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Some reflections on “What is to be done?” by Chernishevsky

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  1. Basic idea of the work is that “new people” take power, take control over their own lives into their own hands. This takes place on all “fronts” or spheres of social life, but principally in the role of women in everyday life.
  2. The novel starts with a dilemma that seems insoluble: a powerful and rude mother, with commercial aspirations, attempts to sell her daughter to the highest bidder in the comedy called “modern love” (remember David Bowie song!), or marriage. What options does the daughter, who is a gentle and innocent flower, have?
  3. Help first appears in the form of solidarity among women – an expensive French prostitute arranges a marriage, instead of a love affair for the young girl. But she doesn’t want that. Instead, she opts to marry a young men who seeks to help her get a job outside her house, so that she may escape the bonds of her family.
  4. So really, the novel is about the problem of marriage, about in-depth investigation of all aspects of relations between sexes.
  5. However, Chernishevsky doesn’t really propose a radically new answer. Instead of “a wicked marriage”, i.e. one designed to gain capital, he proposes a marriage based on love, on active sympathy between the sexes. Difference between the two is merely subjective (although an important one).
  6. However, the most important point of the novel is what the woman decides to do once she is married. Here, we see Vera Pavlovna (the “innocent” girl) deciding to open her own seamstress shop. On the surface, this appears merely like her starting her own business, using the small capital accumulated by her husband as a teacher. She rents a shop, hires girls (about which she inquires carefully), and gets the French prostitute to start bringing her orders (through various acquaintances of hers). But the reality is deeper than simply starting her own business. For after the girls were distributed their salary, they were given the bonuses, out of the portion which the shopkeeper would usually keep as her profit. In other words, Vera Pavlovna redistributed the surplus value, which is the point of capitalist production. Her goal is not capital accumulation. Rather, it is to arrange work and living of common girls in a communal way: they go to picnics together, they eventually move into a large flat, where they each have separate rooms but share common meals and other necessary items, such as umbrellas. Vera Pavlovna gets to educating these girls, by reading to them first during work, then at specially designated times. She even hires teachers on special subjects to lecture to the girls. She teaches most talented of them to manage the shop on their own, thus eliminating the need for the “shop owner”. Her goal is education of the girls, which were before either oppressed workers, or even prostitutes.
  7. Eventually, Vera Pavlovna decides to take a swing at the highest, and become an equal to a man. She decides to go to college, and study medicine, like her husband (the second one, at this point in the novel). She is not satisfied with merely a qualification of a seamstress, even the main one, the manager. She wants to attain the higher reaches of human intellect. And her husband is leading the way, for he is not merely a practicing doctor; rather, he is a biological scientist, researching what is new in his time, in his field. As a doctor, he takes on the most incurable patients, and attempts to help them and study their diseases. He is more than a doctor: an excellent human being, which helps him in his medical profession. For when he sees a patient who suffers not because of physical ailment, but rather out of sickly love (which she hides from her father), he understands the cause of her malady. He gets into her trust, and eventually arranges the matters thus that she is cured of her infantile love.
  8. Hence, one of the highest ambitions of humanity is to go to frontiers of knowledge and investigate these further. That is what we see Vera Pavlovna and her second husband, Alexander Kirsanov, attempt to do. In addition, we see the ideal of women striving for equality with men (and men helping them!), and on the way changing the working and living arrangements in such a way as to introduce equality and communal living among workers in general.
  9. An important subservient melody in the novel is the need for own room even in the most intimate of relationships, e.g. marriage. A husband and a wife, the author suggests, should have their own space to which they usually retreat in the evening. Sleeping together is an exception. In this way, distance is preserved, and thus a certain respect for one another. When one is tired with the other, one can always retreat to her/his own room.
