Original publication: archive.org
Editing: Alice Malone, Roderic Day

The Hovel, the House, and the Palace (1863)

11 minutes | English | The Soviet Union

When you create a work of art — a painting, a novel, a movie — you choose what fills the frame or pages. We know that a portrait cropped too distantly loses its subject in a sea of details, while a portrait cropped too close excises the subject from the broader movement of the world around them. Both lead to misunderstanding. What, then, goes into getting it right?

In this passage from What Is to Be Done?, Chernyshevsky breaks the fourth wall, explaining to the reader why he included the character of Rakhmetov, and why he believes this choice was necessary to make his political fiction clear and inspiring.

Contemporary and retrospective critiques of the book abound: it stands accused of being didactic (funneling the reader into a predetermined conclusion), utopian (staunchly, even naively, optimistic), and elitist (focused on a clique of enlightened friends, all members of the intelligentsia). Despite these flaws, it inspired the whole of Lenin’s generation of great Russian revolutionaries, [1] and continues to stoke fires in the hearts of socialists today. In fact, Rakhmetov himself, although presented as an exalted and perhaps even ridiculous kind of caricature of a revolutionary superhero (in terms of devotion and rationality), was cited as an important youthful influence for a figure of no less renown than Xi Jinping! [2]

How would you react to Chernyshevsky’s book? Would you find it a tedious and preachy bore? Or would it stir something inside, something that most other fiction lacks the courage to even try to stir? There’s only one way to find out. After all, “You can’t resist for very long a truth you discover for yourself”!
 — Eds.

Why was Rakhmetov was introduced, if now he’s gone and will no longer appear in my story? Was it really necessary to introduce a special character so that he could express his opinion of the others?

Perhaps your great literary artists introduce characters in their works and discard them according to those considerations, but I, although only a poor writer, understand nevertheless the requirements of true art somewhat better than that. No, my dear sir, Rakhmetov wasn’t needed for that at all! How many times have Vera Pavlovna, Lopukhov, and Kirsanov expressed their opinions of their own actions and relationships? They’re not stupid people; they can decide for themselves what’s good and what’s bad, and have no need for any prompting. Decent people know everything that can possibly be said against them; that’s precisely why, my dear sir, they’re such decent people. They take their greatest satisfaction in having people whom they respect regard them as noble; to achieve this end, my dear sir, they work hard and devise all sorts of schemes no less diligently than you do in pursuit of your goals. Only your goals are different, and so the schemes you devise are not the same. You devise schemes that are worthless and harmful to others; they devise schemes that are honest and useful to others.

Why have I included this conversation between Rakhmetov and Vera Pavlovna? Do you understand that if I choose to convey a conversation between them instead of Lopukhov’s or Vera Pavlovna’s thoughts, then it was essential to convey not merely the thoughts that made up their conversation but also the conversation itself? Why was it necessary to convey that conversation? Because it took place between Rakhmetov and Vera Pavlovna. If two people converse, their characters become more or less apparent during the course of their conversation. Do you see where this is leading?

The conversation was included for the sole purpose of making you better acquainted with Rakhmetov. As a result you saw that Rakhmetov wanted to have some sherry, but didn’t, and that he’s not always a “gloomy monster.” On the contrary, when engaged in some pleasant business, he forgets his sorrowful thoughts and his burning grief. He jests and chats cheerfully, although he says that this rarely happens, that he’s sad it occurs so seldom; that he himself isn’t happy to be such a “gloomy monster,” but that circumstances are such that a person with his ardent love for the good can’t help being a “gloomy monster.” If it weren’t for that, he might spend the whole day joking, laughing, singing, and dancing.

Now do you understand, my perspicacious reader, that while many pages were devoted to a direct description of Rakhmetov’s character, many more served exclusively to make you better acquainted with an individual who is not at all a principal character in the novel? Well then, listen here. Even better, don’t listen, since you won’t understand. Leave me alone. I’ve made fun of you long enough. Now I’ll speak with the public instead of with you, and I’ll be very serious.

