasant characters in literature. For instance, one of the important sources for Chapter One is Dostoevsky’s commentary on the new postreform jury system in A Writer’s Diary. The sources in Chapter Two, on the Russian people’s alcoholism, include Tolstoy’s post-conversion didactic writing. Realist writers’ biographical backgrounds, such as their personal involvement with peasant women or sectarians, are helpful for my analyses in Chapters Four and Five. By focusing on the spiritually troubled and disunited peasants in these writers’ works, this study reveals realist writers’ anxiety that in the lower-class people’s world moral integrity is in peril and a Christian brotherhood is yet to be founded.