Theses Doctoral

Folklore and the Construction of National Identity in Nineteenth Century Russian Literature

Aguilar, Jessika

In 1834, Belinsky melodramatically proclaimed, “We have no literature”. He was far from alone; similar sentiments are echoed in numerous critical essays and articles of the 1820s and 30s. These dire assessments of the state of Russian literature reflect the urgent concern the question of national identity had become to intellectuals of the period in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. In the wake of its victory in the Napoleonic War, Russia had won considerable military and political power in Europe. Culturally, however, there was a palpable sense of insecurity vis-a-vis Western Europe. Critics and writers bemoaned the derivative nature of Russian literature, calling for the creation of a national literature that would reflect the unique essence of the Russian national character. The means by which a sense of Russianness or “narodnost’” could be created in literature would become a central concern and topic of debate for writers and critics of the first four decades of the nineteenth century.
Folklore was thought to be one way of producing the desired narodnost’. Based on German Romantic theories of nationalism, particularly those of Herder, it was argued that the “folk poetry” of the simple people retained a pure form of the national spirit untainted by foreign influence. It was to this folk poetry that many writers turned in their attempts to create a national literature. There were attempts to create works that imitated folk ballads, songs, and fairy tales as well as incorporating folkloric elements in larger literary works. This period also saw the early efforts to collect authentic examples of folklore from among the people - Pushkin ranks among these early collectors as well as Kireevsky.
The practice of introducing elements of folklore into high literature was more complicated, however, than the theory would have one believe. Rather than being the unadulterated voice of the Russian nation taken directly from the people, the “folklore” that appeared in literary texts during this period was more often than not an amalgamation of many influences from both high and low literature and both foreign and native sources. Indeed, it would probably be more productive to think of the folkloric elements of literary texts in this period as being more representations of folklore than as “authentic” folklore.
In this dissertation I will examine how writers, through the figure of their various narrators, interact with the folk material of their narratives. My analysis will focus on Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Vladimir Dal. My emphasis will be on analyzing how narrators situate themselves in relation to the folk elements of the text and how their attitudes dramatize the various issues and problems that arise from the gentry writer’s encounter with the cultural other represented by the folk. In my exploration of folklore in Pushkin’s works, I trace the development of his relationship with folklore from one of the earliest of his works, Ruslan and Liudmila, through the middle years of his career, represented by Eugene Onegin, where he makes his most explicit statement about Russian national identity. I conclude with a consideration of his fairytales, which were written towards the end of his artistic career. Through these works, I trace the shift of Pushkin’s narrator’s stance from a position of relative distance from the folkloric elements of his narrative toward a greater sense of identification with his folkloric material. The chapter on Gogol is devoted to the first volume of his Evenings on a Farm Near Dikan’ka. My focus will be on how the figure of the author is splintered and diluted as editor Rudy Panko presents the reader with stories he heard from storytellers in his village, who in turn, heard their stories from still other storytellers, leading to series of nested storytellers. I will also examine how these various storytellers display an array of attitudes toward their folk narratives and how these relationships are enacted in the text. My final chapter is devoted to Vladimir Dahl and his First Five collection of folk tales. I will consider the significance of Dahl’s ideas about the centrality of the language of the common Russian people for the construction of a national identity and how these ideas found expression in his folk tales. As with the other chapters, my focus will be on the figure of the narrator and how his attitudes toward the folkloric elements of his tales form an image of Russian national identity. I hope to show through these explorations how the writer’s engagement with folklore contributed to the image of the Russia and the construction of Russian national identity in nineteenth century literature.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Slavic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Reyfman, Irina
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 18, 2015