Oblomov, p.51Ivan Goncharov
The Ilyinskys spent six months in Paris; Stolz was their daily and only companion and guide. Olga’s health began perceptibly to improve; her brooding gave way to calm and indifference, outwardly at any rate. It was impossible to say what was going on inside her, but she gradually became as friendly to Stolz as before, though she no longer burst into her former loud, child-like, silvery laughter, but only smiled with restraint when Stolz tried to amuse her. Sometimes she seemed to be annoyed at not being able to laugh. He at once realized that she was not to be amused any more: she often listened to some amusing sally of his with a frown between her unsymmetrically-lying eyebrows, looking silently at him, as though reproaching him for his frivolity, or impatient with him; or instead of replying to his joke, she would suddenly ask him some serious question and follow it up with so insistent a look that he felt ashamed of his insipid, empty talk. At times she seemed so weary of the daily senseless rushing about and chatter that Stolz had suddenly to discuss some subject which he seldom and reluctantly discussed with women. How much mental resourcefulness and thought he had to spend so that Olga’s deep questioning eyes should grow bright and calm and should not seek for some answer from someone else. How upset he was when, as a result of a careless explanation, her look became dry and stern, her eyebrows contracted, and a shadow of silent but profound dissatisfaction fell over her face. And he had to spend the next two or three days in applying all the subtlety and even cunning of which he was capable, all his fervour and skill in dealing with women, in order to call forth, little by little and not without difficulty, a glimmer of serenity on her face and the gentleness of reconciliation in her eyes and her smile. Sometimes he returned home in the evening worn out by this struggle, and he was happy when he emerged from it victorious.
‘Dear me, how mature she has grown! How this little girl has developed! Who was her teacher? Where did she take her lessons in life? From the baron? But he is so smooth you can learn nothing from his exquisitely turned phrases! Not from Ilya, surely?’
He could not understand Olga, and he ran to her again the next day; but this time he read her expression cautiously and with fear; he often felt baffled, and it was only his intelligence and knowledge of life that helped him to deal with the questions, doubts, demands, and everything else he divined in Olga’s features. With the torch of experience in his hands, he ventured into the labyrinth of her mind and character, and each day he discovered new facts and new traits, but was still far from fathoming her, merely watching with amazement and alarm how her mind demanded its daily sustenance and how her soul never ceased asking for life and experience. Every day the life and activity of another person attached itself to Stolz’s life and activity. Having surrounded Olga with flowers, books, music, and albums, Stolz stopped worrying in the belief that he had provided plenty of occupation for his friend’s leisure hours, and he went to work, or to inspect some mine or some model farm, or into society to meet and exchange views with new or remarkable men; then he returned to her tired out, to sit by her piano and rest at the sound of her voice. And suddenly he found in her face new questions and in her eyes an insistent demand for an answer. Gradually, imperceptibly and involuntarily, he laid before her what he had seen that day and why. Sometimes she expressed a wish to see and learn for herself what he had seen and learnt. And he went over his work again: went with her to inspect a building or some place, or an engine, or to read some historical event inscribed on stones or walls. Gradually and imperceptibly he acquired the habit of thinking and feeling aloud in her presence; and one day he suddenly discovered, after subjecting himself to a stern self-examination, that he had someone to share his life with him, and that this had started on the day he met Olga. Almost unconsciously, as though talking to himself, he began to estimate aloud in her presence the value of some treasure he had acquired, and was amazed at himself and her; then he checked up carefully to see whether there was still a question left in her eyes, whether the gleam of satisfied thought was reflected in her face, and whether her eyes followed him as a conqueror. If that was so, he went home with pride, with tremulous emotion, and for hours at night he prepared himself for the next day. The most tedious and indispensable work did not seem dry to him, but merely indispensable: it entered deeper into the very foundation and texture of his life; thoughts, observations, and events were not put away negligently and in silence into the archives of memory, but lent a brilliant colour to every day that passed. What a warm glow spread over Olga’s pale face when, without waiting for her eager questioning glance, he hastened to throw down before her, with fervour and energy, fresh supplies and new material! And how perfectly happy he was when her mind, with the identical solicitude and charming obedience, hastened to catch his every word and every glance; both observed each other keenly: he looked at her to see whether there still was a question in her eyes, and she at him to see whether he had left anything unsaid or forgotten something or, worst of all, whether he had – heaven forbid! – omitted to open up for her some dark corner, which was still inaccessible to her, or to develop his thought completely. The more important and complicated the subject, the more thoroughly he expounded it to her, and the longer and more attentively her appreciative glance was fixed on him, and the warmer, deeper, and more affectionate it became.
