Noontime Scholars Lecture with Colleen Lucey, “Tales of Violence and Murder: The Prostitute in Fin-de-Siècle Russian Literature”

by Serenity Stanton Orengo

On June 13th, 2019, Colleen Lucey (Assistant Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at the University of Arizona) gave a REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture, entitled: “Tales of Violence and Murder: The Prostitute in Fin-de-Siècle Russian Literature.” Professor Lucey is the 2019 Fisher Fellow at the Summer Research Lab.

Lucey began her talk with the premise that writers in the nineteenth century used their platform to debate current issues, including the state regulation of prostitution. Authors often took up the theme of the prostitute/ “fallen woman,” and the possibilities for her rehabilitation: marriage, or reintegration into society through honest work (by “needle and thread”). The topic was so prevalent in the literature of the nineteenth century that every major writer, and even second-tier authors such as Vsevolod Garshin, explored the theme. For Lucey, this prompted the question: why do writers at the end of the century continue to take up the theme of the “fallen woman,” and what can they say that has not already been said by their predecessors?

In order to answer this question, Lucey turned to two works: Leo Tolstoy’s late novel Resurrection (1899) and Leonid Andreev’s controversial story “In the Fog” (1902). Lucey argued both Resurrection and “In the Fog” represent a shift in the Russian cultural imagination in two ways. First, both authors use their works to argue against criminal anthropology, specifically, the belief that prostitutes were genetically predisposed to deviant behavior. Second, both narratives collapse in on themselves: through the disappearance of Maslova’s physical body in Resurrection, and the prostitute’s stabbed and deflated chest at the end of “In the Fog.” Lucey argued both Tolstoy and Andreev viewed the prostitute’s body as simultaneously attractive and repulsive, a threat to the health of the Russian nation, and a representation of the fears of unbridled sexuality that destabilized the gender hierarchy in the late nineteenth century.

To begin her discussion of Resurrection, Lucey argued that Tolstoy set out to debunk positivist criminology in the novel by having the hypocritical prosecutor be the voice of the theories of Italian criminologist Lombroso, who argued prostitutes were inherently drawn to transgressive sexual behavior as evidenced by their skull size. Lucey further contended that for the main character Nekhlyudov, there is a clear aversion to female sexuality which is linked to disease and death, as well as a fear of woman as seducer. Lucey concluded that Tolstoy solves the problem of sexual desire by negating the female body entirely. While at the beginning of the novel Maslova sticks out her chest with pride, by the novel’s conclusion, she is meek, submissive, and dressed in baggy prison clothes which effectively hide her body. Tolstoy’s novel then offers salvation for the prostitute through chastity.

In turning to Andreev’s story “In the Fog,” Lucey discussed how the main character Pavel, a man who contracted syphilis from a prostitute, is obsessed with watching women, while simultaneously being horrified by the female body. She astutely noted that the yellow fog clinging to Petersburg throughout the story—reminiscent of the yellow pallor of the faces of syphilitic men—serves as a reminder to the reader that the city of St. Petersburg is as sickly as its inhabitants. The story’s conclusion, according to Lucey, suggests as much about venereal disease haunting Petersburg, and by extension all of Russia, as it does the violent response to women’s shifting role in society. Pavel’s murder/suicide ‘‘encapsulates the broader social violence that responded to the demands of women for sexual, financial, and political autonomy.’’

She concluded by arguing that male authors at the end of the century remained bound to the idea that prostitutes were victims of male exploitation and in need of redemption. Both Andreev and Tolstoy offered a new take on the theme of the “fallen woman” by basing their stories on actual cases of violence against sex workers, as well as incorporating anxieties specific to that period in their texts—the increased medicalization of sex, the reliance of criminal anthropology, and the rise of venereal disease among youth. Both authors additionally silence the prostitute with the erasure of her physical presence: Tolstoy by covering Maslova’s body with baggy clothing, and Andreev with murder. Lucey concluded that at the cusp of the twentieth century, the threat of sexual emancipation promised to destabilize the family unit, and we can then see both Tolstoy and Andreev’s texts as indicating broader cultural shifts in gender relations.

 

 

Serenity Stanton Orengo is a PhD student in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on medicine, women’s reproductive health, and the rejection of motherhood in nineteenth-century Russian literature. 

 

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