When surveying that which she considers the cannon of Russian literature, Francine du Plessix Gray notes that, “Russian culture has been equally marked by men’s ambivalent awe and resentment of forceful females…[and that] it is interesting to trace the imprint of these obsessions upon nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature” (du Plessix Gray 117). Her exploration of female archetypes, from pure and demure, to fallen and seeking redemption, comes hand in hand with the point that Russian literature has historically been dominated by men.
However, examining fiction written today in Eastern Europe, by female writers no less, one can still a danger to the female archetype not quite fully explored by du Plessix Gray. Superficially, Dubravka Ugresic’s “Lend Me Your Character”, seems like a light short story with surreal undertones that encapsulates the ebbs and flows of a couple. Yet, deeper analysis of her story conveys much greater commentary on female characters, one step further than that made by du Plessix Gray’s observations. Ugresic’s story begins to ask what does it mean to be a female character written by a woman verses anyone else? Her unnamed, female protagonist is a writer dating another writer, Peter. Within the close setting of the story, the protagonist’s apartment, a greater truth about female writers is revealed. Peter asks the protagonist if he can borrow one of her female characters for her story; however, the protagonist is devastated when Peter uses this character as a sexual device for one of his male characters. The protagonist breaks down, and when a bemused Peter tells her not try cry over his story, she replies that she’s not upset over the one story but over, “all the female characters in the world…generally, literary-historically, and globally” (Ugresic, 221).
What Ugresic is speaking to is that the female experience is largely inaccessible or ignored by male writers, a sentiment clearly seen in feminist analysis of female archetypes, and traceable globally through feminist analysis. Ugresic uses her characters to call attention to the homogeny of female characters in literature as well as the lack of providers (i.e. female writers) supplying the literary world with alternative narratives of the female experience. In “Lend Me Your Character”, the female protagonist’s writing begins to center on the representation of females in literature. She begins to creates an index of female characters—a homage to female characters—that is so powerful it makes her “mother [cry] for a full five minutes without stopping” (Ugresic, 228). This is the sole interaction between two women in the story, and demonstrates a quick moment of ‘being woman’ as a tool for solidarity. Yet, the moment also calls into question the historic trend of the misrepresentation of women. One of the most fascinating, and perhaps famous, examples is that of Sofia Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy’s wife.
Leo Tolstoy was one of the male writers examined by du Plessix Gray, and is considered one of the most prominent Russian writers to have ever lived. Through examining Sofia Tolstoy’s diaries, one gains an entirely different insight into both women’s lives at the time and Leo Tolstoy’s portrayal of them. Sofia Tolstoy took care of her many children (there were thirteen), ran the finances of the household, and was essential to all facets of her husband’s writing career, in particular by “hand copying his manuscripts” (Bendavid-Val, 2007). Leo Tolstoy typically depicted women in his stories as “being like doves, pure and innocent” (Lessing, ix), and yet was partnered to “an exceptional woman, with all her passions and difficulties laid bare” (Lessing ix) in a marriage that was documented to be riddled by constant strife (Bendavid-Val, 2007). When Leo Tolstoy wrote the Kreutzer Sonata, in which the male protagonist murders his wife, Tolstoy wrote an adulterous female character many believed to be a representation of his own wife. At the time, much of society connected the Kreutzer Sonata with the Leo and Sofia, which both caused Sofia considerable grief both due to how her husband chose to portray her, but also at the open pity she received by the prominent Russian society (Tolstoy 93). Leo’s ability to diminish Sofia in regards to a character in one of his books illustrated both his societal power, but also her fight to try to dictate her own experience.
The portrayal of female characters historically has led to an overall flattening of the female experience, not just within Eastern Europe, which can be combatted through sources such as Sofia Tolstoy’s diaries. Through them we are capable of seeing the very idiosyncratic triumphs and downfalls of her life. Yet, her story serves not just as a cautionary tale, but proof of the prolonged mistreatment of female characters by male writers. Literature requires critical analysis to prevent this trend, particularly by identifying who is telling the story and what conclusions are being drawn about the characters.
Female characters have predominantly suffered at the hands of male writers, which has then further the cycle of men defining the female experiences and enforcing certain discourses about what is or is not the female experience. One must always remember to be aware of who is providing information and dictating how one contributes to cultural and political discourses. Fortunately, “contemporary Soviet women writers break totally with their classical male predecessors…by their creation of an unsparingly critical self-image of Soviet women as tough, modest, [and] vulnerable” (du Plessix Gray 129). Today, there is a plethora of female Eastern European writers ready to come to the defense of both Sofia Tolstoy and other female characters—real and created.
Bendavid-Val, Leah. “Love and Hate: A Tolstoy Family Tale.” NPR, 16 Oct. 2007. Web.
Du Plessix Gray, Francine. “Life and Literature: Formidable Women.” Soviet Women: Walking
the Tightrope. Anchor, 1990. 114-31.
Lessing, Doris. “Foreword to The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy” The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy. Trans.
Cathy Porter. Harper Perennial, 2009.
Tolstoy, Sofia A. The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy. Trans. Cathy Porter. Harper Perennial, 2009.
Ugresic, Dubravka. Lend Me Your Character. 2005.