Stolz’s views on love and marriage may have been odd and exaggerated, but they were, at any rate, his own. Here, too, he followed the free and, it seemed to him, simple road: but what a hard school of observation, patience, and labour he went through before he learnt to take these ‘simple steps’! It was from his father that he inherited the habit of looking earnestly at everything in life, even at trifles; he might perhaps have inherited from him also the pedantic severity with which Germans regard every step they take in life, including marriage.
Old Stolz’s life was there for all to read, just as though it had been inscribed on a stone tablet, and there were no hidden implications in it. But his mother, with her songs and tender whispers, the diversified life in the prince’s house, and later the university, books, and society had led Andrey away from the straight path marked out for him by his father; Russian life was drawing its own invisible patterns and transforming the insipid tablet into a broad and brilliant picture.
Andrey did not impose pedantic chains on his feelings and even went so far as to give free rein to his day-dreams, trying only not to lose ‘the ground under his feet’, though when waking from them he could not refrain, either because of his German nature or for some other reason, from drawing some conclusion which had a direct bearing on some of life’s problems. He was vigorous in body because he was vigorous in mind. He had been playful and full of mischief as a boy, and when not playing he was doing something under his father’s supervision. He had no time to indulge in day-dreams. His imagination was not corrupted and his heart was not spoiled; his mother carefully watched over the virginal purity of both. As a youth he instinctively conserved his powers, and it was not long before he discovered that by keeping them fresh he also kept his cheerfulness and his vigour, and helped to form that manliness of character in which the soul must be steeled if it is not to capitulate before life, whatever it may be, and look upon it not as a heavy burden or a cross, but only as a duty, and wage battle with it worthily. He devoted much careful thought to the heart and its complicated laws. Observing consciously and unconsciously the effect of beauty on the imagination and then the transition of an impression into feeling, its symptoms, its play, and its result, he became more and more convinced, as he looked around and grew experienced, that love moved the world with the power of Archimedes’ lever; that there is as much universal and irrefutable truth and goodness in it as there is falsehood and ugliness in its misuse and the failure to understand it. What is good? What is evil? What is the dividing line between them? At the question ‘What is falsehood?’ he saw in his imagination a motley procession of masks of the past and present. He contemplated with a smile, blushing and frowning in turn, the endless row of heroes and heroines of love: Don Quixotes in steel gauntlets, and the ladies of their dreams, remaining faithful to one another after fifty years of separation; the shepherds with their rosy faces and artless, bulging eyes, and their Chloes with lambs. Before his mind’s eye marquesses appeared in powdered wigs and lace, with eyes twinkling with intelligence and dissolute smiles; they were followed by the Werthers who had shot, strangled, or hanged themselves; then by faded lovelorn maidens shedding endless tears and retiring into convents, and their mustachioed heroes with wild ardour in their eyes; by naive and self-conscious Don Juans, the clever fellows who tremble at the least suspicion of love and secretly adore their housekeepers – all, all of them.
To answer the question ‘What is truth?’ he sought far and near, in his mind and with his eyes, examples of ordinary, honest, yet deep and indissoluble intimacy with a woman, but could not find it; and if he seemed to have found it, it only seemed so, and afterwards it was followed by disillusionment. This made him sink into melancholy thoughts and even give way to despair. ‘It is clear,’ he thought to himself, ‘that this blessing has not been granted in all its fullness, or else those whose hearts have experienced the bright radiance of such a love are shy! they are timid and prefer to hide rather than argue with the clever people; perhaps they are sorry for them and forgive them in the name of their own happiness for trampling into the mud the flower that cannot take root in their shallow soil and grow into a tree that would spread its branches over the whole of their lives.’
He looked at marriage, at husbands, and in their attitude to their wives he always saw the riddle of the sphinx; there was something in it that was not understood, something that, somehow, remained unspoken; and yet those husbands did not puzzle their heads over complicated problems, but walked through married life with such even and deliberate steps as though they had nothing to solve and discover. ‘Are they perhaps right? Perhaps there really is no need of anything else,’ he thought, distrusting himself, as he saw how some men who went through love quickly as the ABC of marriage or as a form of gallantry, just as if they had made a bow on entering a drawing-room, and quickly applied themselves to more important matters! They fling the spring-time of life away impatiently; many of them, indeed, look askance at their wives for the rest of their lives as though unable to forgive themselves for having been foolish enough to fall in love with them. There are others whom love does not forsake for years, sometimes till old age, but the satyr’s smile never forsakes them, either…. Finally, most men enter into matrimony as they buy an estate and enjoy its substantial amenities: a wife keeps the house in excellent order – she is the housekeeper, the mother, the governess; they look upon love as a practical-minded farmer looks upon the beautiful surroundings of his estate; that is, he gets used to it at once and never notices it again.
