Remapping Arcadia: “Pastoral Space” in Nineteenth-Century Russian Prose

Rachel S. Platonov, Harvard University

The pastoral has proven to be an enormously popular genre, both with authors and with critics. Many aspects of pastoral—including character, setting, temporal constraints, and the dynamics of the city/country opposition—have been studied, with interesting and illuminating results. One aspect of the genre that seems to have been largely ignored, though, is the nature and function of space in the pastoral. It is all but taken for granted that space in an Arcadian Eden is, as W. H. Auden wrote in 1948, “both safe and free.” Frequent use of descriptors such as “mir, tišina,” and “spokojstvie” has led scholars of Russian variants of the genre to similar conclusions. This paper takes issue with such descriptions of space in the pastoral, contending that space in the pastoral is not only not “safe and free,” but that the existence of pastoral worlds in fact depends upon an observance of various kinds of boundaries. The term “pastoral space” is proposed to describe the phenomenon under analysis.

Pastoral space, as it is defined in this paper, is a concept of mythological origin that provides the cosmography for a range of microcosmic settings. Pastoral space is distinguished from pastoral setting, in that characteristics of pastoral space can be transposed from one physical locale to another, and in that different characters can experience the same physical setting in very different spatial terms. The idea of pastoral space relies on an archaic world model, described by Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane, in which space is not “homogeneous and neutral”; as Eliade comments, in an archaic world model, space can be “broken” or “interrupted,” and parts of that space can be qualitatively differentiated from others. Because space is subject to such differentiation, boundaries—physical or otherwise—are of enormous significance; the most important boundaries in such a world picture are those that separate the cosmos (“our world”) from chaos (“the other world”).

This model of pastoral space is applied to several works of nineteenth-century Russian prose that have been associated with the tradition of pastoral, including Turgenev’s Zapiski oxotnika and Gončarov’s Oblomov. Boundaries are shown to play a major role in these works, defining pastoral space, separating and distinguishing it from the world beyond, and ultimately preserving its integrity; consequentially, it is demonstrated, transgression of boundaries in each of these works is extremely problematic, resulting in various levels of dislocation and disruption, including, in the extreme, death and the destruction of the pastoral world.