Jan 25, 2018 in Literature

The Daughter of the Commandant

It is remarkable that Pushkin was, on one hand, the author of the most famous historical drama of Russian literature, and, on the other, the novelist who has written important historical novel “The Daughter of the Commandant”. Pushkin is a central figure in Russian literature. He is a heir of Classicism and Enlightenment, a main representative of the Romantic era, and a founder of modem Russian literature. Perhaps, this is the very reason why his example of the interplay of shifts in the sense of history and in the choice of poetic genres is a valuable one. His writing style is the one that can hold our attention beyond the narrow limits of purely Russian or Slavic literary studies.

Pushkin's stories were written between 1830 and 1836 in the last years of his life. They were written at the same time as first stories of Gogol, and there is no contrast more striking than that between the styles of these two great writers. The Classic and the Romantic styles (or perhaps “expressionist” would better describe the latter) are embodied in both. But the Russian novel followed neither of them, both of them remaining splendidly sterile. Modern Russian novel again turned to foreign guidance before it finally took the form, which made it known to the wide world. Writers of 1840-1850 like Turgenev, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, and Tolstoy were disciples of George Sand. Today, Pushkin is an idol, a semi-god, but he ceased to be a living hero of his time. The attitudes to Pushkin in the late 19th century in Russia closely resembled the attitudes during English Renaissance and Augustan Age to Shakespeare.

Pushkin has no strong personal views on what is right or wrong in other people. However, he has a profound knowledge of the moral laws that actually govern this world of ours. The intelligentsia has a profound respect for the profession of letters and a deep contempt for the craft. Pushkin thought little of the profession, and much of the craft. These antitheses can be uncountable. But the main difference is clear and is easily explained: Pushkin came from a different Russia than the literature of the intelligentsia. He belonged to another essentially different age. This may seem strange, but there is a big gap in the continuity of Russian cultural and literary tradition, and the line of cleavage falls at the last years of Pushkin's life (Evdokimova, 2003). The men who came of age when Pushkin was about thirty-five, were already people of another world. They spoke a different tongue and had different values. This great breach of tradition may have several explanations, all of which are partially true. There is a political explanation, which stated that after the rising of the Decembrists the reign of Nicholas I put an end to an idyllic unity of civilized Russia of the days of Catherine and Alexander I. State and society became hostile camps, each of which was an object of mistrust and misunderstanding to the other.

First, there is a general historical explanation. The old Europe was dead by 1830. It was the Europe of rotten boroughs, feudal privilege, established churches, divine right, good architecture, and polite learning. Russia, which had been so closely linked to this old Europe by the victories of Peter, by the correspondence of Catherine and by Alexander's entry to Paris, was now floating adrift. It became a fragment of a vanished Atlantis, a solitary and obsolete thing in an alien universe like it was before the days of Peter the Great. It is important to mention that not only the political system of autocracy lived in Russia longer than elsewhere, but that good architecture, the lineal descendant of the Renaissance, flourished at a time when Europe was already plunged into the abomination of Gothic (Shaw, 1963).

Second, there is the social explanation. The rising influence of the educated plebeians, who did not come to supplant the older civilized class, but gradually infused themselves into it, thus creating that curious class of plebs and nobility known as Russian intelligentsia.

Finally, there is an explanation derived from literary history. Pushkin's generation had been brought up on French classical and 18th century literature.

The cumulative effect of these factors may perhaps be sufficient to explain the great gap of the 30s. But such things are essentially inexplicable, like sudden changes in human personality. A greater number of events and changes produced no such effect in the 60s. And as far as it is possible to judge, the gigantic catastrophe of the Revolution also failed to be followed by a revolution in minds. So Pushkin was the last flower of a civilization.

Thus, the themes of mercy and questioning of the legitimacy of rule in “The Daughter of the Commandant” are drawn from many different sources. These themes are brought together in Pushkin's novel with a sort of kaleidoscope effect. “Measure for Measure” exists in “The Daughter of the Commandant” alongside The Heart of Midlothian, “Angelo”. Pushkin provides no hierarchy of realities, which would give precedence to historical over fictional or vice versa. As none of these sources can be privileged over any other, the reader must finally see Pushkin's themes as universal and perceive “The Daughter of the Commandant” as an incarnation of the triangular relationship reflected in many different mirrors of Pushkin's existence.

