Breakdowns in the Park

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, Russian prose writers more often than not depict members of the gentry in private spaces. Gatherings tend to take place in the salons and sitting rooms of urban homes and country estates. Young lovers court while strolling and sitting on benches in landscaped private gardens. Men defend their honor by fighting duels on estates outside of cities. Altogether, these gentry settings present a vision of decorum and control, and physically corroborate the idea of a yawning rift between the gentry and the narod. A limited number of scenes take place in public spaces. Theaters and balls may be regarded as an intermediary realm between public and private, because each have developed behavioral norms and protocols, and because they are frequented by a relatively homogenous social group.

Parks are a different matter. In parks, upper-class Russians run the risk of rubbing shoulders with a broader range of society. Moreover, the very fact of going to a park indicates that one’s own real estate holdings afford one insufficient opportunities for leisure. Recourse to public space, in short, intimates class decline: parks are degraded private gardens. Therefore it comes as no surprise that parks become loci of a variety of solecisms and irruptions in the social fabric. Romantic liaisons in parks, for example, are invariably somewhat illicit. In Odoevskij’s Princess Mimi and Gercen’s Who is to Blame?, parks serve as meeting places for semi-adulterous couples. For the sake of appearances, Gončarov’s Oblomov and Ol′ga meet on the sly in Petersburg’s Summer Garden. In Dostoevskij’s The Idiot, numerous irregular courtship scenes take place in the park at Pavlovsk.

But the paradigmatic park scene takes place halfway through Turgenev’s On the Eve, in which events almost unprecedented in Russian literature takes place. All of the novel’s major characters journey to Caricyno on a pleasure outing, but their tranquil day is disrupted by drunken and inconsiderate ruffians. To defend the honor of the ladies present, the Bulgarian hero Insarov must fill the gap left by the pusillanimous Russian gentlemen in his party. He accomplishes this by tossing one of these hooligans into a lake. If earlier, violence between males in the novel had been channeled through the conventions of dueling, here all conventions have been cast aside. In fact Insarov really acts in defense of social norms in general, and the fact that an outsider such as himself becomes necessary for this defense just as soon as the gentry ventures outside of its controlled spaces is quite significant.

In short, novelistic scenes set in parks invariably display fissures in the social order. These scenes are always cast against predecessor genre scenes which were set on private estates, and they always violate the norms established in those more controlled settings.