Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky was born in Saratov in 1828. Although he was the son of a village priest he became an atheist. In 1846 he left the seminary for St. Petersburg University, studying there until 1850. He taught for three years in Saratov, where he married. He then returned to St. Petersburg where he wrote for and eventually edited the journal The Contemporary. His other writings include: The Aesthetic Relationships of Art in Reality (1855, his M.A. Thesis), Sketches of the Gogol Period of Russian Literature (1855-56), and The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy (1860). In 1862 he was arrested (on trumped up charges) and he wrote this novel in 1863 while he was confined to the Peter-Paul Fortress.
The Basic Plot: What is to be done? or A Vital Question is a romance that examines, among other things, the institution of marriage and the place of women in society. The heroine is Vera Pavlovna. Her father is weak, her mother is a venal and mercenary woman who wants to marry Vera to a fairly well-off nobleman. She is rescued from this fate by Lopukhóv, a medical student who gives up his career to save her from her “cellar” existence. The marriage is a good intellectual match, but not a good emotional one. At a point in the marriage when one would perhaps expect the birth of a child, Vera announces that she is going to open a sewing union. This is a collective organization, with the girls sharing in the decisions of running the shop and also in the profits. The workers, for the most part, live in a collective apartment building.
Against her will, Vera falls in love with Kirsánov, a friend of Lopukhóv’s. They both fight their mutual attraction. When Lopukhóv figures out what is going on, he fakes his suicide to free Vera to marry Kirsánov. In this now emotionally as well as intellectually fulfilling marriage Vera announces her intention to study medicine, and does go on to become a doctor. Lopukhóv reappears later on as Charles Beaumont, marrying the daughter of a factory owner, Katerína. The Beaumonts and the Kirsánovs live happily ever after in adjoining apartments.
Some of the Themes
Marriage: In Russia at that time, a married woman had no legal rights, in the novel Chernyshevsky puts forth the idea of marriage as an equal partnership, respectful and courteous, which either person may terminate if they should fall in love with another. In a conversation with Julie (a prostitute with the proverbial heart-of-gold) Vera tells her “I do not want to be anybody’s slave!...I want to do only what I have it in my heart to do, and let others do the same; I do not want to ask anything of anybody; I do not want to curtail anybody’s freedom; I want to be free myself!” (p. 40). To be free means to be financially independent, therefore women must be able to earn a respectable living in society (p.121).
Children: Children are seen only on the periphery. Both Vera and Katerína have children but they are not really mentioned after their birth.
Women: Women are goddesses in this book. In Vera’s dreams we see the Empress of Love and her sister the Empress of Science and Love of Humanity, who have guided Vera on her path through life. We also see woman as the embodiment of the goddesses Astarte and Aphrodite and the ideal of chastity. Kirsánov believes that women are more intellectual then men, and that the organism of women is stronger than that of men (they mature earlier and live longer). Up to this point women have been restricted to a very narrow path, the sphere of domestic life. In Vera’s view women have been crowded into this narrow existence and until women are allowed to branch out they will not be able to live an independent life. But custom is hard to change, it is hard to find new paths, trail blazers are needed, and so she decides to become a doctor.
The Collective: The sewing union is a utopia. When Vera is setting it up she wants only girls of good character, no misfits. She educates them, first by reading to them while they work, then by bringing in tutors to give them lessons. Many of the girls live in the collective apartment house, with siblings and parents. As at the sewing shop, the domestic duties are shared out according to ability. Everyone has some purpose, some duty to perform.
Progressive People: Although Chernyshevsky at one point says that he is writing about ordinary people, not heroes, there is a sense of a progression in humanity. There are some people that, through their intellect and character are better or more evolved, and as time goes on, there will be more. Of course these progressive people are epitomized by the Kirsánovs and Beaumonts.
The overall theme of the novel is perhaps best summed up in a song that Vera sings in a ‘teaser’ that Chernyshevsky presents to us before he begins the novel proper: “Industry without knowledge is fruitless; our own happiness is impossible without the happiness of others. As soon as we become enlightened we shall become rich; we shall be happy; we shall form one brotherhood and sisterhood.... Let us learn and be industrious; let us sing and love; we shall have a heaven on earth!....” (p. 4)