‘That child, Olga!’ he thought in amazement. ‘She is outgrowing me!’
He pondered over Olga as he had never pondered over anything.
In the spring they all went to Switzerland, Stolz having decided already in Paris that he could not live without Olga. Having settled this question, he began wondering whether Olga could live without him or not. But that question was not so easy to answer. He approached it slowly, circumspectly, cautiously, now groping his way, now advancing boldly, and thought that he had practically reached his goal whenever he caught sight of some unmistakable sign, glance, word, boredom, or joy: one more step, a hardly perceptible movement of Olga’s eyebrows, a sigh, and to-morrow the mystery would be solved: she loved him! He could read in her face an almost childish confidence in him; she sometimes looked at him as she would not look at anyone, except perhaps at her mother, if she had a mother. She regarded his visits and the fact that he devoted all his leisure time to her and spent days trying to please her, not as a favour, as a flattering present of love, or as an act of gallantry, but simply as an obligation, as though he were her brother, her father, or even her husband: and that is a great deal, that is everything. She herself was so free and sincere with him in every word she uttered and every step she took that he could not help feeling that he exercised undisputed authority over her. He knew he possessed such an authority; she confirmed it every moment, told him that she believed him alone and could rely on him blindly in life as she could not rely on anyone in the whole world. He was, of course, proud of it, but then any elderly, intelligent, and experienced uncle could be proud of it, even the baron, if he had been a man of intelligence and character. But was that the sort of authority a man exercised over his beloved? That was the question! Did his authority have that seductive deception of love about it, that flattering blindness through which a woman is ready to be cruelly mistaken and be happy in her mistake? No, she submitted to him consciously. It is true her eyes glowed when he developed some idea or laid bare his soul to her; she gazed on him with radiant eyes, but he could always tell why she did it; sometimes she told him the reason herself. But in love merit is acquired blindly and without any conscious reason, and it is in this blindness and unconsciousness that happiness lies. If she was offended, he could see at once what offended her. He had never caught her unawares blushing suddenly, or being overcome with joy bordering on fear, or looking at him with a languishing or ardent glance; if anything of the kind had happened – if he thought she looked upset when he told her that he would be leaving for Italy in a few days and his heart missed a beat in one of those rare and precious moments – everything seemed suddenly to be hidden under a veil once more.
‘What a pity,’
And the spell was broken by this openly expressed desire, which she did not conceal from anyone, and this vulgar and formal praise of his narrative powers. As soon as he gathered up all the threads and succeeded in weaving a most delicate network of lace and had only to fasten the last loop – steady now – one more moment and – she would suddenly once again grow calm, even, and sometimes actually cold. She would be sitting, carrying on with her work, listening to him in silence, raise her head from time to time, and look at him in such a questioning, curious, matter-of-fact way that he more than once threw down the book in vexation or, cutting short some explanation, jumped up from his seat and went away. If he turned round he would catch her surprised glance and he would feel ashamed, come back and invent some excuse. She listened to him with such unaffected simplicity and believed it. She did not doubt him in the least; there was not even the ghost of a sly smile on her lips. ‘Does she love me or not?’ he wondered. If she did love him, why was she so reserved and so cautious? If she did not, why was she so submissive and so anxious to anticipate his wishes? He had to go for a week to Paris and London, and came to tell her about it on the very day he was leaving, without any previous warning. If she gave a sudden start or changed colour, it was love, the mystery was solved, he was happy! But she just shook him firmly by the hand and looked grieved: he was in despair.
