Turgenev's "The Jew": Jewish Death, Russian Identity

Gary Rosenshield, University of Wisconsin

Turgenev's early story "The Jew," (zhid, 1847) has received very little critical attention not only because it is an early work but because it paints a rather stereotypical picture of its Jewish characters, a Jewish factor Girshel' and his beautiful daughter, Sara. The story deserves to be looked at much more closely. It marks an important early attempt to confront the Jewish stereotype in Russian literature, engaging in a polemic with Gogol''s representation of Jewish death in Taras Bul'ba.

Taras Bul'ba describes in almost comic terms a pogrom perpetrated by the Cossacks on the Jews. When the Cossacks come after the Jews with the intent of killing them, the Jews, "losing what little courage they" have, hide in empty vodka barrels, in ovens, and even creep under the skirts of their wives. The Cossacks find them nevertheless: "They seized the Jews by their arms and began flinging them into the water. Pitiful cries rang out on all sides, but the hardened Cossacks only laughed at the sight of the Jews' legs in slippers and stockings kicking in the air."

Turgenev transforms Gogol''s scene in several ways. He paints his Jewish protagonist comically but he portrays the situation in which the Jew finds himself—sentenced to hanging for spying against the Russian army—far more seriously. He constructs the execution scene almost as though it were a literary experiment, testing whether all death, irrespective of the crime and the nature of the criminal, can and must be treated with existential seriousness. Erich Auerbach would certainly have called Turgenev's story a perfect example of nineteenth-century existential mimesis—despite Turgenev's use of the Jewish stereotype.

The present paper will address itself to two of the most important aspects of Turgenev's story in terms of the Jewish stereotype in Russian literature. By comparing Turgenev's depiction of the Jews in "The Jew" with Gogol''s presentation in Taras Bul'ba, I hope, first, to illuminate Turgenev's confrontation of the comic, unexistential stereotype of the Jew in early Russian literature, an approach that was really not seriously pursued again before chexov's "Rothschild's Fiddle." Secondly, I hope to show how Turgenev attempts, not unlike Gogol', to construct the notion of Russian identity by defining it, both physically and morally, in terms of an antithetical male "other," in this case the unprepossessing and morally defective Jew of the borderlands. Though beginning with similar representations of the Jew—that is, with similar "others"—Gogol' and Turgenev arrive at significantly different male Russian ideals: both physically prepossessing, but almost exactmoral antitheses.

This paper is part of a larger project in which I treat the representation of Jews in terms of literary polemics, with each successive writer responding not so much to the reality of Jews in Russia—until the last decades of the nineteenth century few Russians had contacts with real Jews—but to the Jewish portrayals of their predecessors.