The name ‘superfluous man’ refers to an important and recurrent character type in 19th c. Russian literature. It denotes an idealistic but inactive hero who is aware of and sensitive to moral and social problems but who does not take action; in part because of personal weakness and lassitude, in part because of social and political restraints to freedom of action.
Alexander Pushkin was the first to use the word lishni in this sense, in so describing the character Onegin in Eugene Onegin (1823-31). Eugene is regarded as the prototype, closely followed by Griboyedov’s Chatski in Woe from Wit (1825). Pushkin’s Onegin influenced Lermontov in his creation of Pechorin in A Hero of Our Times (1840). Development of the type was achieved by Ivan Turgenev in Rudin (Rudin, 1856). Turgenev’s short story The Diary of a Superfluous Man (1850) popularized the term. His character Rakitin in his play A Month in the Country is a comparable type, as is the character in The Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District in Sketches from a Hunter’s Album. Turgenev tried to document and justify the existence of this type in Russian society, seeing him as a kind of tragi-comic figure, a compound of Hamlet and Don Quixote, unable to reconcile the impulses of heart and head, given to over-much introspectiveness, intellectualizing and indecision.
Perhaps the most famous of all superfluous men is the endearing and totally ineffectual Oblomov in Goncharov’s Oblomov (1859). Descendants of Onegin et al, are to be found in Leo Tolstoy (e.g. Count Vronski in Anna Karenina, 1875-6) and in Chekhov’s plays and stories, where they abound. By contrast, the heroines involved with superfluous men were strong, determined and decisive (e.g. Tatyana in Eugene Onegin and Natalya in Rudin). A contrast was aesthetically desirable and necessary anyway; hence the energetic and ebullient figure, Stolz, in Oblomov.
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