My presentation analyzes Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s novel Gospoda Golovlevy (1875-80) as a perverse idyll, relying on Sergei Aksakov’s novel Semeinaia khronika (1856) as contextual background for my argument. Saltykov-Shchedrin’s narrative preserves a number of thedistinctive features of the idyll: unity of place, a plot focused on life’s basic everyday realities, and a continuity between the rhythms of nature and human life. Yet Saltykov-Shchedrin simultaneously invert the unity of folkloric time by accentuating death as closure, as an end, rather than the beginning of a new cycle. The idyll is only posited: Saltykov-Shchedrin extracts its content, empties its devices, and transforms it into a metaphysical “kingdom of death.”
In Gospoda Golovlevy, death as a powerful backstage character transforms the generic features of the idyll, leaving them devastated. With each successive generation these elements are increasingly deprived of their substance, i.e. the organic tie between himan and natural spheres. Love is replaced by fornication, light by darkness, and cycles by stases. Whereas Eros, in Freudian terms, forms the basis of Semeinaia khronika, Thanatos controls Gospoda Golovlevy. The endless dying of the Golovlevs negatively parallels the Bagrovs’ endless reproducing.
The family estate, Golovlevo, becomes a powerful spatial construct in the Golovlevs’ consciousness. The house traps the characters within its tyrannical realm. Although it comes alive for a short period during Evprakseiushka’s pregnancy, it throws this new life away. Its larder, “the innermost core of the home,” does not appease hunger. The home stops fulfilling its functions of feeding, nurturing, and reproducing. More precisely, it robs these functions of their meaning, maintaining only an illusion of them. It is a fertile womb, but one that begets stillborn children, or children that the womb eventually stifles.
In short, the chronotope of extinction emerges from the ashes of the idyllic chronotope of eternal reproduction. Similarly to a distorting mirror, the plot of the novel contorts the body of the idyll, and represents its antithesis. Gospoda Golovlevy negates the idyllic chronotope in favor of the chronotope of emptiness, degradation, and death.