History of Literature

Russian literature



Denis Fonvizin

Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin (Russian: Дени́с Ива́нович Фонви́зин, from German: von Wiesen; 14 April 1744 or 1745 – 1 December 1792) is a playwright of the Russian Enlightenment whose plays are still staged today. His main works are two satirical comedies which mock contemporary Russian gentry.


Born in Moscow, of a family of gentry of Livonian descent, he received a good education at the University of Moscow and very early began writing and translating. He entered the civil service, becoming secretary to Count Nikita Panin, one of the great noblemen of Catherine the Great's reign. Because of Panin's protection, Fonvizin was able to write critical plays without fear of being arrested, and, in the late 1760s, he brought out the first of his two famous comedies, The Brigadier-General.

A man of means, he was always a dilettante rather than a professional author, though he became prominent in literary and intellectual circles. In 1777-78 he traveled abroad, the principal aim of his journey being the medical faculty of Montpellier. He described his voyage in his Letters from France — one of the most elegant specimens of the prose of the period, and the most striking document of that anti-French nationalism which in the Russian elite of the time of Catherine went hand in hand with a complete dependence on French literary taste.

In 1782 appeared Fonvizin's second and best comedy The Minor, which definitely classed him as the foremost of Russian playwrights. His last years were passed in constant suffering and traveling abroad for his health. He died in Saint Petersburg in 1792.

Works and influence
Fonvizin's reputation rests almost entirely on his two comedies, which are beyond doubt the most popular Russian plays before Alexander Griboyedov's Woe from Wit. They are both in prose and adhere to the canons of classical comedy. Fonvizin's principal model, however, was not Molière, but the great Danish playwright Holberg, whom he read in German, and some of whose plays he had translated.

Both comedies are plays of social satire with definite axes to grind. The Brigadier-General is a satire against the fashionable French semi-education of the petits-maîtres. It is full of excellent fun, and though less serious than The Minor, it is better constructed. But The Minor, though imperfect in dramatic construction, is a more remarkable work and justly considered Fonvizin's masterpiece.

The point of the satire in The Minor is directed against the brutish and selfish crudeness and barbarity of the uneducated country gentry. The central character, Mitrofanushka, is the accomplished type of vulgar and brutal selfishness, unredeemed by a single human feature — even his fondly doting mother gets nothing from him for her pains. The dialogue of these vicious characters (in contrast to the stilted language of the lovers and their virtuous uncles) is true to life and finely individualized; and they are all masterpieces of characterization — a worthy introduction to the great portrait gallery of Russian fiction.

As a measure of its popularity, several expressions from The Minor have been turned into proverbs, and many authors (amongst whom Alexandr Pushkin) regularly cite from this play, or at least hint to it by mentioning the character's names.



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