Oblomov, p.58Ivan Goncharov
‘How happy I am!’ Olga, too, kept repeating softly, looking with pleasure upon her life, sinking into meditation at such moments – especially for some time past, three or four years after her marriage.
Man is a strange creature! The more complete her happiness was, the more pensive and even apprehensive she became. She began to watch herself carefully, and found that she was upset by the peacefulness of her life, by the way it seemed to stand still during the moments of happiness. She forced herself to shake off her pensive mood and quickened the pace of life, feverishly seeking noise, movement, cares, asking her husband to take her to town, trying going into society, but not for long. The bustle of society affected her but slightly, and she hurried back to her little home to get rid of some painful, unusual impression, and once more devoted herself entirely to the small cares of her household, staying in the nursery for hours, carrying out her duties of a mother and nurse, or spent hours reading with Andrey and talking with him about ‘serious and dull’ things, or read poetry and discussed a journey to Italy. She was afraid to sink into an apathy like Oblomov’s. But however hard she tried to rid herself of those moments of periodic numbness and slumber of the soul, she was every now and then waylaid first by the dream of happiness, when she was once more surrounded by the blue night and bound in a drowsy spell, which was followed by an interval of brooding, like a rest from life, and then by – confusion, fear, longing, a sort of dull melancholy, and her restless head was filled with vague, hazy questions. Olga listened to them intently, trying in vain to find out what was wrong with her and unable to discover what her soul was seeking and demanding from time to time, and yet it was certainly seeking and longing for something and even – dreadful to say – seemed to miss something, as though a happy life were not enough, as though she had grown tired of it and were demanding some new experiences, peering farther and farther into the future.
‘What is it?’ she thought, horrified. ‘Is there something else I need and ought to desire? Where am I to go? Nowhere. This is the end of the road…. But is it? Have I completed the circle of life? Is this all – all?’ she asked herself, leaving something unsaid – and – looking round anxiously to make sure that no one had overheard this whisper of her soul…. Her eyes questioned the sky, the sea, the woods – there was no answer anywhere; there was nothing there but emptiness and darkness.
Nature said the same thing over and over again; she saw in it an uninterrupted and monotonous flow of life, without beginning or end. She knew whom to consult about her worries, and she might have found an answer; but what kind of answer? What if it was merely the dissatisfied muttering of a sterile mind or, worse still, the craving of an unwomanly heart that has not been created for sympathy alone? Heavens, she – his idol – was heartless and possessed a hard and never-contented mind! What would she become? Not a blue-stocking, surely? How she would fall in his estimation when he discovered these new, unwonted sufferings, which were, of course, known to him. She hid from him or pretended to be ill, and then her eyes, in spite of herself, lost their velvety softness and looked hot and dry, a heavy cloud lay on her face, and, try as she might, she could not force herself to smile or talk, and listened indifferently to the most exciting news of the political world and the most interesting explanation of some new scientific discovery or new creative work of art. And yet she did not want to cry, she felt no sudden excitement as when her nerves were on edge and her virginal powers were awakening and finding expression. No, that was not it!
‘What is it, then?’ she asked herself in despair, when she suddenly felt bored and indifferent to everything on a beautiful, quiet evening or sitting beside the cradle, or amidst her husband’s endearments and speeches…. She suddenly stood stock-still and grew silent, then busied herself with a feigned liveliness to conceal her strange ailment, or said she had a headache and went to bed. But it was not easy for her to hide herself from Stolz’s keen eyes: she knew it and prepared herself inwardly for the conversation that was to come with the same anxiety as she had once prepared herself for confessing her past. It came at last.
One evening they were taking a walk in the poplar avenue. She almost hung on his shoulder, hardly uttering a word. She was suffering from one of her mysterious attacks and replied curtly to whatever he said.
‘The nurse says that little Olga was coughing in the night. Don’t you think we ought to send for the doctor to-morrow?’ he asked.
‘I’ve given her a warm drink and will not let her go for a walk to-morrow, and then we shall see!’ she replied monotonously.
They walked to the end of the avenue in silence.
‘Why haven’t you answered your friend Sonia’s letter?’ he asked. ‘I kept waiting and nearly missed the post. It’s her third letter you’ve left unanswered.’
