“The Captain’s Daughter” by Alexander Pushkin

*** SPOILER WARNING: Inevitably the following will let slip a few details of the plot ***

It is generally thought that all one needs to do to get to grips with serious literature is to pick up seriously literary works and start reading. This is undoubtedly true up to a point: one must start somewhere, after all, and how does one start other than just picking up books and start reading them? But experience does make a difference: once one has read a bit, one does learn to read works with a mind more receptive to certain things. For instance, when I first read Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter, aged about sixteen or seventeen, and determined in my enthusiasm to gobble up everything I could find by nineteenth century Russian authors, I really didn’t make much of it. It seemed to me a rather drearily conventional story. Young man joins army, gets posted in the outposts, falls in love with his commanding officer’s daughter, and rescues her from danger once rebellion erupts and her parents are killed. Big deal, I thought. Where was Tolstoy’s epic sweep, Dostoyevsky’s anguished questionings, and all the rest of it? I put it aside respectfully: it was by the revered Pushkin, after all, and, no doubt, his greatness lay in poems which, as a non-Russian speaker, I didn’t have much access to back then. It is only now, over forty years later, that I have returned to The Captain’s Daughter, and … well, as I say, experience counts. It is still a story about young soldier in the outposts rescuing his beloved during a rebellion, but, I now find, seeing it as no more than that misses just about everything that is important.

We non-Russian-speaking enthusiasts of Russian literature do, I think, get a bit tired of being told that though we may rave about Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, it is Pushkin who is regarded as the supreme writer of the Russian literary tradition. We get a bit tired of this for a number of reasons. Firstly, what we read of Pushkin in English does not seem as thrilling or as exciting as the works of the Big Two. And secondly, we are, I think, implicitly enjoined to do something that most of us are too lazy to do – that is,  to learn Russian well enough to read their literature. And thirdly, Pushkin seems in many ways the very antithesis of all that we have come to see as typically Russian: he does not have the grotesque sense of humour of Gogol or of Dostoyevsky; he does not probe into the dark recesses of the mind as Dostoyevsky does, and explore the “big themes” of God and spirituality and the universe and all the rest of it;  he does not present us with the epic canvases of Tolstoy, seemingly peopled with the whole of humanity. In contrast to all this, there is a lightness about Pushkin’s works: his writing is clear, elegant, precise, even perhaps delicate, unencumbered with musings about the human soul; and his works are generally short. The Captain’s Daughter is more a novella than a novel, after all, taking up just a bit over a hundred pages. Great he no doubt is – we non-Russian speakers can hardly dispute the point with scholars who know the language – but it does seem a shame to hand the crown to someone who goes against all the preconceptions we have (and love) about what Russianness literature ought, at least, to be.

Certainly, The Captain’s Daughter begins fairly conventionally – the hero’s childhood on his parents’ country estate; his education (or, rather, lack of it) at the hands first of faithful family retainers, and later, of a drunken French tutor; his entry into the army and his posting in Southern Russia; his youthful extravagance and lack of judgement; and so on. And then, of course, he falls in love with the daughter of the commanding officer, the Captain’s Daughter of the title. The prose, in the translation I read (by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler), is exquisite (there is a fascinating essay towards the end of the volume in which the translators discuss the nature of Pushkin’s finely wrought prose, and the approach they had taken to find an equivalent in English); and the story moves along at a fine pace. But in terms of content, there is little to indicate anything much more than I had gleaned from my earlier reading all those years ago. But then, Pugachev’s rebellion breaks out. This was an actual historic event, which took place in the early 1770s, during the reign of Tsarina Catherine the Great: Pushkin had a particular interest in this rebellion, had done much first hand research on the topic, and had even written a history of it. In this novel, the rebellion erupts with shocking force. There is a particularly horrifying scene where a captured enemy combatant is brought in to be interrogated. Pushkin’s description of his appearance is, as ever, precise, and is unforgettable:

The Bashkir, his feet hobbled by a block of wood, stepped over the threshold with difficulty. Removing his tall hat, he stood in the doorway. I looked at him and shuddered. Never shall I forget the man. He must have been over seventy. He had no nose and no ears. His head was shaven and he had no beard, only a few grey hairs sprouting from his chin. He was short, thin and bent, but fire still gleamed in his narrow eyes.

The Captain has been presented as a mild and gentle man, kind to his subordinates and loving to his family, but duty is duty, and when the prisoner refuses to talk, he orders him to be whipped. And it is at this moment that the prisoner opens his mouth, and reveals that it was not just his ears and nose that had been cut off after the previous rebellion. It is a shocking moment

The fort is helpless against the attackers, and soon, Pugachev and his men are in charge. The Captain is hanged. His beloved wife, stripped naked, is also hanged. The daughter only escapes because she had been hidden by faithful servants. And our hero, Grinyov, survives because Pugachev, unexpectedly, spares him. We soon find out that Pugachev has recognised our hero. Earlier in the novel, when Grinyov and his faithful family retainer Savelich were making their way to their posting, they had become lost in a terrifying blizzard, and had only found refuge because a peasant had guided them to an inn; and Grinyov, in his youthful extravagance (and much to the disapproval of Savelich), had rewarded this peasant with his own hareskin coat. And this act of generosity Pugachev had not forgotten.

