A Month in the Country
IVAN TURGENEV 1872
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
A Month in the Country was written during the 1840s and completed in 1850 when Turgenev was thirty-two. Prior to this play, Turgenev had also written poetry and short stories. His literary reputation was established in 1843 with the publication of Parasha, a romantic story written in verse. Despite Turgenev’s past successes, A Month in the Country was not permitted to be staged by the censor when it was first published. As a result, the disheartened Turgenev, who already did not think highly of his plays, gave up writing for the theater. Instead, he turned his talents toward novel writing, and by the end of the 1850s, society and the government were prepared to receive his next literary offerings.
Tsar Alexander II had come to power and in the midst of a political climate still fraught with division, Turgenev’s novels managed to appeal to people with diverse political perspectives. His works became the most widely read and often the most hotly debated. A Month in the Country was a gateway to this fame and is often attributed with developing Turgenev’s craft as a writer. The play was first staged in Moscow in 1872 and is often likened to Honore de Balzac’s The Stepdaughter. A Month in the Country’s first showing was not received very well; however, after a famous actress performed it in 1879, the play became a success. It is still widely performed today and because of its timeless themes of youth, freedom, and love, it is likely to continue attracting admirers well into the next century.
Ivan Turgenev was born to Sergey Nikolaevich Turgenev and Varvara Petrovna Lutovinova on October 20, 1818, in the town of Orel, located 200 miles South of Moscow. His father, who was from the minor gentry, was a colonel in the calvary, and his mother was a wealthy landowner with a reputation for being arbitrarily cruel, particularly to her approximately 5,000 serfs. Turgenev’s childhood was spent with his two brothers, one of whom died in adolescence, on the family’s country estate at Spasskoe. His family left the country for Moscow when Turgenev was nine, and in 1833, at the age of fifteen, he entered Moscow University to study what was then called the philological faculty—literature.
In 1834 Turgenev transferred to the University of St. Petersburg in order to share lodging accommodations with his father and eldest brother. During his collegiate years, Turgenev developed a strong affinity for western culture, and in 1838 he enrolled at the University of Berlin where he studied philosophy. Turgenev’s stay in Germany fostered his growing distaste for serfdom and after his time there, he became a lifelong proponent of westernization. In 1841, he returned to Russia; however, through his remaining years, Turgenev spent a good portion of his time in the West. In 1842, he completed his Master’s degree and had an illegitimate daughter with whom he was never close.
In the next year, Turgenev met the one woman with whom he would form an emotional bond—Pauline Viardot, a renowned opera singer. Until his death in 1883, Turgenev was a devoted friend and some say a besotted admirer of Pauline. Over the years that followed their meeting, Turgenev lived as near to Pauline and her husband Louis Viardot as possible. As he rose to prominence as a writer, Turgenev became acquainted with many notable artists and thinkers of the period, including Feodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Gustav Flaubert, Emile Zola, Alexander Pushkin, Guy de Mauppasant, George Sand, Henry James, and Nikolai Gogol. In fact, after writing Gogol’s obituary, Turgenev was imprisoned for one month and placed under house arrest at Spasskoe for close to two years. Not popular with the government, but often celebrated by his public, Turgenev succumbed to cancer in Paris in 1883. Pauline was by his side. He is buried in St. Petersburg in the Volkovo cemetery.
Rakitin and Natalya are reading a book while Anna, Liza, and Schaaf play a game of hearts at a nearby card table. Natalya and Rakitin do more talking than reading and the flirtatious tension between the two is obvious. Natalya is bored with Rakitin always agreeing with her, and she expresses her displeasure. Rakitin continues to act as her “obedient servant” despite her protestations. Natalya and Rakitin’s bantering is intermittently interrupted by exclamations from the card players about Schaaf’s skill at Hearts. Natalya and Rakitin’s conversation turns a bit personal, and Natalya parallels their talks with making lace, which is done in stuffy rooms. Anna beats Schaaf at cards, and Kolya enters with Beliayev.
Kolya enthusiastically tells everyone how much he likes his new tutor. Natalya asks Rakitin what he thinks of the new tutor, and Rakitin notices that she is quite taken with him. Matvey enters to introduce Shpigelski, who greets everyone and goes on to tell a story about a woman who falls in love with two men. His story prompts Natalya to wonder out loud why someone can not love two people at the same time. She retracts her question by then stating that perhaps to love two people is really to love neither. As Natalya accompanies the exiting Anna and Liza to the door, Shpigelski and Rakitin confer about Natalya’s curious mood. After Natalya’s return, Shpigelski tells Natalya about his friend’s interest in marrying Vera. Vera and Kolya enter and again exalt Beliayev.
Natalya and Rakitin continue talking and Beliayev and Islayev enter. Islayev and Beliayev discuss Islayev’s dam project. Before exiting to accompany Islayev and Rakitin, Beliayev is summoned by Natalya to stay briefly. Natalya tells Beliayev of the life she hopes of for her son, and how she would like his life to differ from her own upbringing. Matvey announces dinner after Vera and Beliayev share a secret giggle with Natalya observing their playfulness.
Schaaf and Katya share a flirting exchange before they are interrupted by Natalya and Rakitin’s entrance. Katya hides and Schaaf joins Natalya and Rakitin. Katya remains picking berries and is happened upon by Vera and Beliayev, who busy themselves fixing a kite. Vera and Beliayev discuss Page 155 | Top of Articlefriends, poetry, and Natalya until she arrives with Rakitin and they exit. Natalya notices that they run off. After discussing Natalya’s disposition, Bolshintsov, and youth, Natalya and Rakitin part. Rakitin reflects on his loyalty and devotion to Natalya and wonders why she is unhappy.
