Gender and the Meaning of Money in Lev Tolstoj’s The Power of Darkness

Lida Oukaderova, University of Texas, Austin

After distancing himself from Russian aristocratic society in the early 1870s, Lev Tolstoj wrote a series of essays criticizing the country’s move towards industrial development. Touching on broader issues of Russian religion, politics and economics, these essays illustrate Tolstoj’s conviction that capitalist development was inherently destructive, leading above all to a nation of alienated subjects. The Power of Darkness, written in 1876, is one of Tolstoj’s first literary works to express similar beliefs. Primarily concerned not with the high society of St. Petersburg and Moscow but with rural peasant life, the drama juxtaposes the developing capitalism of the city to agrarian village culture, and attempts to illustrate the dangers of capitalism’s inexorable spread.

My paper reconsiders The Power of Darkness through the lens of Lacanian psychoanalysis, beginning with an investigation of the unusually central role of money in the drama. One of my basic questions is to ask why money is associated with women throughout The Power of Darkness, and what kind of danger money represents to Tolstoj’s conceptions of God and patriarchy. Contrasting the relationship of men and women to money as portrayed in the drama, I argue that Tolstoj’s rejection of Russia’s capitalist development is based not only on the perceived immoral qualities of commodity exchange, but more importantly, on money’s potential revelation of the contingent nature of patriarchal society. The struggle between capitalist development and the old agricultural society turns, in fact, into a struggle between men and women structured around castration anxiety, and The Power of Darkness establishes a set of opposites following exactly these lines: on one side (identified as masculine), God and legal society; on the other (coded as feminine), money and crime. Integrating an analysis of the function of these divisions throughout Tolstoj’s drama with an investigation of both broader social developments and Tolstoj’s other writings of the period, my paper argues that our understanding of Tolstoj’s work and thought can be greatly enhanced by psychoanalysis—just as our thinking about feminism and the nature of capitalism can be made more complex by re-reading Tolstoj.