An antihero of our time

Published

Sage Pearce-Higgins

When a Russian person says “oblomalsya” to you they mean “you fucked up”; you really made an “oblom” of that. Failure in all its forms is exemplified by the eponymous hero of the novel Oblomov, written by Ivan Goncharov and published in 1859. Oblomov’s normal condition, we are told, is “lying down”. This chubby and indolent aristocrat lives in a St. Petersburg flat that is messy, dirty and has broken furniture: “one might have thought that no-one lived there”. Oblomov, wearing his beloved oriental dressing gown “so capacious that it could wrap round him twice”, bickers incessantly with his obstreperous old manservant.

The book’s rambling plot follows the decline and demise of its tragicomic hero. Oblomov does eventually get out of bed (on about page 150) and spends the summer outside the city where he falls in love with Olga.

His indecision gets the better of him, however, and she eventually breaks the relationship off. Oblomov sinks back into his slough of inactivity; his distant estate (the means by which he supports himself) becomes less and less profitable; he has an affair with his peasant landlady and is blackmailed as a result; he falls into poverty; he grows “fat and bloated”; and his health declines.

Years later Olga visits him and in a poignant scene sees Oblomov’s decay: physical, material, moral and spiritual. Eventually Oblomov has a stroke and dies: “like a clock that has stopped because it has not been wound up”.

In Russian culture, the figure of Oblomov came to be seen as the very embodiment of laziness and incompetence. The novel was seen as an attack on the undeserved luxury of aristocrats in the debate over serfdom that took place at the time (the system of ownership of serfs by aristocrats was abolished in Russia only in 1861). Sixty years later, Lenin spoke of “rooting out Oblomovs” — Goncharov’s hero had become a byword for social parasite.

Yet the novel is far more than a simple moral tale calling for action to overcome laziness. The comic nature of much of the description reveals a more subtle depiction. Goncharov criticises his hero, and mocks him too, yet there is a good deal of sympathy there and even some admiration. Oblomov is described as having an “heroic indifference” to the superficialities of life and the world.

Later in the book it is even described as a philosophy: one of inactivity and repose, as a “spectator of the battle”, settling “quietly and gradually into the plain and spacious coffin that he had made for the remaining span of his life”. But there is a good deal of irony in this ad hoc theorising: Oblomov’s misery is undeniable. More than this, his situation is tragic in a deep sense because his condition is self-inflicted.

Goncharov’s novel is an exploration of a condition. He even coined a new term — oblomovitis — to describe his hero’s state of apathy. A state of heaviness and inertia, procrastination and a resistance to activity is coupled with a flight from reality, refuge in day-dreams and an inability to see one’s own condition. Such an affliction is hardly alien to society today.

Oblomov’s failure is a failure to escape from his own personality; a failure to change himself. He is depressed in both the mental and physical senses by the enormous weight of his habit and his inability to reject what is comfortable and familiar. He may appear ludicrous — grotesque, even — but Oblomov is a caricature of us all.