Beliayev enters and the two discuss Beliayev’s laziness, his plan to make fireworks for Natalya’s birthday, and his ability to translate French texts despite the fact that he does not speak the language. Rakitin lectures him about the importance of studying and tells him that Natalya finds him quite charming. Natalya reenters and is cheered by Beliayev, which Rakitin notices. Shpigelski returns with Bolshintsov. After being left alone, Shpigelski and an obviously nervous Bolshintsov discuss the possibility of a match between he and Vera. Shpigelski tries to comfort Bolshintsov with words of confidence and advice. The scene ends with everyone heading to the meadow to watch Kolya fly a kite.
Shpigelski admits to Rakitin that he has agreed to play matchmaker for Bolshintsov in return for a team of horses and urges Rakitin to find out if Bolshintsov can continue calling on Vera. In his next conversation with Natalya, which is mixed with much innuendo about her feelings for Beliayev, Rakitin tries to find out what she plans to do about Vera. She claims not to have made a decision, so Rakitin sends for Vera. While she talks with Vera about Bolshintsov, Natalya probes her about her feelings for Beliayev. Obviously shaken, Natalya concludes that Vera and Beliayev are in love and sends the girl away. Privately, Natalya questions her jealousy of Vera and decides that although she is in love with him, Beliayev must leave.
Rakitin reappears and confirms for Natalya that she is indeed in love with Beliayev and that it would be best if he and Beliayev both left. Natalya weeps on Rakitin’s shoulder at the same time that Islayev and his mother enter. Natalya rushes out and following her, Rakitin tells Natalya’s perplexed husband and mother-in-law that he will explain everything later. Together again, Natalya and Rakitin agree that Natalya must talk with Beliayev immediately. Beliayev enters and after Natalya questions him about Vera, whose love he is surprised to learn of, he decides that he must leave. His decision upsets Natalya and while he wavers on if he should leave or not, she decides that she should think about it before
a decision is made. Alone again, Natalya questions her motivations and intentions and finally concludes that the tutor must go.
Liza and Shpigelski seek refuge from the rain in the same place where Katya is waiting to summon Beliayev for Vera. Katya hides and overhears the couple’s conversation about Natalya’s state of mind and their relationship. Shpigelski discusses some interesting merits for marrying, like the fact that he is aging and his “cooks always turn out to be thieves.” He continues by proposing marriage and revealing a private persona that differs from his public facade. The two exit and as Beliayev walks by, Katya calls to him. While she summons Vera, Beliayev reflects on how unbelievable the whole situation has become. Embarrassed, Vera enters and tells Beliayev how sorry she is that he is leaving. She tells him that she never told Natalya that she was in love with him and that it is actually Natalya who is in love with him.
Natalya surprises the two as she enters, and Vera confronts her about being in love with Beliayev. Regretting her behavior, Vera flees, leaving Natalya and Beliayev alone. Natalya admits her love and in the midst of a seemingly mutual confession and Page 156 | Top of Articletheir ensuing conversation about his staying or going, Rakitin enters. Natalya dismisses her previous conversation with Rakitin about Beliayev as childishness, and when the two run into Islayev, she takes his hand and exits followed by Rakitin and Shpigelski.
Islayev and his mother discuss the scene they happened upon between Natalya and Rakitin. Anna is suspicious and Islayev consoles her. Islayev calls for Rakitin, who, after admitting his love for Natalya, tells Islayev that he is leaving. After some discussion, Islayev says that maybe he should leave for just a few days. Rakitin runs into Beliayev and tells him why he is leaving. He continues to lecture Beliayev about the importance of a woman’s honor and asks if Beliayev would do the same if he were Rakitin. Their conversation is interrupted by Natalya and Vera. Rakitin tells them his plan and seems jealous about Natalya’s compliments to Beliayev.
After the men depart, Natalya apologizes to Vera, who receives the information quite bitterly and is obviously upset by the thought that Beliayev loves Natalya. Coming upon Vera alone, Shpigelski is happy to learn that Vera will marry Bolshintsov after all. After Shpigelski departs, Beliayev enters to tell Vera that he is leaving because he is unhappy with the problems he has caused. Vera confides her marriage plans and agrees to give Natalya his goodbye note. After giving Natalya the note, Vera tells her that she is leaving. They are interrupted by Islayev and then Rakitin. The men discuss Natalya’s apparent illness and Islayev attributes it to her learning that Rakitin is leaving. Rakitin says his good-byes. Kolya, Anna, Liza, and Schaaf enter and ask what is wrong with Natalya. In the process of the inquiry, Islayev learns of Beliayev’s departure and is perplexed by everyone’s sudden departures. One by one, everyone exits the stage. In the end, only Anna and Liza remain. To her shock, Anna learns that Liza too has plans to leave.
Vera is Natalya and Islayev’s adopted daughter. As a seventeen-year-old, Vera is caught in the precarious situation of still being considered a naive child, when in fact she proves to be a perceptive and precocious young woman. Vera is smitten with Beliayev and when she comes to believe that he loves only Natalya, she agrees to marry Bolshintsov, who had been previously undesirable to her.
Alexei Nikolayich Beliayev
Beliayev is a twenty-one-year-old student hired by Natalya to tutor Kolya. In contrast to other characters in the play who profess their honorable nature, Beliayev’s honor appears to be genuine when it comes to caring about others. He describes himself as lazy; however, his intelligence and ingenuity contrast with this quality. His translation of a book into French without knowing the language attests either to his facility with languages or his willingness to misrepresent himself and his capabilities.
