In this essay I would like to discuss the notion of the “superfluous man” as it is presented in Leo Tolstoy’s The Cossacks. In doing so, I will examine the journey of its main character, Dmitri Olenin, from his life as a disaffected Russian nobleman, to that of an alienated Cossack observer; a man perpetually in pursuit of happiness, but forever unable to find it.
Olenin was what in Muscovite society might be termed un jeune homme, a “young man,” whose inherited wealth allowed him the freedom and means to do as he chose. He was constrained by nothing; “neither relatives, nor fatherland, nor religion, nor wants, existed for him. He believed in nothing and admitted nothing” (90). He valued his autonomy above all else, and “as soon he yielded to any influence and became conscious of its leading on to labor and struggle, he instinctively hastened to free himself from the feeling or activity into which he was being drawn and to regain his freedom” (90). He tried his hand at agriculture, society life, civil service, and music, but was ultimately unable to attain the fulfillment he sought; he regarded these forms of life as artificial, and all that had transpired within them to be “accidental and unimportant” (91).
As vacuous and unappealing as his life had theretofore been, Olenin realized that he had not really tried to live. In an effort to do so, he traveled to the Caucasus region, where he hoped to embark on a new beginning; to find the value in life that Muscovite society was incapable of affording him; where he hoped there would be “no mistakes, no remorse, and certainly nothing but happiness” (91).
Reluctant to offer too much of himself to a society with which he felt no connection, he was overcome with emotion in his dreams of what his future, “with Circassian women, mountains, terrible torrents, and perils,” might entail (93).
In recalling past relations with women, associates, friends, and neighbors, a common theme pervades: Olenin does “not at all want their intimacy” (92). For Olenin, freedom consisted of a lack of socio-cultural fetters by which the autonomy of the individual may be limited; it allowed for relations between individuals to be fostered by kinship, meaning and value, rather than self-interest, pragmatism and hubris. The farther he traveled from aristocratic Moscow, “the rougher the people, and the fewer signs of civilization, the freer he felt” (95). As noble as his intentions may have been, Olenin’s pursuit of freedom and happiness in the Caucasus, would be met with resistance, albeit in differing socio-cultural forms.
Though he himself failed to understand his role as a Muscovite nobleman, the Cossacks never saw Olenin as anything but. Even after some time in the village and away from Moscow, he continued to be met with a culture which viewed him as an outsider. Olenin’s mannerisms, dialect, and appearance--native though he thought they may have been--were still anything but genuine in the eyes of the Cossacks. He continued in the aristocratic practice of tobacco smoking--a practice altogether alien to the Cossacks. After willingly purchasing the Cossack Lukashka a horse, and describing his home to be “ten times as large and three times as high” as any in the village, Olenin’s position as “other” was all but cemented.
As much as he attempted to do so, Olenin was never truly able to cultivate relationships with those persons whose affection and kinship he sought. Nevertheless, he continued to seek their acceptance, to escape the falseness of his former life, and pursue the happiness that he thought only the life of a simple Cossack villager could provide. In doing so, he often thought of renouncing his former life, registering as a Cossack, buying a hut, and marrying a Cossack
“‘Why ever don’t I do it? What am I waiting for?’ he asked himself, and he egged himself on and shamed himself. ‘Am I afraid of doing what I hold to be reasonable and right? Is the wish to be a simple Cossack, to live close to nature, not to injure anyone but even to do good to others, more stupid than my former dreams, such as those of becoming a minister of state or a colonel’”(191).
Olenin’s desire to integrate himself into the fabric of Cossack society had embedded within him the idea that happiness consisted in self-sacrifice; by offering himself in service to others, he would not only find the happiness that Moscow was incapable of providing, but also the acceptance that he thought the Cossacks were incapable of denying. To live only for himself, however, would be to shun the natural, communal relations he deemed necessary for happiness and perpetuate the very hindrances which had plagued him in his native Moscow. In recalling their objections to his new way of life, Olenin’s rejection of his former life was made all the more pronounced: “Oh, how repulsive and pitiable you all seem to me! You do not know what happiness is,” (210) he exclaimed.