The first requirement of art is as follows: one must always depict objects so that the reader can perceive their true form. [3] For example, if I want to portray a house, I must see to it that the reader conceives of it as a house, and as neither a hovel nor a palace. If I want to depict an ordinary person, I must see to it that the reader conceives of him as neither a dwarf nor a giant.

I wanted to depict decent, ordinary people of the new generation, those I meet by the hundreds. I took three such characters: Vera Pavlovna, Lopukhov, and Kirsanov. I consider them to be ordinary people; they see themselves as such, and their friends, who are the same sort of people, consider them to be ordinary. Where have I said anything different about them? What have I said that contradicts this? I depicted them with love and respect because every decent person is worthy of both love and respect. But did I ever bow before their superiority? Where are their noble deeds? They don’t commit base acts, nor do they behave in a cowardly manner; they have ordinary, honest convictions that they try to act upon, and that’s that. What kind of heroism is that, may I ask? Yes, I wanted to show people behaving just like all ordinary people of this type; I hope I’ve succeeded in doing so.

A. A. Plastov, “Noon” (1961), Virtual Russian Museum. [web]

Those readers who from the very beginning of my story will think about my main characters, Vera Pavlovna, Kirsanov, and Lopukhov: “Well these are our good friends, simple, ordinary people, like us,” those readers still constitute a minority of the public. The majority is still on a much lower level than this. A person who’s never seen anything except hovels would look at a picture of an ordinary house and mistake it for a luxurious palace. How can one ensure that such a person should perceive the house as a house and not a palace? In the same picture one must depict at least one corner of a palace. From this corner it will be clear that a palace is really a structure of a completely different sort than the one in the picture, and the observer will realize that the building is really nothing more than a simple, ordinary house in which all people should live (if not in better ones!).

If I hadn’t shown you the figure of Rakhmetov, the majority of readers would have misunderstood the main characters of my story. I’d bet that up until the last sections of this chapter most of the public considered Vera Pavlovna, Kirsanov, and Lopukhov to be heroes, people of a higher nature, perhaps even idealized figures, maybe even inconceivable in reality because of their very great nobility. No, my friends, my mean, base, pitiful friends, you’re quite mistaken: it’s not they who stand too high, but you who stand too low. [4] Now you see that they’re simply standing at ground level; they appeared to be soaring above the clouds because your’re sitting in some godforsaken underworld. All people should and can stand on the same level as they.

Come up out of your godforsaken underworld, my friends, come up. It’s not so difficult. Come out into the light of day, where life is good; the path is easy and inviting. Try it: development, development. Observe, reflect, read those books that tell you about the pure enjoyment of life, and about the fact that man can be kind and happy. Read them: such books gladden the heart. Observe life: it’s so interesting. Reflect: it’s so fascinating. That’s all there is to it! No sacrifices are needed, no deprivations required — they’re all unnecessary. Desire to be happy — that’s all. Only desire is needed. To attain it you’ll take delight in devoting yourself to your own development. That’s where true happiness lies.

Oh, what delights accrue to the developed individual! Even things that another person experiences as sacrifice or sorrow, he experiences as satisfaction and enjoyment. His heart is wide open to joy and he has a great deal of it. Try it — it’s good!

[1] Roderic Day, “Why Read Chernyshevsky?” (2022). [web] 

[2] “In order to strengthen his will, Rakhmetov, the leading character in the book, lives an ascetic life, even going so far as to sleep on a bed of nails, which left his body covered in blood. Recalling his life in Liangjiahe, Xi said that he and his fellow compatriots thought that this was the right way to temper one’s willpower. They then decided to remove their cotton-padded mattresses and instead just slept on the bare brick beds. On rainy days, they would go outdoors to expose themselves to the rain; and on snowy days they went outside to rub snow onto themselves, taking cold showers beside the well all in an attempt to strengthen their willpower, which was all inspired by this book.” — “Reading with Xi Jinping” (2022), People’s Daily. [web] 

[3] Chernyshevsky explores this axiom in more depth in his master’s thesis, “The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality” (1855). [web] 

[4] Lenin riffs on this line in his own What Is To Be Done?: “Don’t be so scared, gentlemen! Recall that as far as organization goes, we stand so low that the bare thought that we could rise too high is absurd!” [web]