Liza is a lady companion who plays cards with Anna and Schaaf, teaches Kolya piano, and becomes involved with Shpigelski. Liza accepts Shpigelski’s marriage proposal, although the audience might wonder why she does this. During the proposal scene, she tells him that she is only thirty-years-old when in fact she is thirty-seven. She is apparently self-conscious of her age, and this is perhaps her motivation for accepting Shpigelski as a suitor and a husband.
Afanasy Ivanovich Bolshintsov
Bolshintsov is the forty-year-old single neighbor of Islayev and Natalya. He is not highly regarded by most of the characters and is quite nervous throughout the play about his courtship of Vera.
Anna Semyenovna Islayev
Anna is Islayev’s fifty-eight-year-old mother. She spends her time leisurely and is suspicious of Natalya’s behavior. She is concerned for her son and feels that Natalya’s youth does not work in his favor.
Arkady Sergeyich Islayev
Arkady is a wealthy landowner in his mid-thirties, who spends much of his time working. His work keeps him away from his wife, who develops an interest in Rakitin, a family friend. He is not a jealous man, nor does he handle his wife’s behavior Page 157 | Top of Articlewith suspicion or malice once he learns of Rakitin’s love for her.
Kolya is Natalya and Islayev’s ten-year-old son. He is an energetic youth who loves to play and is dazzled by his new tutor, Beliayev.
Katya is a twenty-year-old maidservant who acts as Vera’s confidant. She entertains advances from Schaaf and seems to always be in the right place to overhear the conversations of the other characters in the play.
Matvey is a forty-year-old servant who plays a small role introducing characters and announcing meals.
Natalya is the complicated main character of the play. She is a married twenty-nine-year-old who finds herself bored with much of the life and people around her. From childhood she has lived a structured and hence seemingly constrained life from which she would like to break free. Her domineering father kept her in line as a child, and it seems that her choice in marrying Islayev has continued her feeling of confinement. The claustrophobic feeling that she has is replicated in her relationship with Rakitin. When she hires a new tutor for her son; however, she sees a glimpse of a different life. Beliayev is a breath of fresh air for Natalya and through him, she hopes to give her son the fun, happiness, and freedom she never had. In the process, she develops a yearning to capture these things for herself as well. Ultimately she does not attain the freedom that she seeks, and she must accept her life as it is.
Mikhail Alexandrovich Rakitin
Rakitin is a thirty-year-old friend of Natalya and Islayev. While Islayev considers Rakitin a close friend to him, Rakitin most certainly has a stronger affinity for Natalya. After admitting his love for Natalya to Islayev, Rakitin departs the estate. In his lecture to Beliayev, Rakitin reveals his belief that a woman’s honor is very important; however, his lecture can also be seen as self-serving. Rakitin
recognizes his devotion to Natalya and is perplexed by her coolness toward him. He sees only his passion for her and does not understand how such feelings are not mutual. On one level, he does the honorable thing by leaving Natalya; however, he also knows that he is welcome to return.
Adam Ivanich Schaaf
Schaaf is a forty-five-year-old German tutor who is playfully smitten with Katya. In the first scene, he demonstrates his skill at the card game Hearts as well as his willingness to attribute his loss to someone else.
Ignaty Ilyich Shpigelski
Shpigelski is the forty-year-old doctor who calls on the family and is interested in marrying Lizaveta. Though his public persona is one of an accommodating, thoughtful, and jovial country doctor, his private persona is quite different. He expresses disdain and dislike for the other characters Page 158 | Top of Articlein the play. He uses people for what they can provide for him and does not see himself as particularly kind, talented, or romantic. He has clear views about a wife’s and a woman’s place in society and prides himself on his honesty.
Love and Marriage
The many pairings in this play make love a prominent theme—Schaaf and Katya, Liza and Shpigelski, Vera and Bolshintsov, Natalya and Rakitin, Natalya and Beliayev, and Natalya and Islayev. The play is not a glowing portrait of loving, stable marriages or relationships, however. Natalya’s toying with Rakitin and Beliayev calls her fidelity into question, while Shpigelski’s reasons for marrying hardly seem to be related to love (he mostly seems to desire a trustworthy housekeeper/cook). Marriage as such, becomes an institution or a commitment that either binds and inhibits people’s freedom or serves a practical purpose.
In no instance is a loving relationship correlated with a passionate romantic relationship between two people. For example, the match between Shpigelski and Liza does not appear to be based on a mutual romantic affinity, nor does Natalya and Islayev’s relationship appear to have the level of respect and commitment that one might characteristically associate with a good marriage. Natalya’s feelings for Beliayev hint that a love full of passion and freedom is possible; however, by the end of the play, a happy, fulfilling love relationship seems ultimately unattainable for them.
Apathy and Passivity
The theme of apathy is largely introduced by Natalya’s apparent boredom with most everyone and everything except Beliayev. She can’t bother to listen to Rakitin when he tries to apologize to her, and she seems unconcerned that her husband will discover her true feelings about the young tutor. In concert with this apathy, much of Natalya’s behavior is coupled with an extreme case of passivity. She rarely acts or makes decisions unless she is prodded by others. Even her relationship with Rakitin, though obviously charged, seems to be an unconsummated flirtation. Other characters seem to be haunted by this passivity as well, including Islayev, who, while consoling his mother about Natalya’s behavior, seems generally unaffected by what he encounters between his wife and Rakitin.
