Battling the Tyrant: Puškin in 1835

David Herman, University of Virginia

Puškin’s frame of mind in the last year or two of his life has long been debated. Having four years earlier written that with Del′vig gone, he fears he will be the next Lycee graduate to die, Puškin in 1835 goes so far as to purchase land for his own gravesite. Meanwhile, various tensions have arisen between him and Car′ Nikolaj, and the poet’s fall from favor with the reading public has become painfully obvious. What is occurring in Puškin’s fiction, however, is this paper’s main focus: the culmination of a long-standing interest in a single stable plot kernel. Mirskij notes that many of the short poems of the later period are impersonal in their subject matter. Lotman meanwhile maintains that the poet left so many unfinished fragments because he simply had too many ideas for the available time. I would like to show that many of these fragments, both prose and fiction, are in fact deeply personal and obsessively return to a single imagined scenario which Puškin had considered before but which now fascinates him as an idée fixe: an almost powerless individual faces a great force (variously, a ruler of some sort, fate, or death) whose cruelty or merciless tyranny he or she must either bow down to or struggle somehow to overcome.

As this unchanging dilemma is replayed, it changes shape. In its oldest versions, it substantially predates 1835 and is entirely metaphoric: Onegin and Tatiana serving by turns as the other’s hard-hearted “idol.” It returns in 1833 in literal form as the conflict between Eugene and Car′ Peter in The Bronze Horseman and again in “The Queen of Spades”, but with heroes who never meet face to face and who thus must duel obliquely. In The Captain’s Daughter (1833-36), the protagonist at last finds his fate in the hands of living rulers, first Pugačev and later Catherine. The question that arises is: does he owe his success, the first in the series, to anything more than luck? Having seemingly exhausted the tale’s possible permutations, Puškin in 1835 zeroes in on it with unprecedented fervor in a chain of works, most not completed, including “On Lucullus’ Recovery,” “The Feast of Peter the First”, “Oh Poverty, at Last I Have Learned … ,” “When the Assyrian Sovereign … ”, and “Scenes from Knightly Times” among others. What draws Puškin back to retell a plot he had told so often and so well? What had the earlier texts left unspoken? Puškin seems to be suggesting that in the human condition as he has come to see it, individuals’ fates no longer rest entirely in their own hands, but also that those with the poet’s power of invention may be best equipped to battle the tyranny of fate.