At the end of Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s biting satire, The Golovlyov Family, the narrator meditates on the random fates of families. Some reverse their declines and rebuild the family fortunes. Others are at the top of fortune’s wheel before precipitously falling to the bottom within generations. Personality has much to do with the rise and fall of fortunes, but there is also an element of luck. At the beginning of The Golovlyov Family, published as a serial between 1875 and 1876 but set some years before serfdom was abolished in 1861, the eponymous family controls a growing estate in the Russian country side. By the end, three generations are ruined and the estate passes to another branch of the family.
Arina Petrovna, the matriarch of the Golovlyov clan at the beginning of the book, works tirelessly to add new land and “souls” (serfs) to the estate. She works less tirelessly at raising her family of three sons and a daughter. She resents any resources she has to turn over for their upkeep, frequently referring to her brood as “horrid creatures.” The beginning chapters of the novel set up the pattern the narrator will follow for the rest of the book. An event is announced—a house is sold, money is requested from whoever rules the family fortune at the moment, a scion of the family commits suicide—and the family members react in sometimes inexplicable ways before the narrator backtracks to explain how the event came to pass. After a few of these jumps and flashbacks, I started to view the characters of the book the way astronomers used to view the motion of the heavenly bodies before Galileo. Watching the Golovlyovs live their lives in this novel is like trying to follow the planets as they move according to the rules of retrograde motion. That is to say, the Golovlyovs are a bewildering bunch until you learn what’s passed between the last event and the new.
Perhaps the precipitating event of the family’s decline comes after Arina Petrovna’s first son, called Simple Simon, drinks himself to death after Arina refuses to give him another living. She divides the estate between her surviving sons, Porfiry and Pavel. Because she can’t stand Porfiry, she goes to live with Pavel with her granddaughters (the children of her dead daughter). Pavel, like his brother before him, drinks himself to death. Much later, Arina Petrovna reflects, like a more clear-headed King Lear, that:
Had she not made a mistake “at that time,” had she not portioned out her estate to her sons, had she not trusted Yudushka [Porfiry], she would to this very day have been a harsh, exacting woman, with everybody under her thumb. But since the mistake was fatal, the transition from a testy, arbitrary mistress to an obedient, obsequious parasite was only a matter of time. (Book III, Chapter 1*)
When Arina Petrovna realizes this, her granddaughters have left her and she has relocated to one of the poorer holdings of the vast Golovlyov estates. Everything else is in the hands of her hypocritical son, Porfiry, known as Judas (Yudushka).
As the novel shifts in time from Arina’s reign to Porfiry’s, the narrator shows us how Porfiry repaints the family history. Arina is, for the most part, quite blunt about how she treated her family members. Porfiry lies outright to portray himself in the best light. He cannot bear to be thought of as a villain. He cannot even bear to know that he annoys everyone he speaks to with his interminable sermons and pondering about his calculations about the estate’s production rates and rents. He is tolerated, because of his power, but this fades, too, until he is completely irrelevant.
The less said about the third generation, the better. For all the faults of Arina and Porfiry, they have some grit in their personalities. Porfiry’s sons and nieces all come to ignominious ends. Just as Arina came to regret her actions, Porfiry has a moment of realization before he dies in a blizzard, walking to his mother’s grave. Who has he been working and saving for, if not the Golovlyov children? Now that they are gone, who is it all for?
Towards the end of the novel, Porfiry’s niece Anninka dreads returning to Golovliovo, the family seat, after her acting career has come to an end and she can no longer find a man to keep her as a mistress. She declares that “Golovliovo was death itself, hollow-wombed death, constantly lying in wait for new victims…All the deaths, all the poisonings, all the pestilence, came from there” (Book VII, Chapter III). Anninka attributes to the family’s misfortunes to the land itself, but all the evils she mentions in describing Golovliovo came from her grandmother, Arina Petrovna, and her uncle. The family elders killed the family through their autocracy, miserliness, and inability to change for anything.
The only thing that kept me reading the relentless depressing decline of the Golovlyovs was the satirical voice of the narrator. The narrator reveals, in stark relief, the perfidies and hypocrisies of the family members. The narrator does not explain the characters, but simply shows the path they took to arrive at alcoholism and suicide. At times, the narrator had me laughing with a description of how the servants and serfs live around the family and take advantage of them or by discussing Porfiry’s performance of his prayers so that everything looks just right. That said, however, The Golovlyov Family is the sort of novel that gives Russian literature its reputation for tragic darkness, flavored with vodka.
* Quotes are from the Project Gutenberg edition of this book and page numbers are not available.
Notes for bibliotheraputic use: No. Just…no.