The theme of greed plays a large part in the development of Shpigelski’s character. He is motivated by his greed and his desire to please only himself. It is ironic that he is a doctor; however, his profession serves as a good front for his otherwise undesirable personality. He agrees to help Bolshintsov in his pursuit of Vera, not because he hopes to make a perfect match between two people he cares about, but rather to advance his own concerns. He wants to replace his horse and for assisting with the matchmaking, he will gain not only one horse but a whole team. Shpigelski’s self-absorption motivates much of his action, including his courtship of Liza. He finds that his cooks are often thieves and sees that having Liza as his wife would remedy that problem in his life.
Honor is a theme that swirls around many characters in the play including Natalya, Beliayev, Shpigelski, Rakitin, and Islayev. Natalya’s honor is at stake because she is willing to engage in extramarital affairs. She questions her own honor in acting on behalf of these urges and consistently wavers on sending Beliayev away or not. Her behavior as Islayev’s wife also calls his honor into question. His reputation is at stake and his judgment in choosing Natalya for a wife is up for review, particularly by his mother.
Rakitin’s honor is likewise a bit questionable because although he claims to do the proper thing by leaving, he knows that he can return at any time. His honor is also in question because despite the fact that Islayev is his friend, he becomes involved with Natalya. Rakitin redeems himself a bit by being honest with Islayev. Honesty and honor are certainly not qualities that can be associated with Shpigelski, who, although he presents an honorable facade, is actually far from honorable when it comes to his personal relationships.
Coming of Age
Coming of age is a theme that is flushed out by the characters of Vera and Beliayev. Vera is perceived by Natalya as a child in the beginning of the play; however, as the situation develops with Beliayev, Natalya comes to see Vera as much less of a child. Vera’s own thoughts on this subject confirm
the fact that while Natalya thinks that Vera is a naive child who can be manipulated and tinkered with, she is in fact a mature perceptive woman who is quite aware of Natalya’s motives.
In some ways, Beliayev also comes of age during the play, although he is perhaps less self-reflective about it than Vera. As the situation with Natalya unfolds, Beliayev is forced to confront adult love for the first time and as he does this, even Natalya notice the change in him. She says, “he is a man,” not a boy any longer.
A Month in the Country is set in Russia during the mid-1800s on the estate of a wealthy landowner. The entire play takes place within one week and the majority of the action takes place in the Islayev’s drawing room. By setting the play during the 1840s, Turgenev adds a political dimension to the work. The expansion of the secret police and the increase in censorship during Tsar Nicholas I’s reign limited the degree to which Russian citizens could express themselves freely. To the extent that Natalya wants to break free from the constraints imposed upon her by men and the institution of marriage, A Month in the Country can be symbolically read as a political commentary about Russian citizens wanting to assert their free wills and act in accordance with their desires and passions. Like Natalya, who seeks the freedom to do as she pleases without any fear of the consequences, Russia’s citizens, including its artists, desired the same opportunity.
Realism is a literary term that describes the way that stories are told as well as a literary movement that was popular during Turgenev’s lifetime. A Month in the Country is an example of a realist work because it depicts people and circumstances that could very well exist in everyday life. The characters and the plot are realistic as opposed to fanciful creations of the author’s mind.
While A Month in the Country is not a biography of Turgenev’s life, the play does include some elements that can be considered biographical. For example, his longtime love for Pauline Viardot can be paralleled to Rakitin’s unwavering devotion to Natalya. Throughout his lifetime, Turgenev often moved so that he could be close to Pauline and her husband. Like Rakitin’s relationship with Islayev, Page 160 | Top of ArticleTurgenev’s relationship with Pauline’s husband was a friendly one. In addition to hints of Turgenev being found in the character of Rakitin, the author can also be found in the character of Natalya. As an artist who faced the limitations of censorship, Turgenev shared Natalya’s passion for freedom. Further, whereas Natalya was influenced by her fear of her domineering father, Turgenev was highly influenced by his fear of his mother, who was known for her unpredictable cruelty.
Foreshadowing is a technique used by authors to tip off readers/viewers about events that will come later in the story. Turgenev uses foreshadowing in the first act by having Anna, Schaaf, and Liza playing hearts. The card game is symbolic and its placement in the beginning of the play indicates that just as in the card game, there will be winners and losers in the game of love by the play’s end.
Another use of foreshadowing involves Rakitin and Beliayev. Rakitin’s decision to leave the estate suggests that, in the name of honor, Beliayev may make a similar decision and also decide to leave.
The card game, hearts, that Anna, Schaaf, and Liza play in the opening scene is one example of the symbolism used by Turgenev in this play. Although the card game is part of the action of the play, the name of the game has an added significance. Placing the game in the very first scene makes its symbolism even more weighty. It is as though from the start, Turgenev is signaling the reader that the play is about the heart or love. The game is symbolic because, as in love, not everyone who plays wins. In cards and in love, one runs the risk of losing, and indeed by the play’s end, many have lost in love. Schaaf’s disappointing loss mirrors the disappointment felt by other characters when their desires to succeed in love are not fulfilled.
Irony is defined as an outcome that is directly opposite an expected result. One of the central ironies in A Month in the Country is the fact that while love is one of the play’s major themes, no one seems to sustain a romantic, loving relationship. While love is intended to be a passionate uplifting endeavor, none of the play’s characters are happy in their romantic relationships. Further, the play does not suggest that any of the characters will likely be happy in their relationships. Vera agrees to marry Bolshintsov in order to leave the estate, Natalya remains with Islayev but wishes that she could be with someone else, and Anna joins with Shpigelski, with whom she is not in love.
