For my course on Russian literature, I read the novel Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov. Something happened that I never expected: I might have found a main character more annoying than Flaubert’s Emma Bovary.
Don’t get me wrong: the fact that I found the main character extremely annoying doesn’t mean I didn’t like the book. On the contrary, I love it when a story gets me all riled up. You need to be a really good writer to make a character so vivid that it annoys me so much. Goncharov is amazing at writing about annoying characters. He takes his time, he doesn’t hold back, and he’s not afraid to go too far. Oblomov might be an exaggeration, but it works.
However, Oblomov is a whole other kind of annoying than Emma Bovary, so I’m not sure yet who is really more annoying. While Emma is annoying in the things she does, Oblomov is mostly annoying for the things he doesn’t do. He got so spoiled during childhood, that by the time he reaches his 30s he’s not able to function in society. He sleeps till late in the afternoon, isn’t able to wash himself and to get dressed, and doesn’t get out of the house. He’s just too full of apathy to do anything. When he gets visited by his friend Stolz, he is able to put his life on track some more, but after Stolz leaves Oblomov relapses again. He loses the girl he’s engaged to, starts sleeping more again and lets himself get cheated on by his business partners. However, although he has these annoying things he does, he’s still very loveable. He is a loyal friend, he is honest, he will never say anything to put someone down. He just has this one big flaw that we all have sometimes. The only difference is that Oblomov has this flaw all the time.
If the book was only about Oblomov, I don’t think I would have liked it. But because his character is balanced by his amazing friends Stolz, Olga, Anitsja and at the end his housekeeper, you are motivated, not only to not be as lazy as Oblomov, but also to be as good as the others. I got so much energy when reading about the others, and it’s not just about keeping busy. They all get a chance to explain why it is important to keep an active perspective on life. It’s never about money. It’s about being motivated, about educating yourself, about being the best person you can be. One of the most beautiful scenes I read was the last big dialogue between Olga and Stolz, where Olga explains that although she is very satisfied with her life and everything she does, she still sometimes feels down. Stolz comforts her and they have this wonderful conversation about a first world problem a lot of intellectuals have: what is purpose? Why am I still working to improve myself? When does it end? It’s an important question to ask, and although Olga and Stolz don’t have a definitive answer to it, the conversation alone can be very helpful.
If you loved Flaubert’s Emma Bovary but thought it might need some more intellectualism, you’ll love Oblomov!