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The Tale of Frol Skobeyev

 

However the century spent in assimilating the West European novella and producing indepen­dent works in this genre did yield a totally original and outstanding work, namely, The Tale of Frol Skobeyev. There are good grounds for assuming that it was written already in the reign of Peter the Great.30 The anonymous author constructs his narrative as a story about the past31 (in some manuscripts the action is placed in 1680). The lively official style of the tale clearly reflects the age of Peter the Great’s reforms: frequent use is made of borrowings from West European languages, such barbarisms as kvartira (apartment), reestr (register) and persona (in the sense of “personage”; in the reign of Tsar Alexis, the word persona meant a portrait). Although separately all these barbarisms can be found in seventeenth-century Russian documents, in particular, the archives of the Ambassadorial Chancery, taken together they are typical of the texts of the Petrine period.

The comparatively late dating of The Tale of Frol Skobeyev does not place this work outside the limits of the Old Russian novella. The mediaeval literary tradition did not break off abruptly. It continued even under Peter the Great, giving way to the new type of literature slowly and not without a struggle. The Tale of Frol Skobeyev was more the end result of a definite tendency that formed in the seventeenth century, than the beginning of a new stage in the development of literature.

The Tale of Frol Skobeyev is a picaresque novella about a cunning rogue, an impoverished nobleman who cannot make a living from his patrimony or estate and is therefore compelled to make money by engaging in malicious litigation and petitioning on behalf of other people’s cases. Only a large-scale successful swindle can make him a full-fledged member of the noble estate once more, so he uses his cunning to abduct and marry Annushka, the daughter of the rich and high-ranking chamberlain Nardin- Nashchokin. “I’ll end up a general or a corpse,” the hero exclaims and eventually achieves his aim.

Compositionally the tale falls into two parts of almost equal length. The dividing line between them is the hero’s marriage: after his marriage Frol still has to mollify his father-in-law and get the dowry.

In part one there are few genre scenes and even fewer descriptions. Everything here is subject to the swiftly developing plot. It is the apotheosis of the adventure, presented as a gay, and not always decorous game. Frol Skobeyev’s growing intimacy with Annushka is like a kind of mummery, and the hero himself is even portrayed as a mummer in part one: wearing female dress he manages to slip into the Nardin-Nashchokin’s country house at Christmastide, and in coachman’s attire, sitting in the driving seat of someone else’s carriage, he abducts Annushka from her father’s house in Moscow.

In part two of the tale the plot develops more slowly. It is slowed down by dialogues and static situations. As a rule love stories end with marriage in literature. The author of Frol Skobeyev did not confine himself to this customary ending, but continued the narrative, shifting it to another level. In part two the author shows exceptional skill in the portrayal of characters.32

Having enlisted the support of the chamberlain Lovchikov, Frol Skobeyev prepares to ask his father-in-law for forgiveness. Service ha& just finished in the Assumption Cathedral. The chamberlains are conversing sedately in Ivan Square in the Kremlin, opposite the bell-tower of Ivan the Great. Frol, known to everyone and despised by all, prostrates himself at Nardin- Nashchokin’s feet in front of everyone and says: “Gracious master, head chamberlain, forgive the guilty one, like a slave, who has dared to take such a liberty!” The old chamberlain whose sight is failing tries to raise Frol with his stick: “Who are you and what do you want?” But Frol will not get up and keeps repeating: “Grant me forgiveness.” Then the good Lovchikov comes forward and says: “It is the nobleman Frol Skobeyev who lies before you and begs your forgiveness.”

This splendid scene stands outside the framework of the novella plot. It is not actually necessary for the structure of the novella. The characters have already been sketched in part one: Frol is a rogue, Annushka is the submissive mistress, Annushka’s duenna, the rogue’s mercenary accomplice, and Nardin- Nashchokin, the deceived father. This simple treatment is fully in keeping with the laws of the novella. But whereas in dynamic part one the author is interested in the plot, now he is concerned with the psychology of the characters. Part one is a kaleidoscope of events, but in part two it is the characters’ emotions, not their actions, on which attention is focused.

This can be seen from the individual quality of the direct speech, the deliberate way it is distinguished from the speech of the narrator. The Tale of Frol Skobeyev is the first work in Russian literature in which the author distinguishes the words of the characters from his own in respect of form and language. From the remarks of the characters the reader learns not only about their actions and intentions, but also about their emotional state. Annushka’s parents send their son-in-law an icon in a sumptuous casing and bid their servant: “Tell that rogue and thief Frol Skobeyev not to squander it.” Nardin-Nashchokin says to his wife: “What are we to do, my dear? That rogue will be the death of Annushka: how will he feed her, he’s as hungry as a wolf himself. We must send six horses with provisions for them.” Eventually Frol and Annushka are summoned to her parents’ home, and Nardin-Nashchokin greets his son-in-law thus: “Why do you stand, rascal? Sit down at once! Will you have my daughter, rogue that you are?” In these lines we detect a grudge against Annushka and Frol, parental love and concern, and an old man’s peevishness and anger, which is helpless and just for show, because in his heart the father has already become reconciled to the disgrace and is ready to forgive. The narrator often passes over the characters’ emotions in silence: but their dialogues are enough to convey these emotions to the reader.

The contrasting structure of The Tale of Frol Skobeyev is a conscious and deliberate device. It does not indicate contradiction or artistic lack of skill. By creating a composition based on contrast the author wanted to show that he was capable of solving different tasks, of constructing a dynamic plot and of portraying human psychology.

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