The hope for reform and the tensions of revolution serve as the political backdrop against which much of Turgenev’s work was created. From the 1820s and into the 1880s, Russia’s government and its people were embroiled in the tenuous process of distinguishing an identity on the world stage. Nicholas I’s reign, which spanned from 1825 to 1855, was characterized primarily by the idea that Russia should be independent from and uninvolved with the European West and its ideas. Nicholas I’s highly nationalistic approach to government was coupled with his belief in having his government as centralized as possible. In his attempt to consolidate his power, Nicholas I expanded the role of the secret service and increased censorship.
During Nicholas I’s rule, society was segmented by two growing forms of thought. While this segmentation was encouraged in academic circles where like-minded people met in discussion groups, mainstream thought was also divided along the same lines. The two primary groups were comprised of the Philosophical Idealists, or the Slavophiles, and the Westerners. According to Herbert J. Ellison in History of Russia, the Philosophical Idealists of the 1830s “conceived of Russia as a vigorous new civilization coming rapidly to maturity and leadership beside a declining Europe.” While the Slavophiles favored a nationalistic approach to government, “they were opposed to the actual tyranny of the imperial regime,” according to Sidney Harcave in Russia: A History.
On the other side of the spectrum, as Ellison noted, “The Westerners of the 1840s and 1850s... recommend[ed] the Western path of development for the future” and were not as nationalistic. In general, the Westerners saw a decided value in continuing to emulate the West. They supposed that Russia had not achieved the level of development that the West had and were critical of censorship and the great economic and social disparities between the serfs and the nobility.
Not surprisingly, the artists of this time were impacted by the political climate. While censorship
certainly had a negative effect on the writing of many authors, Russia’s cultural output during Nicholas I’s reign did not suffer on the whole. According to Ellison, “the reign of Nicholas I was in many ways a period of extraordinary growth and of great attainments ... particularly in literature.” While this may be true, it is perhaps necessary to wonder what the cultural output would have been like, both in content and quantity, had censorship not been expanded during Nicholas I’s reign.
Prior to the 1840s, Russia’s literary canon had been largely dominated by poetry; however, with the advent of realism, prose fiction began to figure more prominently in the literary circles of the time. Realism, or naturalism as it was called in Russia, brought “everyday people who had hitherto been admitted neither to the homes nor to the writings of the fashionable” into the mainstream. Nikolai Gogol (The Inspector General) is perhaps one of the most well-known contributors to this body of Russian literature.
By the mid-1850s, the agitation for reform had become quite heated, and with Alexander II stepping in as ruler, the nation’s policies began to change. As Ellison noted, Nicholas I had failed to stem “the tide of intellectual radicalism ... to buttress the traditional social order ... [and] to achieve a more enlightened and efficient government.” This being the case, his successor set to work putting the wheels of change into motion. Alexander II relaxed censorship and began reforming all aspects of bureaucracy including the government administration, the judiciary, the educational system, the military, and the nation’s economic policies.
Success can not be measured by intent alone, and as Ellison pointed out, Alexander II’s “failures were of speed and scope, not of direction.” Harcave concluded, “Although Alexander II, like Peter [the Great], failed to attain all the goals that he set for himself, his reforms helped to bring about such changes that his reign may be considered the second great watershed in Russian history.”
Turgenev was and is a controversial author. As his brief stay in prison attests, his politics, which were often evident in his writing, placed him in a rather precarious position with a good portion of his contemporaries—particularly those in power. Turgenev supported the ideas of reform and westernization and detested serfdom. For these reasons, he fell into disfavor with many; however, for as much as he inspired dislike, Turgenev was equally liked by others. For those who agreed with his ideas, Turgenev was a master storyteller who had a unique facility for weaving realism with carefully developed characters and well-crafted prose.
As might be expected in the politically charged environment of nineteenth-century Russia, his champions and detractors were more often than not divided by their political leanings rather than their staunch literary convictions. Outside of Russia, readers and critics found Turgenev’s works instructive and readily accessible, making him popular in the West as well. As A. V. Knowles noted in Ivan Turgenev, the playwright was “the first Russian novelist to achieve international recognition.” During the mid-1800s, Turgenev reached his highest literary moments by locating the middle ground wherein his fans and previous skeptics could find cause to approve of him and his work.
The public’s reception of A Month in the Country reflected the finicky tastes of his contemporary audiences. The play was finished in 1850, published in 1855, and performed for the first time in Moscow in 1872. Immediately after its release, the officialdom banned any performances of it, and after its debut in Moscow, it was not warmly embraced. Seven years later, however, when a young actress, Marya Savina, chose to star in the play, Russia’s theater-going community changed its mind and the play began to be regularly performed—and enjoyed.
According to Knowles, “A production of 1909 at the Moscow Art Theatre with Stanislavsky directing and playing the part of Rakitin and Chekhov’s widow Olga Knipper an Natalya Petrovna made it famous and established the interpretation it is usually given today.... Stanislavksy saw it as a psychological study and played down its social or political aspects.” While Turgenev’s political content, real or implied, caused some of his critics and the officialdom to reject his works on principle, his psychological explorations have come to be one of his signatures in more contemporary times. A Month in the Country originally suffered because of its implicit social commentary; however, it has now become more widely accepted and recognized for its literary merit rather than for its political overtones. As Knowles confirmed, “A Month in the Country is still successfully and regularly produced” today.