This recognition of echoing of essential plot and thematic elements has implications beyond the borders of “The Daughter of the Commandant” itself to reader’s understanding of Pushkin's use of western sources in his development of historical novel in Russia. The idea of genre adaptation is an important one to researchers of Russian literature given the astonishingly rapid assimilation of western European literature by Russian writers in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Nevertheless, this idea is little explored. In the case of Pushkin and his use of Scott in his contribution to the development of Russian historical novel, the understanding of generic adaptation seems limited to one of two extremes. Either the process is somewhat mechanical combination of generic traits and individual content, where Pushkin adopts Scott's editor, epigraphs, and setting “Sixty Years Since” and places them in a Russian context. Following D. P. Jakubovich's lead in “The Daughter of the Commandant” is so organically informed by all of Scott's novels that the direct reference to “The Heart of Midlothian” becomes of no interest.

The juxtaposition of Pushkin's novel with its Western literary sources, however, indicates that the process of adaptation from another literary tradition, at least as practiced by Pushkin, is strikingly similar to operations of the creative mind at any other time. After all, neither Scott nor even Shakespeare invented the story, which served as the kernel for “The Daughter of the Commandant”, “The Heart of Midlothian”, and “Measure for Measure”. In the light of mythological or fairy-tale elements in the story commented on by both Lotman and Tillyard, it is hardly possible to credit Giraldi Cinthio with being its originator either (Evdokimova, 2003). By the time Pushkin came along, this story had existed for many centuries in many different national traditions and in many different forms vacillating between drama and prose narrative. The fact that Pushkin himself was aware at least to a certain extent of this history is evident not just from his use of Shakespeare and Scott, but of Shakespeare through Scott.

Moreover, it should be mentioned that Pushkin’s first attempt in the genre of the historical novel is “The Arab of Peter the Great”. It is the story of Pushkin's own great grandfather, the Abyssinian Ibrahim Hannibal, who had been presented to Peter the Great as a gift and who, with czar's encouragement, made a great career for himself. Pushkin fashions the story into a picture of family life and manners of the time of Peter the Great. However, he recognized that to accomplish his objectives he would have to become more intimate with the period. He stopped his work on the manuscript and started to intensively study Peter and his era. To complete it, Pushkin asked for and got permission to consult the documents in the national archives from Czar Nicholas in the early 1830s. His research was substantial and included the era of Catherine. At some point he also came across materials relating to Pugatchov rebellion. He decided to represent these events both poetically and historiographically (Pushkin, 2003). The result of this project was the historical novel published in 1836 - “The Daughter of the Commandant”.

Another moment of great importance is that Pushkin integrated the values of family and manners. Hence, “The Daughter of the Commandant” is in a broader and more significant sense a family novel. Families of the characters, the first-person narrator Grinev and Mironova, the daughter of the commandant, are described in detail. The main site of the story, a small border garrison, is described as a careful representation of families and manners. The theme of family is given comic emphasis by showing how captain's wife commands not only her family, but in fact, the whole garrison. The two historical antagonists, the Empress Catherine and the kozak rebel Pugatchov, are shown only in connection with members of families of Grinev and Mironov. When he first encounters Grinev, Pugatchov is not yet the leader of the rebellion and becomes Grinev's friend. He also acts later as a kind of proxy wooer for the hero (as Peter did for Ibrahim). Even the Empress Catherine, who only appears late in the novel, is introduced neither as the belligerent antagonist of Pugatchov, nor as the arrogant and splendiferous czarina, but as a “lady of about forty,” seated on a bench in the park, “with red cheeks,” in a “white morning dress,” accompanied by a little white dog, dispensing motherly advice to the confused heroine, who has come to her for help. It is well known that Pushkin created this image of Catherine after a contemporary painting of her. He chose it from many available portraits. He did not choose any of the ceremonial portraits, but rather this very private and familial one. Thus we see that in either of these novels Pushkin was seeking to combine historical figures and events with the Romanesque love story of figures of “middle” elevation (Shaw, 1963). What instead determines structure and perspective in this sort of historical novel is that by the presence of the “middle” hero in the “middle” genre of the novel, all figures and events, including historic ones, are portrayed from a corresponding “refracted” viewpoint.

To conclude, it has been mentioned that Pushkin imitated Walter Scott. But the area of imitation can be reduced to the choice of subject (17th century) and to the manner of treating the past as if it was the present. “The Daughter of the Commandant” is Pushkin's main contribution of this kind. It was written under the confessed influence of Scott, and critics have pointed out remarkable similarity of the final chapter to a similar scene in the "Heart of Midlothian". “The Daughter of the Commandant” contains quite as much incidents and adventures as any of the Waverley novels. With all that, it is about seven or eight times shorter than any of them. Pushkin writes only what is absolutely necessary to the story. There are no descriptions, no accessories, or useless characters. The conversations are rapid and to the point. The whole story is like an express train hurrying to its terminus, and a novel by Scott is like a cavalcade of Canterbury Pilgrims leisurely proceeding along a highway.


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