A Feast in the Time of Plague in the Light of the Demonic in Puškin

Felix Raskolnikov, Michigan State University

The goal of my presentation is to suggest a new interpretation of Puškin’s A Feast in Time of Plague. As is known, A Feast in Time of Plague is, for the most part, a translation of Wilson’s The City of Plague, and it is only Walsingham’s “Hymn to Plague” and Mary’s song that are original works by Puškin. Unlike other scholars, I believe that there are two Walsinghams and two Marys in Puškin’s tragedy. The former are ordinary people terrified by imminent death, whereas the latter are the bearers of opposite philosophical and ethical declarations. Their juxtaposition lies at the core of the tragedy (and of my presentation).

Unlike other participants of the feast, Walsingham is the Chairman of the feast, a thinker and a poet who in a fit of sudden inspiration composes his famous “Hymn to Plague.” On the one hand, this “Hymn” opposes the superficial hedonism of the Young Man; on the other, it contradicts radically with the Christian ethical norms represented by the Priest and with Mary’s song which reveals a Christian ideal of self-sacrificial love. Walsingham’s “Hymn” is a bold challenge to God, for he not only rejects submission to His will, but also finds “unspeakable pleasure” in confrontation with Him. Therefore the Priest is right calling this “Hymn” “demonic,” whereas Mary’s song can be called, by contrast, “angelic.”

What is Puškin’s attitude toward Walsingham and his “Hymn”? Unlike other scholars, who suggest that Puškin denounces it as the revelation of human hubris and claim that Walsingham undergoes a spiritual defeat, I believe that, whereas as a person he is devastated, as a romantic poet he is not. It is Walsingham’s “Hymn to Plague” that makes him a heroic and tragic figure; without it he is only an ordinary human being crushed by his personal grief.

This does not mean, however, that Puškin renounces Christian ethical values. The finale of the tragedy testifies to the fact that the philosophical dispute between the Demonic idea of rebellion and heroic self-assertion, on the one hand, and the Christian idea of love and resignation, on the other, remains unresolved. In other words, in my opinion, Puškin finds truth and poetry in both Walsingham’s “Hymn” and in Mary’s song. The disharmony of these “truths” explains the dialogical and tragic nature of A Feast in Time of Plague, which, in this regard, anticipates Dostoevskij’s novels. It also demonstrates an inner conflict in Puškin between a Christian and a Romantic poet that can be observed not only in A Feast, but also in many of his other works of that period.