Turgenev’s fame and notoriety have persisted into subsequent eras. His literary achievements and
his portrayal of Russia’s tumultuous nineteenth century have left him regarded both as one of Russia’s finest literary figures and as one of its lesser achievers. He is most often praised for his keen character development, his knack for description as well as his realism; however, he has been criticized for his failure to measure up to some of Russia’s other greats—Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky. To Turgenev’s credit, Knowles noted that “his best stories are models of construction, and his use of language superb.... Turgenev is at his best when he keeps things simple, when he describes rather than analyzes.” Further, Knowles noted, “Turgenev once said that he was first and foremost a realist... [and perhaps] this provides a clue to the strengths of his methods of characterization and his writing style in general.”
Though considered a skilled craftsman, Turgenev has been berated quite vehemently for falling short of his contemporaries’ successes. Quoting from Charles A. Moser’s Ivan Turgenev, Knowles noted that Turgenev “cannot boast the verbal exuberance and astounding inventiveness of a Gogol, the profound energy and conviction of a Dostoevsky wrestling with problems of a sort our age thinks very relevant, the epic sweep and inquiry to be found in Tolstoy, the painstaking attention to detail and psychological analysis of a Goncharov.” This statement reveals that Turgenev is both praised and criticized for the very same things.
His manipulation of the Russian language, his portrayal of his people and Russia’s history, and his psychological characterizations all seem to be both his strengths and his weaknesses in the eyes of critics. The controversy over his work perhaps dates back to the highly dichotomized society in which his writings were first introduced; however, whatever the cause for such division, Turgenev and his works are sure to be a rich source for discussion for years to come.
D. L. Kellett
Kellett has an M.A. in literature and works in corporate communications. In this essay she discusses Turgenev’s use of dichotomies as a structural and character development device.
In the introduction that precedes Richard Newnham’s English translation of A Month in the Country, Richard Schechner applauded Turgenev for what he called “a masterful study of Natalya Petrovna,” the play’s main character. While Schechner discussed at some length the ways in which Natalya’s fear of men is closely linked to her fear of her father, his analysis also culminated in an important conclusion: “Natalya Petrovna is a failure in love, and that is the crux of her personality and the play. She cannot consummate love with her husband or Rakitin; Beliayev slips out of her grasp. She dissolves in a series of futile gestures and contradictions as the play draws to a close.”
It is certainly true that Natalya fails to achieve a fulfilling romantic relationship with any of her three leading men—Islayev, Rakitin, or Beliayev. Her attitude toward her husband seems at its best a benevolent tolerance, while her toying with Rakitin can be viewed as an ego-feeding, yet yawn-inspiring dalliance for her. As Schechner aptly noted, there is only a chance for her with Beliayev, for “he is young, athletic, virile,” and because she perceives him to be naive, he is initially approachable. Ultimately, however, his departure from the estate also makes him inaccessible to her. Natalya is indeed a failure in love. Ironically, her eagerness to obtain the freedom and passion she desires is somehow too closely linked to her inability to attain the love that she believes will provide these things for her. She assigns value and ultimate happiness to the very things that she can not have, or does not attain, and thus, she dissolves into the “futile gestures and contradictions” of which Schechner spoke.
Schechner argued that it is Natalya’s very fear of men that makes having any man impossible for her. She can only love that which is not a threat to her, yet all of her lovers either become threatening or boring, and as a result, love and the subsequent freedom and passion she seeks from it are unattainable for her. Her ultimate contradiction is perhaps a trite one—she wants what she can not have and does Page 165 | Top of Articlenot want what is readily hers for the taking. As the play wraps up, all of Natalya’s desires and realizations come to naught. Beliayev and Rakitin leave the estate, and she is left with her husband, who mistakenly believes that all happiness has been restored.
One way to understand the play’s ending is offered by Schechner when he concluded that it is the “denouement of her [Natalya’s] ineffectuality.” Indeed, her ineffectuality is central to her character development. As she grapples with her own contradictions, she dissolves into a perpetual state of frustration with her unfulfilled wishes. The elements of contradiction and opposition manifest themselves very clearly in Natalya’s inner conflicts—should she or should she not pursue Beliayev, does she like or dislike Rakitin, can she be free or will she always feel like a prisoner? Embedded in her questions are dichotomies like faithful/unfaithful, love/hate, freedom/entrapment, and honesty/ dishonesty.
In addition to being defining characteristics of Natalya’s character, such dichotomies are central elements in the work’s overall structure. In fact, Turgenev’s use of these elements permeates the play on almost every level. A quick glance at act one demonstrates the ways in which Turgenev incorporates these elements in his work from the very start.
When the curtains first rise, Schaaf, Liza, and Anna are playing hearts, a card game that is based not only on winning or losing but on a strategy that requires players to think in terms of all or nothing. To ensure a winning hand of hearts, one must hold all of the hearts in the deck and the queen of spades, or no hearts at all. Having any number of hearts in between these two extremes puts one at risk of losing the hand and eventually the game. Turgenev’s placement of hearts in the opening scene signals to the reader that the play is about the heart, or the game of love, and at the same time it introduces one of the play’s guiding organizational structures: dichotomies. Oppositions, contradictions, and contrast dominate A Month in the Country—all or nothing and winning or losing are just the beginning.
By interweaving the conversation about the card game with Natalya and Rakitin’s interchange, Turgenev hints that the two lovers might also be considered in light of his structural web of contradiction and opposition. And indeed they can be. The two are very clearly at odds, and their romance is an
unconsummated one. At the same time that their love appears to be everything to Rakitin, it seems at times to mean nothing to Natalya. The tension surrounding the couple is obvious in the first scene when they quibble over Rakitin’s reading of Monte Cristo.
