It is by now a commonplace that the classic Russian novelists - Dostoevskii, Turgenev, Tolstoi - are distinguished by an unparalleled ability to portray the complex inner mental states of their characters. As early as 1856, the Russian critic Chernyshevskii praised Tolstoi for his superlative rendering of the “dialectics of the soul,” by which he meant Tolstoi's painstaking dissection of the inner life of his heroes. And in the Englishspeaking world, Virginia Woolf summed up a review of Tolstoi's The Cossacks by remarking: “They do not rival us in the comedy of manners, but after reading Tolstoi we always feel that we could sacrifice our skill in that direction for something of the profound psychology and superb sincerity of the Russian writers.”
I have no wish to dispute the near unanimous critical opinion that the Russian novel is particularly attuned to psychological analysis. Instead, in the essay that follows, I would like to ask why Russian novelists have been so concerned with psychology, and, as a corollary question, when this concern has been most in evidence. My central points will be two. First, that Russian novelists, with few exceptions, are concerned with individual psychology because it provides a window onto what might be called social psychology; that is, the individual is crucial not primarily for him or herself, but because he or she is seen to be representative of a larger group.
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