Not that Pugachev is by any means noble by nature: he is cruel and savage, as any warlord is. But the picture Pushkin presents of him, is just a few economical strokes of the brush, is exquisite. Pugachev, despite being a peasant, claims to be the rightful Tsar: he claims to be Peter III, husband of the Tsarina Catherine, whom Catherine had deposed (he was murdered soon after his deposition by Catherine’s men). He knows, of course, that his claim to be Tsar Peter isn’t true, but in the areas under his control, denying it is treason, and a hangable offence. He tells Grinyov a fable at one point of a raven and an eagle: the raven lives much longer than the eagle, but the eagle, after trying to live like a raven, decides that he prefers a shorter life living off live flesh than a longer life feeding off carrion. In brief, Pugachev probably knows that he will eventually be defeated; but rather that than live his entire life a peasant.

To Grinyov, Pugachev is what is known in the trade as a deus ex machina – a man who sets things right because he has the power to do so. But what is interesting here is not that he does this, but, rather, why he does this. To Grinyov he is effectively a second father, first sparing his life, then letting him return to his own side, and, later, when Grinyov returns to rescue his beloved, the captain’s daughter, setting her free himself, and uniting her with him. And he does this not because he is by nature kind and compassionate (we have seen for ourselves the atrocities he has committed), but because he has genuinely developed an affection for this young couple, and also, we suspect, because he is flattered by the image of himself as a kind and compassionate man – a father, as a Tsar should be, to his childlike subjects. And of course, we know all along that the captain’s daughter, Maria Ivanovna, is an orphan only because Pugachev himself had killed her parents.

The story could have ended with the eventual suppression of the rebellion, but Pushkin has an extra turn of the screw up his sleeve for the final chapter. This extra turn I had completely misread in my earlier reading: I had thought that the final chapter was only there to present the Tsarina Catherine in a good light. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. Grinyov, after a miscarriage of justice, is deemed to have been a collaborator with Pugachev, and is exiled; and now, it is the turn of the captain’s daughter, now his wife, to become the saviour. And she does not save him directly, any more than Grinyov had saved her directly: she appeals to the Tsarina Catherine, and it she who saves Grinyov by graciously overturning the sentence. Another deus ex machina. But we may look a bit more deeply into this. If Pugachev’s earlier role as the deus ex machina was morally ambiguous, should we take this one at face value? Although Pushkin doesn’t mention it in his narrative, Catherine had become Tsarina only after deposing her husband, who was later murdered, possibly on Catherine’s own instructions. Is her claim to the throne, to power, any more secure than Pugachev’s? Pugachev, of course, was cruel and brutal, but was the side he was fighting against any less so? We remember, after all, the old man who had had his ears, nose and tongue ripped off. And if Pugachev had been flattered by the image of himself as a gracious father to his subjects, could something similar not be, at least in part, Catherine’s motivation also? The parallels between Pugachev and Catherine seemed to me so obvious on this reading that I am astonished this novel had got past the censors. But maybe I am looking for things that aren’t really there, and maybe Pushkin’s ending is, as I had thought all those years ago, merely decorative, intended to highlight the graciousness and mercy of a great Empress, and nothing more. Maybe.  

This is an adventure story where there really is no adventure; while the hero Grinyov is certainly brave, he doesn’t have to do anything, as such, to rescue his damsel in distress: Pugachev does all that for him. And the resolution in the final chapter also comes about not because the hero or heroine had to do much, but because the Empress sorts everything out for the better. As an adventure story, it is, in truth, pretty lame. But with experience, one learns to look a bit further, and what one then sees is a work of art of considerable moral and psychological complexity, but executed with an ease – or, at least, an apparent ease – that belies its depths.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Another possibility is that “[w]e non-Russian-speaking enthusiasts of Russian literature” – I am really commenting on that paragraph – can give up those nonsensical received ideas about Russian literature. I have done it myself. But perhaps I am not, then, an enthusiast.

    How enjoyable to read your description of this great story. I should read the Chandler version next time.

    Reply

    • Yes, it’s certainly best to put such preconceptions behind us. But this image of huge vodka-soaked novels meditating on God and mortality and the universe remains nonetheless a powerful image. And also, it must be admitted, a rather attractive one.

      I’ve been reading more Pushkin in the meantime. Was thrilled by “The Queen of Spades” yesterday, but I am sticking to my rule these days of not writing posts on works when I have nothing much to say about them.

      Reply

  2. Posted by el on November 6, 2020 at 8:10 pm

    As a Russian-speaker who left FSU in my teens, I have read more English than Russian literature. Still ,one of my favorite books is “My Childhood” by Maxim Gorky. Have you read it?

    A blogger I enjoy posted this about this great writer:
    https://clarissasblog.com/2019/08/13/the-bitter-quest/

    Personally, I don’t particularly like Pushkin, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. (The latter could not read at all.) However, do love Gogol and short stories of Chekhov and Aleksandr Kuprin. Unlike Chekhov, Kuprin’s works don’t leave one in the general state of mild depression, even if Chekhov had a greater talent.

    As for plays, have you heard of Alexander Ostrovsky? Unlike the ‘doom and gloom’ image of Russian literature (which isn’t the kind of literature I naturally like), even the titles of his plays sound attractively playful: “IT’S A FAMILY AFFAIR—WE’LL SETTLE IT OURSELVES,” “Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man” or “Two Dogs Fight, the Third Keep Away.” In Russian, they sound really funny.

    Of course, while Ostrovsky could write comedy, many of his plays are serious and, yes, dark.

    Hope you’ll find something you’ll like here.

    Reply

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