‘I’ll miss you awfully,’ she said. ‘I could cry, I feel like a real orphan. Auntie,’ she added plaintively, ‘look, Mr Stolz is going away!’
That was the last straw. ‘Turned to her aunt!’ he thought. ‘That’s the limit! I can see that she is sorry I am going, that she loves me, perhaps, but – this sort of love can be bought like shares on the exchange at the price of so much time, attention, and gallantry…. I won’t come back,’ he thought sullenly. ‘How do you like that? Olga – a little girl – why, she used to do everything I asked her! What’s the matter with her?’
And he sank into deep thought.
What was the matter with her? There was one little thing he did not know: that she had loved, that, as far as she was capable, she had passed through the period of girlish lack of control, sudden blushes, badly concealed heartache, the feverish symptoms of love and its first ardour. Had he known this, he would have found out, if not whether she loved him or not, at any rate why it was so difficult to guess what was the matter with her.
In Switzerland they visited every place where tourists go, but more often they liked to stay in out-of-the-way and little-frequented spots. They, or at any rate Stolz, were so preoccupied with their own affairs, that they were weary of travelling, which they regarded as of secondary importance. He went for walks with her in the mountains, looked at precipices and waterfalls, and she was in the foreground of every landscape. He would walk behind her up some narrow path, while her aunt remained sitting in the carriage below; he would watch her keenly and in secret, stopping when she reached the top and taking breath, and wonder how she would look at him, for it was at him that she looked first of all; there was no doubt in his mind about that by now. It would have been splendid: it made his heart feel warm and joyful, but then she would suddenly cast a glance over the landscape, and stand fascinated, lost in dreamy contemplation – and he was no longer there so far as she was concerned. The moment he stirred, reminded her of himself, or uttered a word, she gave a start and sometimes cried out: it was evident that she had forgotten whether he were beside her or far away – indeed, whether he existed at all. But afterwards, at home, at the window or on the balcony, she would speak to him alone for hours, describing her impressions at length till she had put it all into words; she spoke warmly and with enthusiasm, choosing her words and rapidly seizing some expression he suggested, and he would catch in her eyes a look of gratitude for his help. Or she would sit down in a large arm-chair, pale with fatigue, and only her eager and never-tired eyes would tell him that she wanted to listen to him.
She would listen to him without moving or uttering a word, and without missing a single detail. When he fell silent, she still listened, her eyes still questioned him, and in answer to this mute challenge, he went on talking with fresh force and fresh enthusiasm. It would have been splendid: he felt warm and joyful, and his heart beat fast; it meant that she lived in the present and that she wanted nothing more: her light, her inspiration, her reason was beside her. But she would suddenly get up looking tired, and those same questioning eyes of hers would ask him to go away, or she would grow hungry and eat with such an appetite.
All that would have been excellent: he was not a dreamer; he did not want violent passion any more than Oblomov, only for different reasons. He would have wished, however, that their feeling should flow in a smooth and broad stream, but not before it first boiled up hotter at the source, so that they could scoop it up and drink their fill of it and afterwards know all their lives where this spring of happiness flowed from.
‘Does she or does she not love me?’ he cried in an agony of suspense, nearly bursting into tears, nearly on the point of a nervous breakdown.
This question was becoming more and more an obsession with him, spreading like a flame, paralysing his intentions: it was becoming a question not of love, but of life and death. There was no room in his heart for anything else now. It was as though in these six months he had experienced all the agonies and torments of love against which he had so skilfully guarded in his relations with women. He felt that his robust constitution would break down if this strain on his mind, his will, and his nerves went on for many more months. He understood what he had so far failed to understand – how a man’s powers are wasted in this secret struggle of the soul with passion, how incurable, though bloodless, wounds are inflicted upon the heart and give rise to cries of agony, and how even life may be lost. He lost some of his arrogant confidence in his own powers; he no longer joked light-heartedly when he heard stories of people going out of their minds, or pining away for all sorts of reasons, and among them – for love. He was frightened.
