Pushkin’s the Captain’s Daughter

The Captain's Daughter and Other StoriesThe Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories by Alexander Pushkin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The short version: anyone who likes Dostoevsky and Tolstoy literature should read the Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin, as it is the best justification I’ve come across for his status as the father of Russian fiction.

The long version:

This isn’t a review of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, but I think it’s a good idea to explain how my thoughts about the Captain’s Daughter come from the former.

At times I feel I’ve read more about Pushkin than I’ve read of his actual work. Aside from the recent addition of the Captain’s Daughter, my bookshelf only holds the Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin; the former is too short to register an impression concomitant with Pushkin’s literary stature, and the second a triumph of artifice over soul. Onegin is poetically fantastic (just you try writing a Pushkin sonnet) and can be very affecting, but is largely arch, centering on it does on a character who may be an empty assemblage of literary tropes who borders on parody. (Onegin is a sort of self-assembled Frankenstein built from the French literature popular in Russia at the time; while there is much pathos in Tatiana’s yearning for him, it is hard to be moved by someone so personally bloodless. SPOILER–that Tatiana lives her life out in a passionless marriage doesn’t really quicken the imagination either, though it does set up the later movements of Russian realism–none other than Fyodor Dostoevsky, among others, held Tatiana up as a sort of ideal Russian woman. END SPOILER). Anyway, the whole thing seems like a kind of literary bauble, and it is hard to be moved by something so soulless.

Given the ennui of Eugene Onegin I was surprised to find that the Captain’s Daughter was a bit more of a swashbuckling romance. It is the story of Pyotr, a young man sent off to the army by his father; Marya, the young woman who wins his heart; and Shvabrin, the jealous rival to their love (the interplay between the three reminded me of Oklahoma! of all things). The love triangle is bent and twisted any number of ways by Pugachev’s revolt, an actual occurrence of the 1770s. (SPOILER ALERT). The plot is operatically simple and resolves with an ending that I imagine many modern readers will feel is forced: Shvabrin slanders Pyotr and says that he was complicit in the revolt; Pyotr refuses to explain the exact circumstances as he wants to protect his beloved Marya from facing a military judge; eventually Marya goes off to Petersburg and, in a scene like something out of a Julie Andrews movie, is able to convince Empress Catherine the Great to pardons Pyotr. If you said that this is clumsy or that it sounds like propaganda, you’re probably right, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t art. END SPOILER)

I think there is something very classical about the book, in the same way that many of Mozart’s works are Classical. There is a sense of danger through the book, but no sense of impending tragedy. The drama of the work comes from the protagonist’s fiery passion and love, but this love is accommodated by a just and wise ruler, and so the ultimate balance is kept and all ends well (it’s worth saying here that Mozart’s Sarastro is ultimately a sort of mythical embodiment of reason; to enshrine the Empress as the repository of wisdom and source of justice is a far different matter).

But Pushkin rode the line between the classical and Romantic periods, and there is a good bit of fascination for the attractive rebel in the novella (just as there’s an attraction for Don Giovanni in Mozart’s opera). Pushkin dutifully treats the love between Pyotr and Marya, but is rather more affecting when he describes Pyotr’s conflicting emotions about the rebels, many of whom were former comrades. His friendship with the Cossack Maxymich allows him to receive a crucial communication from Marya, and there is a sort of mutual respect between himself and Pugachev. Pugachev knows that his soldiers will desert him at the first loss and that he is doomed to lose his war, and yet he pursues it anyway. There is undeniable Romantic grandeur in the character who knows that he cannot succeed but struggles anyway, for that is who he is and he can be nothing else. That need to court doom is part and parcel to the later Russian works. Pushkin couldn’t come out and say it, but he’s got a good deal of sympathy for Pugachev, and without that you don’t get Dostoevsky’s underground man or Raskolnikov. It’s not for nothing that they all revered him.

(neither does this review mention Pushkin’s use of Russian folk songs, or that he sets his story in rural Russian and not the capital, or number of tones that he employs through the story: the beginning sections about Pyotr’s education sound almost like a sketch from Calvino’s the Baron in the Trees, his journey to the fortress at Belogorsky sound almost like Mark Twain, and life at the outpost reminds one of Gogol; his relationship to Pugachev reminds one almost of Pip and the convict in Great Expectations. There’s also some of Dickens’/Dostoevsky’s dry wit in the book, as when one officer dilutes his tea with vodka. That all of these coexist within one 120 page story is a marvelous achievement, and helps me understand the status that Russians give to Pushkin).

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