The Trickster's Word: Orality, Literacy, and Genre in Aleksandr Pushkin's The Captain's Daughter

Polina Rikoun, Harvard University

The Russian proverb "beregi plat'e snovu, a chest' smolodu"--"safeguard your clothes when they are new, and your honor when you are young"--furnishes the epigraph for Aleksandr Pushkin's Captain's Daughter and points at the novel's conflict between oral and literary cultures. Juxtaposed with the epigraphs quoted from Russian neo-classical drama, the proverb generates a tension between the oral and the literary traditions. It also sets a piece of "native" wisdom against the references to foreign influence. Finally, the proverb plays on the contrast between inward character and outward trappings, pitting self-consistency against self-division. These conflicts become developed in the figure of the novel's narrator, Petr Grinev. My paper will show that his maturation entails learning the Trickster's strategies in order to mediate between the oppositions that the novel's epigraph sets up.

My research draws upon Ong's and Havelock's works to establish the orality-literacy opposition, and the scholarship of Hynes, Doty, Hyde, and Pelton to define the Trickster (I capitalize the word referring to this figure in general and use the lower case to indicate specific characters). This figure of myth and folklore is an inherently ambiguous boundary dweller and mischief-maker who mediates between opposites not by annulling their differences, but by using paradox and irony to transform reality. Through such transformations the Trickster revitalizes the very traditions that he or she disrupts. Russian oral tradition has at least two Trickster-figures: the folktale Ivanushka-durachok and the legendary royal impostor, samozvanec.

I show that Pushkin opposes the Russian folk trickster-impostor Pugachev to the nobleman Grinev whose childhood self echoes Fonvizin's Mitrofanushka, a stock fool patterned on the literary conventions of French neo-classicism. Pushkin sends Grinev on a quest to transgress the strictures of static neo-classical characterization, encapsulated in Grinev senior's prohibition against change and self-division. In Pugachev, the young Grinev finds an alternative mode of behavior: the fluid folk Trickster-like theatricality. Unwilling to abandon the nobleman's honor, Grinev cannot simply pledge allegiance to Pugachev, but must learn to mediate between his sympathy for the samozvanec and his oath to Catherine II, as well as between his semi-Westernized education and the oral cultures Pugachev represents. Accomplishing these mediations, Grinev becomes a trickster, and develops a singular narrative voice that fuses Russian oral and literary traditions. Pushkin the implied author cinches and upstages his protagonist's mediating feat. Styling himself a Trickster, Pushkin destabilizes the writing-based boundaries that separate the implied author, the text, and the implied reader. Thus he reproduces the dynamics of oral story-telling and creates a hybrid of oral and literary narrative structures--Captain's Daughter.