‘What is it, then?’ he asked himself. ‘An innate inability due to the laws of nature or lack of education and training? Where is the sympathy that never loses its natural charm, that never wears motley, that undergoes modifications but is never extinguished! What is the natural shade and colour of this ubiquitous and all-permeating blessing, of this sap of life?’
He cast a prophetic glance into the distant future, and there arose before him, as in a mist, the image of love and with it of a woman clothed in its colour and radiant with its light, an image so simple, but bright and pure. ‘A dream, a dream!’ he said with a smile, recovering from the idle excitement of his reverie. But the outline of this dream lived in his memory in spite of himself. At first this image appeared to him as the personification of the woman of the future; but when, after Olga had grown into womanhood, he saw in her not only the splendour of a fully developed beauty, but also a force ready to face life and eager to understand and fight life’s battles – all the elements of his dream, there arose before him his old and almost forgotten image of love and he began to dream of Olga as its personification, and it seemed to him that in the far-distant future truth would manifest itself in their sympathy for each other – without growing shabby and without abuses of any kind. Without toying with the question of love and marriage and without confusing it with any considerations of money, connexions, and posts, Stolz, however, could not help wondering how to reconcile his external and hitherto indefatigable activity with his inner family life, how, in fact, he could transform himself from a traveller and business-man into a stay-at-home husband. If he was to settle down and put an end to his constant running about from one place to another, how would he fill his life at home? The bringing up and education of children and the direction of their life was not, of course, an easy or unimportant task, but that was still a long way off, and what was he going to do in the meantime? These questions had often troubled him, and he did not find his bachelor life a burden; nor had it occurred to him to put on the shackles of married life as soon as his heart began beating when he found himself in the presence of beauty. That was why he seemed to ignore Olga as a girl and admired her merely as a charming child of great promise. He would, casually and jokingly, throw some new bold idea or some acute observation of life into her eager and receptive mind, arousing in her, without realizing it, a lively understanding of events and a correct view of things; and then he would forget Olga and his casual lessons. And at tim
For a long time she would not let him guess what she really was either out of pride or shyness, and it was only after an agonizing struggle abroad that he saw with amazement into what a model of simplicity, strength, and naturalness this promising child he had almost forgotten had grown. It was then that the whole depth of her soul, which he might have filled but never succeeded in filling, was revealed to him.
At first he had long to struggle with the vivacity of her nature, to check the fever of youth, keep her impulses within definite bounds, and impart an even flow to their life, and that, too, only for a time. For as soon as he closed his eyes trustfully, an alarm was raised again, life was in full swing, some new question sprang from her restless mind and anxious heart: he had to calm her excited imagination, to soothe or rouse her pride. If she pondered over something, he hastened to give her the key to it. Belief in chance, mists and hallucinations disappeared from her life. A bright clear vista opened up before her and she could see in it, as in limpid water, every pebble, every crevice, and then the clean sandy bottom.
‘I am happy,’ she whispered, casting a glance of gratitude over her past life and, trying to see into the future, she recalled the girlish dream of happiness she had once dreamed in Switzerland, the wistful, blue night, and she saw that that dream, like a shadow, was haunting her life. ‘Why should this have fallen to my lot?’ she thought humbly. She pondered, and was sometimes afraid lest her happiness should end.
Years passed, but they did not tire of living. Peace came at last, the emotional storms subsided; the ups and downs of life no longer puzzled them; they put up with them cheerfully and patiently, and yet life never flagged. Olga reached a true understanding of life. Two existences – Andrey’s and hers – merged into one; there could be no question of a riot of wild passions; all was peace and harmony between them. It would seem that they might have gone to sleep in this well-earned rest and be as blissfully happy as people who live in some backwater, who meet together three times a day, yawning over their familiar conversation, falling into a dull slumber, languishing from morning till night because everything had already been thought, said, and done over and over again and there was nothing more to be said or done and because ‘such is life’. Outwardly their life was the same as other people’s. They got up early, though not at dawn; they liked to spend a long time over their breakfast, and sometimes seemed to be lazily silent; then they each went to their rooms or worked together, dined, drove to the fields, had music – like everybody else, as Oblomov had dreamed. But there was no drowsiness or depression about them; they spent their days without being bored or apathetic; they never exchanged a dull word or look; their conversation never came to an end and was sometimes heated. Their ringing voices resounded in the rooms and reached the garden, or tracing the pattern of their dreams, they quietly communicated to each other the first scarcely perceptible stirrings of thought, the barely audible murmur of the soul. And their silence was sometimes the thoughtful happiness of which Oblomov had dreamed, or the solitary mental work over the endless material they provided for each other. They often sank into silent amazement before the eternally new and resplendent beauty of nature. Their sensitive souls could not get used to this beauty: the earth, the sky, the sea – everything awakened their feelings – and they sat in silence side by side and looked through the same eyes and with one heart at this glory of creation and understood each other without words. They did not meet the morning with indifference; they could not sink dully into the twilight of a warm, starry, southern night. They were kept awake by the constant excitement of the soul and the need to think together, to feel and to talk!… But what was the subject of these heated discussions, quiet conversations, readings, and long walks? Why, everything! While they were still abroad, Stolz lost the habit of reading and working alone: here, alone with Olga, he did not even think alone. He could scarcely manage to keep pace with the agonizing rapidity of her thought and will.