  10. An important condition for a happy life in marriage is freedom to divorce, as soon as one starts to feel that one doesn’t love the other. The ability to divorce was revolutionary in the days, and in the country, where Chernishevsky was writing (1860’s, tsarist Russia, where marriage was sanctified by the Church, and hence formed “an insoluble union”). However, today with over 1/2 marriages ending up in divorce, that is not revolutionary at all. That’s something we’ve achieved – ability to divorce, even though that is still a formal right, as many marriages are held together by commercial calculations. Namely: a woman needs a financial and moral support at the time when the child is young. Moreover, bringing up a child on one’s own is a lame way of doing that. It will definitely lead to many mistakes in the upbringing process, made by the single parent. As a substitute for that, we go to communal upbringing of children, as for example we see today in “Walden II” community in Mexico.
  11. Vera Pavlovna has a dream, which indicates that she doesn’t love her first husband (who helped her to escape the “wicked” marriage). Her husband understands the dream perhaps even better than she does; in fact, it seems he is also bored with her. So: he takes the matter in his own hands, but in the opposite way from the one expected of today’s man. He brings his wife closer to his friend, who loves her. This is Alexander Kirsanov, Vera Pavlovna’s second husband. Chernishevsky hence paints the ideal husband, who, first, arranges for his wife the next husband, and then suddenly disappears from her life, pretending to a suicide. Of course, this is not what we see in today’s couples. Marriages are held together until the last, out of financial and other material interests. A woman would rather suffer in marriage, then be proudly alone. And a husband takes his wife as his workhorse. In no case marriages are dissolved at first indications of dissatisfaction on the part of husband and wife. Rather, it is hoped that “the thunderstorm” will pass. Nobody cares to examine the deeper springs in each case in particular. Thus, the picture of marriage based on “love”, as painted by Chernishevsky, is highly unrealistic, a wishful thinking.
  12. A curious but passing character on the scene is Rakhmetov. He is the guy who passes on the “suicide note” of Vera Pavlovna’s first husband to her. He is the vision of Chernishevsky of the young man of the future. His traits are: eats a lot, reads monumental works in all aspects of human knowledge (picks up Newton in the cabinet of Vera Pavlovna to read), comes from an old but moderately wealthy family, has traveled as tourist a lot (in all sorts of manner), supplied scholarships (for university tuition) to a number of students, made himself very strong physically (for this, he becomes a manual worker for several hours each day, to gain strength). Rakhmetov got acquainted with “the new people” (i.e. the revolutionaries), and avidly desired to learn from them. He started reading under their guidance. He has adopted certain life principles and followed them strictly. Some of these: no alcohol and no women. So, he is like a voluntary priest. He feels solidarity with common people, even though brought up as a wealthy young man. Thus, he eats mostly what common people eat. He leads a Spartan life. Rakhmetov is very economical with time, and hence is able to accomplish a lot. He is very abrupt with people who simply chatter. His rest is a change of activity. His friends is the circle of the “new people”, like Kirsanov and Vera Pavlovna. He needs them as sources of information and contacts in society. Relationship to all other people is strictly business. There is no empty chattering on his part, the usual “social” conversations. In his daily routine, he manages to combine theoretical knowledge with various practical activities. In practical activity, Rakhmetov attempted to concern himself only with most important things, perceiving that secondary matters will get arranged by themselves. Rakhmetov is a person going straight to business, to the essence of matter. He has no “private life”. Rather, he concerns himself with the business of others. Rakhmetov, due to his character, can not get married. This is because marriage leads to “responsibilities”, and hence to lack of freedom for the husband. Rakhmetov can afford to go traveling around the world, to find out about the various countries, nations, their customs and political-social institutions. This gives him food for thought. But he comes back to Russia after few years. On the way, he gives money to a famous European philosopher.
  13. In the novel, there is also Chernishevsky’s vision of how people will live in the future: they will eat and work together in the fields, away from the cities, in beautiful common houses of steel and glass, with electricity. There is a vision of “terra forming”, i.e. changing the climate and shape of the earth to suit our needs.
  14. So, it is possible to say that “What is to be done?” is a novel of the future, as it was perceived in the middle of XIX century from Russia.

Kiev, Ukraine, 2002

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