As the act unfolds, it becomes apparent that Rakitin is caught up in a web of choices and consequences. He must either read or talk, obey Natalya or not, bore her or not, and as the audience later learns, he must decide to leave her or not. Their relationship is a balancing game. At some moments it appears that their affair is one-sided, and then in the next Natalya admits her love for him. Rakitin is aware of the precarious ground on which their relationship treads. He notes, “You know, Natalya Petrovna, the more I look at you today, the less I can recognize you.” Contradictions abound even for Rakitin—that which should be most familiar to him becomes unfamiliar and almost unknowable.
When Shpigelski arrives, the oppositions and contradictions continue to grow. Of Verenitsm and his sister Shpigelski proclaims, “It’s my opinion that they’re either both mad or both normal, for there is nothing to choose between them.” The choices offered by Shpigelski are extremes and as such they fall right in line with the other contradictory oppositions in the play. Natalya does not respond to Shpigelski’s assessment; however,
her later comment about his story reveals that her reasoning parallels his. When responding to Shpigelski’s story about the girl who loves two men, Natalya notes, “I don’t see anything surprising about that: Why shouldn’t one love two people at once?” As though this were not enough of a contradiction, she goes on to surmise, “but no, I really don’t know... perhaps it simply means that one isn’t in love with either.”
The possibility of loving more than one man or no one at all goes hand in hand for Natalya, and in conclusion, she admits that she really just doesn’t know what to think. Natalya is confused by what it means to love and almost immediately she adapts an all or nothing mentality. Rakitin echoes her sentiments about the perplexity of love when he ponders their relationship a bit later. He reflects, “What does all this mean? Is it the beginning of the end, or the end itself? Or is it the beginning, perhaps?” Rakitin’s question is an appropriate one and it further epitomizes the dichotomies that populate Turgenev’s play. The end and the beginning, though obviously opposite, are indistinguishable to Rakitin, who struggles to discover at which point he finds himself in his relationship with Natalya.
The presence of so many oppositions has a rather curious effect on the overall work. On the one hand, A Month in the Country is a highly charged play riddled with conflict. Natalya experiences a deep personal turmoil as she questions infidelity, to love someone so young, and if she should she act based on her own self-serving interests and marry Vera off to Bolshintsov. Interestingly, however, the contradictory nature of her options and the prevalence of so many other dichotomies in the play also add a feeling of balance to the work. Natalya is tortured and fragmented in terms of her personal loyalties, yet her struggle is set against a backdrop of opposites that create a certain sense of unity.
The idea of balance created by opposition is not a new concept. In fact, it traces back to the idea of yin and yang, the Chinese symbol for balance and harmony. This is not to suggest that the conflicted Natalya is in balance because she questions whether she should be unfaithful to her husband, yet it is to suggest that there is a certain sense of wholeness evoked by the presence of so many complementary oppositions in the play. In addition to presenting oppositions and contrasts in the development of the plot and the other characters, Turgenev includes such elements on a thematic level as well. Some of the more notable thematic contrasts he plays upon include young/old, public/private, work/play, truth/ lies, upper class/lower class, and, of personal interest to the playwright, Russia/the West.
The world of opposites that populates A Month in the Country can also be said to swirl around its author. Attempting to draw parallels between Turgenev’s fiction and his real life is merely speculative; however, it is intriguing that one of the elements that permeates A Month in the Country also dominated Turgenev’s life. In Turgenev: The Novelist’s Novelist, Richard Freeborn noted that Turgenev was “a man of extraordinary, innate contradictions.” Further he added, “During his lifetime Turgenev acquired many reputations. He was a political figure whose views received approval and sympathy in some quarters, disdain and outright rejection in others, a man who regarded himself as European in Russia and a Russian in Europe ... a man, finally, who never married but devoted the greater part of his adult life to a seemingly unrequited passion for a married lady.”
From his reception by his critics to his political views and his personal preferences, Turgenev was indeed a man haunted by contradiction. Some consider A Month in the Country to be at least somewhat autobiographical, and in that both the author and his work share such a dominant characteristic, one might assume that in an effort to achieve balance in his own life, Turgenev used his fiction as a forum for exploring his own conflicts. Whether A Month in the Country served personal purposes or not is difficult to say; however, from the distance of close to 150 years, one can certainly conclude that Turgenev’s use of contradiction and opposition served his craft well. As a man and an artist, Turgenev grappled with the tenuous balance between life’s greatest contrasts and while his success in walking this fine line was evident in much of his Page 167 | Top of Articlework, A Month in the Country serves as one of his best examples and as one of his greatest literary achievements.
Source: D. L. Kellett, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.
Anthony D. P. Briggs
In this essay, Briggs provides an overview of A Month in the Country and discusses its significance within the canon of modern Russian drama, particularly the play’s influence upon the pyschological dramas of Anton Chekhov.
A Month in the Country is a five-act play in prose written by the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in the period 1848-50. After objections by the censors to some of its overt social criticism, the play was finally passed for publication in 1855. It was performed for the first time in Moscow (at the Maly Theatre) in 1872 and assured of continuing success in the 20th century by a famous Stanislavsky production at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1909.