For “one must taste life once in all its natural beauty, must see and understand what I see every day before me--those eternally unapproachable snowy peaks” (210) to truly understand what happiness actually was, and where it could be found. Olenin’s Muscovite acquaintances, in his view, failed to understand this, for “the one thing he desire[d] [was] to be quite ‘lost’ in their sense of the word” (211). But as his experiences would later demonstrate, his conception of happiness was as inaccurate as that which he sought to rebuke.
Olenin thought he had found happiness in union with the natural world, but even this would prove to be paltry in relation to his love of the Cossack girl, Maryanka. After coming to terms with the prejudices that the world he left had instilled within him, Olenin felt, outside of himself, without whom his life would have no meaning. He felt, “that between that woman and [himself] there existed an indissoluble, though unacknowledged bond against which [he] could not struggle” (210). Loving Maryanka, he felt himself “to be an integral part of God’s joyous world” (213). Seized by such passionate feelings of joy, Olenin “understood it all” (213). All of Olenin’s past experiences: his incessant search for meaning, value and acceptance, his fruitless quests to integrate himself within social and personal relations, his life of loneliness, uncertainty and despair, were now vindicated. “Formally [he] was dead and only now [did he] live” (214).
However much Olenin may have felt complete in his yearnings for the love and companionship of Maryanka, these feelings were not reciprocated in her actions. “Whatever I am, I am not for you,” she lamented (206). Even as Olenin revealed his innermost feelings, and complimented her beauty, Maryanka regarded his words as little more than comedic ribbings.
For she did not understand him; she was always hesitant to accept his presence as genuine; she was a Cossack and he was not; however much money he spent or time he invested, Olenin could never change who he was, in pursuit if something he could only wish to become. This theme was exemplified near the end of the story, after the Cossacks had engaged in a deadly skirmish with the Chechens:
“‘What are you crying for? What is it?,’” Olenin asked. “What?” Maryanka repeated in a rough voice. “‘Cossacks have been killed, that’s what for… You will never get anything from me!…Get away, I’m sick of you!’” (238).
Though Olenin himself had witnessed the bloodshed with his own eyes, he felt no real connection to the men who had been killed or the community that had been tormented. This, in external world. Whether in Moscow or a Cossack village, Olenin neither understood nor appreciated the magnitude of the socio-cultural experience; he would only realize this after it had become painfully and perpetually clear.
As he looked at Maryanka’s face and saw “such abhorrence, such contempt, and such anger, Olenin suddenly understood that there was no hope for him, and that his first impression of this woman’s inaccessibility had been perfectly correct” (239). In many ways, Maryanka is emblematic of Olenin’s external world and analogous to his journey to the Caucasus. Initially hesitant to expose himself to the vulnerabilities that her pursuit would entail, he would later realize that his happiness was inextricably connected to doing so. This idea of happiness comes to envelop him; he feels incomplete without pursuing it; he cannot live without tasting it; but nothing he can say or do will allow him to attain it. Even with the best of intentions, he has no connection to anything other than himself; he is, in every sense, a “superfluous man.”
As in Moscow, so too in the Caucasus, his conception of happiness in life turns out to be nothing more than an unattainable mirage. Once convinced of the necessity of the journey, Olenin is eventually met with repeated experiences which suggest that, for him, happiness is unattainable--not as a Muscovite Minister of State, not as a humble admirer of the snow-topped mountains, and not as the faithful husband of a simple Cossack woman. Wishing nothing more than to nurture the seeds of happiness that he had so tirelessly to sought to sow, Olenin’s predicament was repeated and worsened with each successive endeavor. In the end, the words of Daddy Eroshka ring true, “It is very hard, dear brother, in a foreign land to live” (242). For Olenin, a man without any meaningful connection to his native land, truly living, would be as cultivate.
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