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Class Responses to 19th Century Russian Short Fiction

I asked my students from the 19th Century Russian Short Fiction class to choose five works that impressed them the most. Here are some of their observations. (Note: spoilers ahead!)


Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Nikolai Leskov) – I was rather haunted that someone as seemingly mild as a bored housewife could turn into a serial killer. And yet she was the more pitiable compared to the utterly cold Sergei.

A Hero of Our Time (Mikhail Lermontov) – This novel was powerful because it showcased the apathy and cruelty possible within a fairly well-ordered society. Pechorin toys with people’s emotions as if he has no heart, but somehow realizes this. That’s what makes it creepy.

“The Portrait” (Nikolai Gogol) appealed to me because I love to draw, and hyperrealism is a concept that I often encounter, though I’d never thought of it the way Gogol portrayed it.

“The Overcoat” (Nikolai Gogol) – I felt an overwhelming pity for Akaky and his overcoat.

“Diary of a Madman” (Nikolai Gogol) seems to begin the tradition of psychological literature in Russia — it is the first work we read to delve into the consciousness of its protagonist. Although earlier works like A Hero of Our Time and some of Pushkin’s stories do examine the minds of their protagonists, in this work Gogol actually allows us to understand the character of Poprishchin, despite the fact that this is made much more complex to do by his increasing insanity towards the end of the work.

“The Black Monk” (Anton Chekhov), unlike all the other psychological stories in Russian literature, provides us a different idea of madness—the protagonist is shown as not only mad, but also as a normal, healthy man. His madness does not trouble him, but rather brings him calm and happiness. This contrast makes it a very profound story.

“The Shot” (Alexander Pushkin) – I remember this story the most out of the Tales of Belkin. Silvio’s character was interesting and perplexing and, as most of the endings of the stories we’ve read are rather predictable (child dies, marriage doesn’t work, old people die in despair…), this one really surprised me.

Hadji Murad (Lev Tolstoy) – I feel like Hadji Murad gave the broadest picture of Russia — I’m not sure if that’s really true but there were so many characters and places and different motives that it was like reading a much longer novel, and it really struck me how Tolstoy took the time to write backstory for so many of the minor characters. (Actually it seems all the writers we’ve read did that. I feel like if I ever write a novel I’m going to remember that…)

The Death of Ivan Illych (Lev Tolstoy) – I thought this was possibly the most disturbing thing we read because, as someone else in the class mentioned, talking about death in that way is very alien to us as a society.

“The Squire’s Daughter” (Alexander Pushkin) – It is a delightful story with a protagonist that is clever, care-free and full of life and I would compare it to a fresh breath of spring entering the dark and depressing room of Russian literature that we studied this year.

“How Much Land Does A Man Need?” (Lev Tolstoy) – This short story evokes so many deep thoughts about what really matters.