‘Yes, I want to forget her as quickly as possible,’ she said, and fell silent.
‘I gave Bichurin your regards,’ Andrey began again. ‘He’s in love with you, you know, so I thought it might comfort him a little for his wheat not arriving in time.’
She smiled dryly.
‘Yes, you’ve told me,’ she said indifferently.
‘What is it? Are you sleepy?’ he asked.
Her heart missed a beat, as it did every time he began asking her questions that affected her closely.
‘Not yet,’ she answered with feigned cheerfulness. ‘Why?’
‘You’re not feeling ill?’ he asked again.
‘No. What makes you think so?’
‘Well, then, you must be bored!’
She pressed his shoulder tightly with both her hands.
‘No, no!’ she declared in an exaggeratedly cheerful voice, which certainly sounded rather bored.
He led her out of the avenue and turned her face to the moonlight.
‘Look at me!’ he said, gazing intently into her eyes. ‘One might think that you were – unhappy! Your eyes are so strange to-day, and not only to-day – – What is the matter with you, Olga?’
He put his arm round her waist and took her back into the avenue.
‘You know,’ she said, trying to laugh, ‘I’m famished!’
‘Don’t tell stories! I don’t like it!’ he added, with feigned severity.
‘Unhappy!’ she repeated, reproachfully, stopping him in the avenue. ‘Yes, I am unhappy because – I am too happy!’ she concluded in such a soft and tender voice that he kissed her.
She grew bolder. The assumption, though made light-heartedly and in jest, that she was unhappy, unexpectedly made her wish to speak frankly.
‘I am not bored – I couldn’t be, you know that perfectly well yourself – and I’m not ill, but – I can’t help feeling sad – sometimes. There, you insufferable man, if you must know! Yes, I feel sad, and I don’t know why!’
She put her head on his shoulder.
‘I see! But why on earth?’ he asked softly, bending over her.
‘Don’t know,’ she repeated.
‘But there must be a reason, if not in me, or in your surroundings, then in yourself. Sometimes such sadness is merely the first symptom of an illness… are you well?’
‘Yes, perhaps it is something like that,’ she said earnestly, ‘though I don’t feel ill at all. You see how I eat, sleep, work, and go for walks. Then suddenly something comes over me – a sort of depression. I can’t help feeling that something is lacking in my life. But no, don’t listen to me! It’s all nonsense!’
‘Please go on,’ he insisted. ‘You say you feel there’s something lacking in your life – what else?’
‘Sometimes I seem to be afraid that things will change or come to an end – I don’t know myself,’ she went on. ‘Or I’m worried by the silly thought – what else is going to happen? What is happiness? What is the meaning of life?’ she said, speaking more and more softly, ashamed of these questions. ‘All these joys, sorrows, nature,’ she whispered, ‘it all seems to make me long to go somewhere, and I become dissatisfied with everything. Oh dear, I’m
She pressed close to him timidly and tenderly, feeling really ashamed and as though asking forgiveness for her ‘foolishness’.
Her husband questioned her a long time and it took a long time to tell him, as a patient does a doctor, the symptoms of her sadness, to put into words all the vague questions that worried her, to describe the confusion in her mind, and then – as soon as the mirage disappeared – everything she could remember and observe.
Stolz walked along the avenue in silence, his head bowed, pondering, anxious and perplexed by his wife’s vague confession.
She peered into his eyes, but saw nothing, and when they reached the end of the avenue for the third time, she would not let him turn round, but herself now took him out into the moonlight and gazed questioningly into his eyes.
‘What are you thinking of?’ she asked shyly. ‘You’re laughing at my foolishness, aren’t you? It is very silly, this sadness of mine, isn’t it?’
He made no answer.
‘Why are you silent?’ she asked impatiently.
‘You’ve been silent for a long time, although you knew, of course, that I’ve been watching you for some time, so let me be silent and think it over. You’ve set me no easy task.’
‘Well, you’ll be thinking now and I’ll be worrying myself to death trying to guess what conclusion you’ve reached alone by yourself. I shouldn’t have told you about it!’ she added. ‘You’d better say something….’