‘I’m going to put an end to this,’ he said. ‘I’ll find out what’s at the back of her mind, as I used to before, and tomorrow – I shall either be happy or go away! I can’t bear it any more!’ he went on, looking at himself in the glass. ‘I look like nothing on earth – enough!’
He went straight to his goal – that is, to Olga.
And what about Olga? Had she not noticed the state he was in or was she completely indifferent to it? She could not help noticing it: women less subtle than she know how to distinguish between friendly devotion and acts of kindness and the tender expression of another feeling. One could not accuse her of being a flirt, for she had a correct understanding of true undissembling and unconventional morality. She was above such vulgar weakness. It can only be assumed that, without having anything particular in mind, she liked the adoration, so full of passion and understanding, of a man like Stolz. Of course she liked it: this adoration made amends for her hurt feeling of self-respect and gradually put her back on the pedestal from which she had fallen; little by little her pride was revived. But what did she think would be the end of this adoration? It could not go on for ever expressing itself in the continual conflict between Stolz’s inquiring mind and her obstinate silence. Did she, at any rate, realize that all this conflict was not in vain and that he would gain the suit on which he had spent so much will and determination? He was not spending all his fire and brilliance for nothing, was he? Would Oblomov’s image and her old love dissolve in its rays? She did not understand anything of this, she had no clear conception of it, and she struggled desperately with these questions, with herself, and did not know how to escape from this confusion. What was she to do? She could not remain in a state of indecision: sooner or later this mute struggle and interplay of the feelings which were locked in their breasts would give way
No, she decided, she had no love for Stolz and, indeed, could not have! She had loved Oblomov, and that love had died and the flower of life had withered for ever! She had only friendship for Stolz, a friendship based on his brilliant qualities and his friendship for her, his attention, his confidence.
It was thus that she banished the thought, or even the possibility of love for her old friend. This was the reason why Stolz could not detect in her face or words any sign either of positive indifference or a momentary flash or even spark of feeling which overstepped by a hair’s-breadth the limits of warm, cordial, but ordinary friendship. There was only one way she could have ended it once and for all: having noticed the first symptoms of love in Stolz, she ought to have gone away at once, and thus nipped it in the bud. But it was already too late: it had happened long ago, and, besides, she ought to have foreseen that his feeling would develop into passion; and he was not Oblomov: she could not run away anywhere from him. Even if it had been physically possible, it was morally impossible for her to go away. At first she enjoyed only the rights of their old friendship and, as before, found in Stolz either a playful, witty, and ironical companion or a true and profound observer of life and of everything that interested them. But the more frequently they met, the more intimate they grew spiritually and the more active his role became: from a mere observer of events he imperceptibly became their interpreter and her guide. Without her noticing it, he became her reason and conscience, and new rights made their appearance, new secret ties that entangled the whole of Olga’s life, all except one cherished corner which she carefully hid from his observation and judgement. She had accepted this spiritual guardianship over her heart and mind, and saw that she had in her turn acquired an influence over him. They had exchanged rights; she had permitted this exchange to happen somehow without noticing it and without saying anything about it. How could she take it all away again now? And, besides, there was in it so much fun – pleasure – variety – life. What would she do if she were suddenly deprived of it? And, anyway, when the idea of running away occurred to her, it was too late; she had not the strength to do it. Each day she did not spend with him, every thought she did not confide in him and share with him, lost its colour and significance. ‘Oh dear,’ she thought, ‘if only I could be his sister! What happiness it would be to possess a permanent claim on a man like that, not only on his mind, but also on his heart, to enjoy his presence openly and legitimately, without having to pay for it by heavy sacrifices, disappointments, and confessions of one’s miserable past. And now – what am I? If he goes away, I not only have no right to keep him, but I ought to wish to part from him; and if I do make him stay, what am I to tell him? What right have I to wish to see and hear him every minute? Because I am bored, because I feel miserable, because he teaches me, amuses me, is useful and pleasant to me? That is a reason, of course, but not a right. And what do I give him in exchange? The right to admire me disinterestedly without daring to think of reciprocity when so many women would have thought themselves lucky – –’
Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes