Elena Gan and the Female Gothic in Russia

Carolyn Jursa Ayers, University of Groningen

Great strides have been made in recent years in opening up the Russian literary tradition to embrace the works of women writers, as witness several survey volumes (e.g., Kelly, Clyman & Greene) and collections of translations (e.g., Andrew, Clyman & Vowles), as well as reference guides (e.g., Ledkovsky et al., Kelly, Cornwell). The works themselves still offer great potential for a more intensive literary analysis that incorporates the obvious gender issues. This paper aims to move in that direction by examining the works of the nineteenth-century writer Elena Gan, in particular her novella Sud sveta (Society's Judgement) in terms of the Female Gothic tradition as it is understood in Anglo-American literary criticism.

Since Ellen Moers coined the label in 1976, the category Female Gothic has come into wide use and acquired a broad range of meanings. The general premise is that women writers have appropriated many of the stock Gothic devices, such as the castle/ruin motif, a flight-and-pursuit plot structure, apprehension of reality through imagination and emotion, etc., to explore anxieties about the nature of the female self and especially female sexuality. This interpretative framework seems to offer a new perspective from which to approach Gan's writing, which up until now has been judged indulgently but without noticeable enthusiasm. Some of Gan's peculiarities of style, for example, her effusiveness and her seeming lack of aesthetic restraint acquire new meaning when placed in the context of the Gothic.

Sud sveta, which has usually been read as a society tale containing a Gothic episode (Vlodinskij and Zenaida's encounter in the castle in Germany), is in fact saturated with Gothic motifs and devices at various levels of the narrative. In my view these are integral to and expressive of the central problem of the novella, which is the heroine's sexual and/or spiritual nature. Gan's appropriation of the Gothic is, however, made more problematic by her specific concern with the implications of female creativity. Without denying the society tale elements, a Gothic framework not only enhances our reading of Sud sveta, but points to what seems to be a natural affinity in Gan for the Gothic, evident also in several of her other works.

On the basis of this analysis of Gan's writing, this paper will posit the question of whether a Female Gothic tradition exists or has existed in Russian literature. Thus far, individual links have been noted but not explored. It is hoped that this initial attempt to read Elena Gan in a comparative framework (rather than considering her appropriation of literary devices simply derivative) will offer some suggestions for similar approaches to other Russian women writers.