Dialectics of Sin: snokhachestvo Incest in Maxim Gorky’s Fiction (2021)
Russian literature famously contributed to thinking about sin in the works of its most celebrated writers, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, dubbed as “Russian thinkers” to denote their contribution to moral, philosophical, and psychological thought. Dostoevsky explored the problem of sin and crime in Crime and Punishment, and in his last most philosophical novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), he even posited the problem of the hereditary nature of sin with its focus on the family. Leo Tolstoy also explored the relations between sin, crime and evil within the family, notably in his play The Power of Darkness (1886) that controversially depicted the Russian peasant family as home to criminal and sinful acts of incest and murder. So powerful was Tolstoy’s indictment that the play was forbidden to be staged till 1902. My present investigation focuses of the work of another celebrated classic of Russian literature, Maxim Gorky (1868-1936), whose contribution to thinking about sin/crime in relation to the workings of the Russian family has not been fully explored. In particular, his stories reveal a preoccupation with the theme of father and daughter-in-law incest, in direct relation to the notion of sin in Judeo-Christian tradition. Writing on the topic of sin and evil in European literature, Ronald Paulson has noted that topics of sin in literature often relate to transgressions of sexual prohibitions set out in Leviticus in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). Paulson uses the writings of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur who maintains in his The Symbolism of Evil, that “sin does not so much signify a harmful substance” but rather a violated personal relation to God, a violation of a religious bond, of a contract with the deity himself (p. 12, 14).