The story concerns a young tutor, Aleksey Belyaev, who is hired during the summer to teach the ten year old son of the Islaevs on their country estate. Despite his own mild manner the charming Belaev has a devastating impact on the household. Mme. Islaeva (Natalia Petrovna) vies with her own young ward, Vera, for his attention. Both women fall in love with him but Vera is no match for her protectress. Natalia maneuvers her into an arranged marriage with a ridiculous middle-aged neighbour. Belyaev departs, leaving all of the characters facing changes in their lives. In particular, Rakitin, a close friend of the family who has long been a secret admirer of Natalia, is forced to go away, suspected by her uncomprehending husband of having made advances towards her. Secondary interest, and not a little humour, arises from the down-to-earth love relationship between two middle-aged characters, Dr. Shpigelsky and Lizaveta Bogdanovna.
The play has had an unusual destiny. Its author was reluctant to believe in its quality because of the negative criticism which it received. He went so far as to admit that it was not really a play, but a novel in dramatic form. In fact, a good case could be made in the opposite direction: that Turgenev, with his skill in creating atmosphere, character, and dialogue far exceeding his narrative inventiveness, might be regarded as a dramatist manque. This play has not only remained in the Russian repertory, it has travelled abroad with great success, proving particularly popular on the British stage.
Its major achievement is to have introduced into Russia, half a century too early for the author’s own good, a wholly new theatrical genre, the pyschological drama. A Month in the Country is a play in which very little overt action occurs. There are arrivals and departures, one listens to conversations and gains a strong sense of hidden passions and tensions seething just below the surface of events. There are two or three moments of crisis, resolved with words rather than deeds, sufficient to raise an audience’s involvement from interest to anxiety. But what is remarkable is the disparity between the radical nature of these developments and the lack of any external adventure or sensation. Ordinary people leading humdrum lives are subjected to turmoil and trauma; it is as if a whirlwind has passed through and blown away their comfortable routine, and no one saw anything happen.
Turgenev’s characterization is remarkable. Not ony are the 13 characters extremely realistic, they actually develop and mature during the action of the play, without ever straining credulity. Particularly poignant are the two leading female roles. For all her understated depiction, Vera approaches tragic status and cannot fail to move the spectators as they watch her rapid transformation from girlishness to womanhood, followed by her painful resignation to a hopeless future. As for Natalia, she attracts some degree of sympathy because of her boring marriage and her forceful personality, but she is despicable in her ruthless treatment of the young girl whose interests she is supposed to be protecting. Her villainy is mitigated by a sense of her powerlessness before the forces which take control of her—physical love together with a sense of panic that her youth and beauty are rapidly coming towards their end. She is complex and fascinating. Alongside these leading characters there is much else to sustain the interest: the innocence of Belyaev, the sadly amusing remoteness of Natalia’s husband, the bitterness of Rakitin who only now comes to full realization of how empty his life has been. There is a good deal of comic relief, particularly in the exchanges between Shpigelsky and Bogdanovna but also in the character of Shaaf, the German tutor, and the satirical picture of Bloshintsov, Vera’s eventual husband-to-be. Productions which play upon the comedy and leave the more serious issues to speak for themselves in Turgenev’s restrained manner bring out all Page 168 | Top of Articlethe qualities of A Month in the Country, and, by keeping them nicely in balance, tend to be more successful than those which attempt to propel the complex drama explicitly in the direction of tragedy.
The question of Chekhov’s debt to Turgenev has never been fully resolved. Chekhov himself denied it and claimed he had not even read A Month in the Country before writing his major plays. This can scarcely be true, as even a glance at the cast lists of this play and Uncle Vanya will reveal. Both plays (and also Balzac’s La Maratre from which A Month in the Country derives) involve groupings of characters which are anything but conventional; all three are certainly interrelated. Critics tend either to take for granted a certain influence by Turgenev, or else to deny it almost entirely. The influence seems, however, beyond question, extending as it does to setting, characterization, atmosphere, dialogue, and even perhaps to thematic interest. The outstanding success of Chekhov’s psychological drama is itself a vindication of Turgenev’s method, which was so unpopular in its day. What is remarkable is the early date at which Turgenev attempted to introduce the Russians to a form of drama which would sweep to popularity half a century later; A Month in the Country was written ten years before Chekhov was even born.
Source: Anthony D. P. Briggs, “A Month in the Country” in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 531-32.
Harcave, Sidney. Russia: A History, J. B. Lippincott, 1968, pp. 248-74.
Schechner, Richard. Introduction to A Month in the Country, translated by Richard Newnham, Chandler, 1962, pp. vii-xviii.
Ellison, Herbert J. History of Russia, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964, pp. 134-218.
This book chronicles Russia’s history. The particular pages noted cover the years 1801 through 1881, roughly encompassing the period of Turgenev’s life.
Freeborn, Richard. Turgenev: The Novelist’s Novelist: A Study, Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. xi-36.
While this book focuses upon Turgenev as a novelist, its beginning chapters provide an introduction to his guiding philosophies, political leanings, and development as a writer.
Garnett, Edward. Turgenev, Kennikat Press, 1966, pp. v-34.
This work presents a discussion of Turgenev’s childhood, family life, and his early works as well as a chapter about his critics.
Knowles, A. V. Ivan Turgenev, edited by Charles A. Moser, Twayne, 1988.
This book offers an in-depth look at Turgenev with chapters devoted to his biography, literary career, reputation, six of his novels, and his final years. A Month in the Country is also discussed.
Schapiro, Leonard. Turgenev: His Life and Times, Oxford University Press, 1978.
This book contextualizes Turgenev’s life and works within the nineteenth century.
Yarmolinsky, Avraham. Turgenev: The Man—His Art—His Age, Hodder & Stroughton, 1926.
Yarmolinsky’s work offers a survey of Turgenev’s life and his literary accomplishments.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693100020