‘What can I say to you?’ he said thoughtfully; ‘perhaps you’re still suffering from strained nerves, in which case it is the doctor and not I who will decide what’s wrong with you. We must send for him to-morrow. But if it isn’t – –’ He stopped short, pondering.
‘What if it isn’t? Tell me!’ she persisted impatiently.
He walked on, still absorbed in his thoughts.
‘Please!’ she said, shaking him by the arm.
‘Perhaps it’s an over-active imagination, you’re much too animated; or again, perhaps you’ve reached the age when – –’ He finished in an undertone, speaking almost to himself.
‘Please speak up, Andrey. I can’t bear it when you mutter to yourself!’ she complained. ‘I have told him a lot of nonsense, and he hangs his head and mutters something under his breath! I honestly feel nervous here with you in the dark….’
‘I don’t know what to say – you feel depressed, you’re worried by some sort of questions – I don’t know what to make of it. We’ll discuss it again later: you may be needing sea-bathing cure again….’
‘You said to yourself – perhaps you’ve reached the age – what did you mean?’ she asked.
‘You see, I meant – –’ he said slowly, expressing himself hesitantly, distrusting his own thoughts and, as it were, ashamed of his words. ‘You see – there are moments – I mean, if it isn’t a sign of a nervous breakdown, if there is absolutely nothing the matter with you, then perhaps you’ve reached the age of maturity when one stops growing – where there are no more riddles, and when it all becomes plain….’
‘You mean I’ve grown old, don’t you?’ she interrupted him quickly. ‘Don’t you dare suggest it!’ She shook a finger at him. ‘I am still young and strong,’ she added, drawing herself up.
He laughed. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said; ‘it seems to me you don’t ever intend to grow old! No, that’s not what I meant. In old age one’s powers fail and stop struggling with life. No, your sadness and depression – if it is what I think it is – is rather a sign of strength. A lively, inquiring, and dissatisfied mind sometimes attempts to penetrate beyond the boundaries of life and, finding, of course, no answer, is plunged into melancholy and – temporary dissatisfaction with life. It is the melancholy of the soul questioning life about its mysteries. Perhaps that is what’s the matter with you…. If that is so – it isn’t foolishness.’
She sighed, but it seemed more like a sigh of relief that her apprehensions were over and that she had not fallen in the estimation of her husband, but quite the contrary….
‘But I am happy, my mind is not idle, I am not day-dreaming, my life is full – what more do I want? Why all these questionings?’ she said. ‘It’s a disease, an obsession!’
‘Yes, perhaps it is an obsession for an ignorant, untrained, and weak mind. This melancholy and these questions have possibly driven many people mad; to some they appear as hideous apparitions, as a delirium of the mind.’
‘My happiness is brimming over, I so want to live and – suddenly all is gall and wormwood….’
‘Ah, that’s what one has to pay for the Promethean fire! It isn’t enough to suffer, you have to love this melancholy and respect your doubts and questionings: they represent the surfeit, the luxury of life, and mostly appear on the summits of happiness, when there are no coarse desires; people who are in need and sorrow are not bothered by them; thousands and thousands of people go through life without knowing anything about this fog of doubts and the anguish of questionings…. But to those who have met them at the right moment, they are not an affliction, but welcome guests.’
But it’s impossible to manage them: they make you feel miserable and indifferent – to almost everything,’ she added hesitantly.
‘Not for long, though,’ he said. ‘Afterwards they make life all the fresher. They bring us to the abyss from which we can get no answer and then make us look upon life with greater love than ever… they challenge forces that have been tried already to a fight with them, as though they did not want them to go to sleep….’
‘To be worried by some fog, by phantoms,’ she complained. ‘All is so bright and sunny, and suddenly an ominous shadow falls upon life! Is there no remedy against it?’
‘Of course there is! You must find strength in life, and if you can’t, life becomes unbearable even without these questions.’
‘What am I to do, then? Yield and be miserable?’
