Reconsidering Image Criticism: Reception of Nineteenth-Century Russian Classics in Early Twentieth-Century Women’s Periodicals

Jane Gary Harris, University of Pittsburgh

Since modern feminist literary theory began as a critique of images of women, namely, as an effort to look back from the 1970s at stereotypes of femininity represented in the literary classics, it now seems appropriate three decades later, to revisit image criticism and reader reception. In the interim, reader-response criticism, feminist and gender critiques developed in many directions, but as far as I know, studies of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women’s responses to images of women produced in nineteenth-century Russian literary classics do not exist.

This paper has a two-fold purpose: first, to review the problematics of image criticism in the Russian context; second, to examine the critique of the images of women provided on the pages of the women’s periodical press edited and published by women between 1904 and 1917, a period of enormous social and political upheaval, specifically, in women’s lives.

Today’s readers are more conscious of the use of such critiques to assess changing cultural values, or to reassess their political, social, and esthetic situation, but what cultural awareness can be found in the first decades of the twentieth century? Reading the women’s periodical press allows us to enter this particular cultural milieu to examine how contemporary ideas and values affected the assessment of traditional values and the forces for historical, political, and aesthetic change. How did articles, obituaries, reviews, and comments which appeared in the women’s magazines of St. Petersburg and Moscow respond to representations of women in the works of Čexov, Tolstoj, Turgenev, and Gončarov?

For example, while certain critics reflected the power accorded to literature as a privileged site of representation, viewing the classics as a part of their national cultural heritage, and accepting them as the aesthetic and moral foundation of their upper class women’s education, others were primarily concerned with feminist politics, with identifying images of “strong women” or “the new woman” as models for the future. While some identified the aesthetically charged idealized images of women as sources of inspiration, or as exemplars meeting their own psychological needs, others regarded representations of readily accepted traditional norms of behavior as roles to be avoided.

Because representation (images) is not the same as reality, and because literature has been regarded as one of the most powerful and privileged sites of representation, the analysis of literary representations of women, the reception of those images and how women readers relate them to their lives may offer a point of departure to develop a cultural analysis of that reality. Hence, many questions are raised through this kind of review: What assumptions underlie these critiques? Is literature viewed consistently as a mimetic reflection of life? Are image critics aware of the relations between social constructions of femininity and its representations in artistic texts? Are they conscious of differences in artistic taste? And, how do women’s responses to literary images of women differ from male responses? Are literary images perceived as idealized versions of a woman’s life, or as a multiplicity of realities of real women’s lives?

Moreover, since we ourselves are historicized beings subject to contemporary contexts of reading and looking, by historicizing our understanding of particular readings of Čexov, Tolstoj, Turgenev, and Gončarov, we may be demonstrating that our interest in reexamining image criticism is also, perhaps, determined by our current historical context.