The question of what he was going to do in his family circle was no longer urgent – it had solved itself. He had to initiate her even into his business life, for she felt stifled unless she took an active part in life. He did nothing without her knowledge or active participation, whether it was building, or something to do with her own or Oblomov’s estate, or the company’s business transactions. Not a single letter was posted without her reading it, not a single idea, and still less its realization, was kept from her; she knew everything, and everything interested her because it interested him. At first he did it because he found it impossible to hide anything from her: if he wrote a letter or conducted a conversation with an agent or contractor – it was done in her presence; later he continued this from habit, and at last it became a necessity for him too. Her remarks, advice, approval or disapproval were esteemed by him as a necessary check-up on his plans: he saw that she understood as well as he, that she thought and reasoned no worse than he…. Zakhar resented such ability in his wife, and many men resent it – but Stolz was happy! And reading and learning – the perpetual nourishment of thought and its endless development! Olga was jealous of every book and article she was not shown and was seriously angry or offended if he did not think it worth while showing her something he considered too serious, boring, or incomprehensible to her; she called it pedantic, vulgar, retrograde, and scolded him for being ‘an old German stick-in-the-mud’. They often had lively scenes about it. She was angry and he laughed, she grew angrier and made it up with him only when he stopped pulling her leg and shared his ideas, knowledge, and reading with her. The end of it was that she wanted to read about and to know everything he wanted to. He did not force technical terms on her in order to boast idiotically of a ‘learned wife’. If she had uttered a single word or hinted at such a claim on his part, he would have blushed more than if she had replied with a blank look of ignorance to an elementary question that did not as yet form part of a woman’s education. He merely wanted – and she doubly so – that there should be nothing inaccessible to her understanding, if not to her knowledge. He did not draw diagrams or figures for her, but discussed everything with her and read a great deal without pedantically avoiding economic theories or social or philosophical questions; he spoke with passion and enthusiasm and, as it were, drew for her an endless, living picture of knowledge. Later on she forgot the details, but the general pattern was never erased from her impressionable mind, the colours did not fade, and the fire with which he lighted the world of knowledge he created for her was never extinguished. He was thrilled with pride and happiness when he noticed a spark of that fire shining in her eyes afterwards, how an echo of a thought he had imparted to her resounded in her speech, how it had entered into her consciousness and understanding, been transformed in her mind and appeared in her words no lon
‘How happy I am!’ Stolz said to himself, and dreamed in his own way, trying to guess what their future life would be like after the first years of their marriage.
In the distance a new image smiled at him, not of a selfish Olga, nor a passionately loving wife, nor a mother-nurse fading away in the end in a colourless existence no one wanted, but of something different, exalted, almost unheard of…. He dreamed of a mother who created and took part in the social and spiritual life of a whole generation of happy people…. He wondered fearfully if she would have enough will-power – and hastily helped her to subdue life, to acquire a reserve of courage for the battle of life – now, while they were still young and strong, while life spared them or its blows did not seem heavy and while grief was submerged in love. Their days had been darkened, but not for long. Business failures, the loss of a considerable amount of money – all that hardly affected them. It meant additional work and extra journeys, but was soon forgotten. The death of her aunt caused Olga bitter and genuine tears and cast a shadow on her life for about six months. The children’s illnesses were a source of constant anxiety and lively apprehension, but as soon as the apprehension was gone, happiness returned. What worried him most was Olga’s health: it took her a long time to recover from her confinements, and although she recovered, he still continued to feel anxious. He knew of no misfortune more terrible.
Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes