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From the Corners of the Russian Novel: Minor Characters in Gogol, Goncharov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky

Matzner-Gore, Greta Nicole

This dissertation examines a famous formal peculiarity of nineteenth-century Russian novels: the scores upon scores of characters they embrace. Drawing on terminology developed by Alex Woloch--"character space" and "character system"--I ask how Russian writers use their huge, unwieldy systems of characters to create meaning.
In each of the four central chapters I analyze a different "overcrowded" nineteenth-century Russian novel: Gogol's Dead Souls, Part I (1842), Goncharov's Oblomov (1859), Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1875-77), and Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80). I address questions such as: what artistic purpose do the many superfluous-seeming minor characters in Gogol's, Goncharov's, Tolstoy's, and Dostoevsky's works serve? What effect does their presence have on the structure of the novels themselves? Why was Dostoevsky so worried by the criticism, which he received throughout the 1870s, that he was "overpopulating" his novels? And how did Dostoevsky's own compositional dilemmas inform both the architectonics and the thematics of The Brothers Karamazov?

As I argue, there is an increasingly strong sense in nineteenth-century Russian letters that literary characters not only resemble human beings, but even demand of us the same sort of moral obligations that people do. The perceived personhood of literary characters gives particular significance to the narrative decisions realist Russian writers make (such as how to characterize the major vs. minor figures in a novel, and how much or what kind of narrative attention to grant to each), and Gogol, Goncharov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky take full artistic advantage of it. They use the enormous number of characters who appear on the pages of their novels in order to pose, through the narrative structure of their works, many of the most important moral, social, and political questions that preoccupy them: What, in essence, is a human being? Are we capable of recognizing (or even simply acknowledging) the psychological complexity of the many, many people who surround us? Can we establish universal brotherhood on earth, a harmonious, unified society that truly includes everyone, even the most disruptive and destructive ones?

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Slavic Languages and Literatures
Thesis Advisors
Reyfman, Irina
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 29, 2014
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