What is to be done? - Nikolai Chernyshevsky

what is to be done

Novel by Russian socialist/revolutionary Nikolai Chernyshevsky, written while being detained at the Peter-Paul Fortress by Tsarist authorities for censorship violations. The novel, published in 1863, was written in light of the failure of the 1861 Emancipation of the Serfs to truly improve the condition of the Russian peasantry, as well as the oppressive nature of Tsarist society more generally. The novel was also a direct response to Ivan Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons. Chernyshevsky's novel and other writings would have a major impact on the Russian Narodniks, mostly student-radicals who tried inspiring a revolution among the peasantry, in addition to later Russian socialists. Marx himself would later describe Chernyshevsky, no doubt sympathetic towards Chernyshevsky's arrest and exile, as a "great Russian scholar and critic."

Submitted by adri on May 21, 2023

Preface by Chernyshevsky

[Note: Chernyshevsky references the "false start" to his novel, consisting of two short chapters, which precedes the actual story.—adri]

"The subject of this work is love, the main character is a woman; that's fine, even if the work itself is not that good," says the female reader.

"That's true," I reply.

The male reader does not confine himself to such easy conclusions, since from birth man's intellectual capability is greater than woman's and also much better developed. He says . . . (she probably thinks it, but sees no need to say it, so I have no grounds to quarrel with her), the male reader says: "I know for a fact that the gentleman who committed suicide did not really commit suicide." Seizing upon the phrase "know for a fact," I reply, "You don't know it for a fact, because you haven't been told it yet. Why, you know nothing at all by yourself! You don't even know that in the way I started this work I insulted you and humiliated you. You didn't know that, did you? Well, now you do!"

Yes, the first pages of my story reveal that I have a very poor opinion of my public. I employed the conventional ruse of a novelist: I began my tale with some striking scenes taken from the middle or the end, and I shrouded them with mystery. You, the public, are kind, very kind indeed, and therefore undiscriminating and slow-witted. You can't be relied upon to know from the first few pages whether or not a book is worth reading. You have poor instincts that are in need of assistance. For help you can look to two things: either the author's reputation or his striking style. Since this is only my first novel, you haven't yet formed an opinion of my literary talents. (Why, you have so many gifted authors to choose from!) My name could not have attracted you. So I was obliged to bait my hook with striking scenes. Don't condemn me for it: you deserve all the blame. It's your own simpleminded naiveté that compelled me to stoop to such vulgarity. But now that you've fallen into my hands, I can continue the story as I see fit without further tricks. No mysteries lie ahead: you will always know the outcome of every situation at least twenty pages in advance. And, to begin with, I shall even tell you the outcome of the entire novel: it will end happily, amidst wine and song. There will be neither striking scenes nor embellishments. The author is in no mood for such things, dear public, because he keeps thinking about the confusion in your head, and about the useless, unnecessary suffering of each and every one of us that results from the absurd muddle in your thoughts. I find it both pitiful and amusing to look at you. You are so impotent and spiteful all because of the extraordinary quantity of nonsense stuffed between your two ears.

I'm angry at you for being so nasty to people in general. Since you belong to those people, why are you so nasty to yourself? That's why I'm blaming you. You're nasty out of intellectual impotence. Therefore, even though I am blaming you, I'm also obliged to help you. How shall I begin to render you assistance? Perhaps by dealing with your thoughts at this very moment: "What sort of writer is this who talks to me in such an arrogant way?" I'll tell you what sort of writer I am.

I possess not one bit of artistic talent. I even lack full command of the language. But that doesn't mean a thing; read on, dearest public, it will be well worth your while. Truth is a good thing; it compensates for the inadequacies of any writer who serves its cause. Therefore, I shall inform you of the following: if I hadn't warned you, you might well have thought that this tale was being told artistically and that its author possessed great poetic talent. But now that I've warned you that I have no talent whatever, you know that any merit to be found in my tale is due entirely to its truthfulness.

But then again, dear readers, when I address you, it behooves me to spell everything out—since you're merely amateurs, and not at all experts at deciphering unstated meanings. When I say that I have not one bit of artistic talent and that my tale is a very weak piece of work, you should by no means conclude that I'm any worse than those authors whom you consider to be great, or that my novel is any poorer than theirs. That's not at all what I mean. I mean that my tale suffers from imperfections when it's compared with the works of genuinely gifted writers. As far as the worth of its execution is concerned, you can confidently place my tale side by side with the most famous works of your well-known authors. Perhaps you'd not do wrong to place it even higher than theirs! It certainly contains more artistry—rest assured on that point.

You may thank me. You so love to cringe before those who abuse you; so now you can cringe before me, too.

Yet there is among you, dear readers, a particular group of people—by now a fairly sizable group—which I respect. I speak arrogantly to the vast majority of readers [note that the majority of Russians/peasants were illiterate; he's referring to the intellectuals of the time—adri], but to them alone, and up to this point I've been speaking only to them. But with the particular group I just mentioned, I would have spoken humbly, even timidly. There is no need to offer them any explanation. I value their opinion, but I know in advance that they're on my side. Good, strong, honest, capable people—you have only just begun to appear among us; already there's a fair number of you and it's growing all the time. If you were my entire audience, there'd be no need for me to write. If you did not yet exist, it would be impossible for me to write. But you're not yet my entire audience, although some of you are numbered among my readers. Therefore, it's still necessary and already possible for me to write.



1 year ago

Submitted by adri on May 21, 2023

The background on how Chernyshevsky's novel came to be published, which is touched on in the introduction, is pretty amusing (you arrest someone for censorship violations and other charges, yet then permit them to compose an entire novel while in detention and awaiting trial?!):

In late 1862 Chernyshevsky asked the prison commandant for permission to begin work on a novel. His request granted, he set to work and produced the entire novel within four months, between December 14, 1862, and April 4, 1863. The first part of the manuscript was then submitted to the prison censor, who, whether carelessly or for devious purposes, passed it and forwarded the manuscript to the censor of the journal Sovremennik [the journal Chernyshevsky wrote for]. Passed again, the novel was sent to the journal's editor, Nekrasov, who promptly lost it in a cab. He managed to recover the manuscript only after advertising in the official gazette of the St. Petersburg police. With what is perhaps the greatest irony of Russian letters, the novel that the police helped to retrieve turned out to be the most subversive and revolutionary work of nineteenth-century Russian literature. Its publication has aptly been called "the most spectacular example of bureaucratic bungling in the cultural realm during the reign of Alexander II."