‘Not at all,’ he said; ‘arm yourself with fortitude and go on your way in life patiently and perseveringly. You and I are not Titans,’ he went on, putting his arm round her; ‘we shall not go, like Manfred and Faust, to struggle defiantly with formidable problems; we shall not accept their challenge, but bow our heads and humbly go through the difficult times, and then life and happiness will smile upon us once more and – –’
‘But what if they never leave us alone and sadness troubles us more and more?’ she asked.
‘Well, what if it does? Let us accept it as a new element in life. But no, that does not happen; it cannot be so with us! This is not your sadness; it is the general ailment of mankind. One drop of it has fallen on you. All this is terrible when one has lost touch with life – when there’s nothing to sustain one. But with us – I only hope this melancholy of yours is what I think it is and not the symptom of some illness – that would be worse, that would be a calamity which would leave me utterly defenceless and helpless. But do you really think that some vague sadness, doubts, or questionings could deprive us of our happiness, our – –’
He did not finish the sentence, and she threw herself into his arms like one possessed and, clasping her arms round his neck, like a bacchante, in a passionate embrace, remained motionless like that for a moment.
‘Neither vague sadness, nor illness, nor – death!’ she whispered rapturously, once again happy, calm, and gay. It seemed to her that she never loved him so passionately as at this moment.
‘Take care that Fate does not overhear your complaint and take it for ingratitude,’ he concluded with a superstitious observation, inspired by tender solicitude. ‘She dislikes people who do not value her gifts. So far you were just getting to know life; you still have to test it. Wait till it gets going in good earnest, till sorrow and trouble come – and they will come – then you
She was silent, struck suddenly by the sadness in his voice. She had infinite faith in him, and the sound of his voice inspired trust in her. She was infected by his thoughtfulness and became absorbed in herself. Leaning on him, she walked slowly and mechanically up and down the avenue, sunk in deep silence. Following her husband’s example, she gazed apprehensively into the future where, as he said, trials, trouble, and sorrow awaited them. She was no longer dreaming of a blue night; another prospect opened up before her, one that was not translucent and festive, not life amid peace and plenty, alone with him. No, what she saw there was a series of privations and losses, bedewed with tears, unavoidable sacrifices, a life of fasting and forced renunciation, of fancies born in idleness, groans and lamentations caused by new feelings they had not experienced before; she dreamed of illness, business failures, her husband’s death…. She shuddered, she lost heart, but she gazed with courage and curiosity at that new aspect of life, examined it with horror and measured her strength against it…. Love alone did not betray her in that dream; it kept guard faithfully over this new life, too; and yet it, too, was different! There were no ardent sighs, no bright rays, and no blue nights; as years passed, it all seemed child’s play in comparison with that far-away love taken for its own by stern and uncompromising life. You heard no laughter and kisses there, nor pensive conversations, quivering with suppressed passion, in the summer-house among the flowers at the festival of nature and life…. All that had ‘withered and gone’. But that unfailing and indestructible love could be perceived in their faces as powerful as the life-force – at the time of common sorrow it shone in the slowly and silently exchanged glance of mutual suffering, and it could be felt in the infinite patience with which they met life’s torments, in their restrained tears and stifled sobs. Other dreams, distant, but clear, definite, and menacing, quietly replaced Olga’s vague sadness and questionings…. Under the influence of the reassuring and calm words of her husband, and in the boundless trust she felt in him, Olga relaxed from her mysterious sadness, which only few people know, and the stern and prophetic dreams of the future, and she went cheerfully forward. The ‘fog’ gave place to a bright and sunny morning, with the cares of a mother and a housewife; she felt drawn now to the flower-garden and the fields and now to her husband’s study. But no longer did she play about with life in careless abandon; instead she took heart of grace and, inspired by a secret thought, prepared herself, and waited…. She was growing in grace…. Andrey saw that his former ideal of woman and wife was unattainable, but he was happy even in the pale reflection of it in Olga: he had never expected even that. Meanwhile he, too, was faced for years, for almost his whole life, with the not inconsiderable task of maintaining his dignity as a man on the same high level in the eyes of a woman so proud and with so proper a regard for her own self-respect as Olga, not out of vulgar jealousy, but so as to make sure that her life, which was clear as crystal, should not be darkened; and this might well happen if her faith in him were in the least shaken.
Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes