The Superfluous Man In Russian Literature


 This is a subject I wrote on in the past, but I want to revisit this topic because my next novel is going to be my limited effort to recreate this type of character. My novels are typically about a person who struggles between what he wants to do and what he ought to do. My next project will be about someone who fails to make the right decision and chooses what he wants to do.

Russian literature of the mid-1800s was typified by a character type known as the Superfluous Man. Russian culture and politics were then such that this Superfluous Man was an ideal form in describing the shortcomings of Russian society. And it was these realities that he exemplifies against which the soon to be coming Revolution would occur. It is possible that the Superfluous Man fed into this general dissatisfaction of the early 20th century Bolsheviks.

The Superfluous Man was based upon the Byronic hero, like Childe Harold or Don Juan. The Superfluous Man is just a general type, and while there is variety between literary characters labeled as such, just as there is variety between the code heroes of Hemingway, like Robert Jordan, Henry Morgan, or Nick Adams, there are some consistent generalities.

  • He is usually a talented person born into wealth, sometimes royalty.
  • He does not fit into society and who disregards social norms.
  • He exhibits cynicism and existential angst.
  • He indulges in vices, such as romantic affairs, gambling, and dueling.

The term came from a novella by Ivan Turgenev, The Diary Of A Superfluous Man. In it a wasteful man chronicles his last few days. One of the more prominent examples is Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, from which Tchaikovsky composed his greatest opera. Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero Of Our Time is series of five short fiction pieces, and is another popular work in this idiom. Later examples include Alexander Herzen’s Beltov and Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov.

The Superfluous Man is more than just the idle rich. He often ruins the lives of people around him just as he ruins his own. The Superfluous Man is really a good, old-fashioned morality tale. We, as both writers and readers, and better served in knowing these aspects of literature. I am challenging myself, and you fellow writers as well, to try to create a short piece of fiction with an American main character who would be called a Superfluous Man. You may compose a masterpiece, or you may stumble across an interesting exercise. Either way, such efforts would not be – dare I say – superfluous.


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