Multiplicity and Metaform: Late Russian Romanticism as Literary Laboratory
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Multiplicity and Metaform: Late Russian Romanticism as Literary Laboratory


This dissertation traces the development of new literary forms in Russia between the failure of the Decembrist uprising in 1825 and the ascendancy of proto-realism in the 1840s. I argue that this period of intense experimentation with literary form—“form” here understood broadly, as encompassing genre, device, and mode—was motivated by the late Romantics’ desire to expand literature’s capacity for embodiment, to push past material form’s perceived limits to represent nonmaterial, ideal truths. I trace the aesthetic strategies devised to reconcile with and/or provide alternatives to inherited Romantic dualisms (not only materiality/ideality, but also presence/absence, wholeness/fragmentation, self/non-self) in texts of key prose writers of the 1830s – Vladimir Odoevskii, Nikolai Gogol, and Mikhail Lermontov. Central to each of these three writers’ experimental approach to form is their sense of lateness, of engaging in literary creation at the temporal boundary line between Romanticism and an as-yet undefined future epoch in Russian letters. I demonstrate that all three writers employ metafictive interarts devices—what I call “metaforms”—that draw on the realms of painting, music, and theatrical performance to encode new formal possibilities in their texts. The three chapters examine major prose cycles and collections—Odoevskii’s Russian Nights [Russkie nochi] (1844), Gogol’s Arabesques [Arabeski] (1835) and Dead Souls [Mertvye dushi] (1842), and Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time [Geroi nashego vremeni] (1840)—alongside a range of theoretical texts central to Romantic aesthetics in Russia and Germany, including works by Vissarion Belinskii, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Friedrich Schiller. While my analysis is grounded in close reading and literary theory, I also draw on art history, theater and performance studies, and music criticism to demonstrate that the Russian late Romantics consistently appealed to non-literary artforms to organize or inspire their own literary experiments.

Resisting the realist teleology dominant in Slavic studies to this day, my dissertation redescribes the 1830s and 40s, not as merely “transitional,” but rather as a distinct moment whose formal innovations lie outside standard accounts of either Romanticism or realism.

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