November 26, 2010


This day after Thanksgiving, I seriously considered spending the entire time under my blankets, reading, eating and performing any inescapable rituals as near to my bed as possible. What I had in mind was a slothful day, something akin to the kind Ilya Ilyitch Oblomov would have spent in his flat in Gorohovy Street in 19th century Russia. Oblomov is the eponymous character from the novel published by I. A. Goncharov in 1859. The central figure is a symbol of Russian aristocracy during the period. He has become so pampered, so useless to himself and others, he finds raising from his bed too great a challenge. He loses his sweetheart because he lacks the will to choose a date for the wedding; he refuses to conduct business to maintain his landholdings and so is swindled. In the end, he becomes penniless and transports himself just far enough to reach the hovel of his servant, a woman who dotes on him and allows him to descend into an infant state. Having achieved his unconscious desire for complete dependence, he dies.

Goncharov’s book is a satire, of course. He means Oblomov to be seen as a fool – someone who allows his wealth, power and even love to slip through his fingers because he cannot bear the responsibilities attendant with keeping them. Certainly, the author shows us the dark side of self indulgence. Once his character has freed himself of his obligations, he lives with no more purpose than a dust mote and allows himself to be cosseted by someone who cares to sacrifice on his behalf. He dies poor, yes. But his needs are minimal and so he lives in relative comfort. Whether it is a mansion or a hut, if the roof is sturdy, he is happy.

Goncharov lived at a time when great amounts of wealth rested in the hands of a few. He saw the aristocracy’s parasitical nature and sought to expose it. But in the back of my mind lies a niggling question. Was Oblomov a fool for losing more houses than he could live in?  Or was he wise because he’d discovered happiness is a state of mind?