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Desire, Event, Vision: Forms of Intersubjectivity in the Nineteenth-Century Russian Novel


This dissertation contends that the philosophical problem of the existence of other people constitutes a central preoccupation of the nineteenth-century Russian novel, a problem that its authors worked through not only in the content of their novels but on the level of form, as well. At the heart of this study, which examines the emergence of the Russian realist novel in the years between 1850 and 1880, is the following question: How is the Russian understanding of the modern self (subjectivity) related to the formal aesthetic features of the Russian novel?

I focus on three novels – Ivan Turgenev’s Rudin (1856), Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons (1872), and Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1873-77) – in order to account for relations between subjectivity and form in the nineteenth-century Russian novel as well as these authors’ various conceptualizations of the human subject. In each of the novels I identify a mediating concept that unites that novel’s most conspicuous formal features to its (implicit) understanding and representation of intersubjectivity. In Rudin, Demons, and Anna Karenina, these concepts are desire, event, and vision, respectively. My chapters describe how these concepts exert a decentering force on the subject, interrupting the subject’s ability to take efficacious action, to engage in self-conscious rational reflection, and ultimately to make meaning of his or her life. At the same time, these forces of desire, the event, and vision also bind subjects together, constituting the intersubjective structures that my close readings seek to describe.

Methodologically, my dissertation stages a dialogue between twentieth-century theories of the novel and the nineteenth-century Russian novel, in order to articulate the relationship between the categories of subjectivity and form. Recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in questions of form within novel studies, particularly with respect to the novel’s role in the formation and representation of the human subject. My dissertation contributes to this current turn towards form, marking out a place for the nineteenth-century Russian novel. Approaches to the novel in the field of Slavic studies, for historical as well as ideological reasons, have not fully benefitted from the challenges as well as insights offered by contemporary novel theory; post-structuralist theories represent a particularly conspicuous gap this dissertation seeks to fill.

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