Introduction to Envy
Written by Yuri Olesha and first published in 1927, in newly established Soviet Union. The 1920s brought great change for Russia as Tsar’s regime was thrown out and Communism was brought in. However, during the 20s, the Soviet Union went back to a quasi-capitalist system under the New Economic Policy. The New Economic Policy allowed citizens to own small businesses, one of the themes Olesha addresses in the novel. Through Andrei Babichev, Olesha portrays the new man created as a result of the New Economic Policy and places him in contrast with the older society. This is a period of confusion and hypocrisy, as a Communist society adopts Capitalistic policies. To show this confusion, Olesha presents a bleak depiction of society in this deeply psychological work.
The Novel's Title
The title is a reflection of the primary and most blatant theme, envy. Envy is embodied in many different forms. Ivan and Kavalerov are Dostoyevskian characters who are envious of more successful character, like Andrei. Ivan and Kavalerov’s mental states are overwhelmed with envy and motivate their actions throughout the novel. Envy can also refer to how the people of the “old era” envy the “new man.”
The main character, Nikolai Kavalerov, wakes up in the apartment of Andrei Babichev, who took Kavalerov home after finding him passed out in a gutter. Andrei explains that he has extra space because his young understudy, Volodya, is out of town. As a wealthy and high ranking businessman, Andrei allows Kavalerov to sleep on his couch in exchange for busy work to help his starting business. This business is the Two Bits, a store with the aspiration of making the kitchen efficient to free women from excessive manual labor. While working for him, Kavalerov begins to resent Andrei for his gluttony and condescending tone. One day, a short man in a bowler stands outside Andrei’s balcony and tells him he has finally created something that will ruin Andrei. Kavalerov sees this same man later, standing outside a girl’s balcony asking her to return. That night, Kavalerov overhears Andrei talking with a girl on the phone. From what he hears, Kavalerov realizes this is the girl he saw on the balcony earlier that day. He comes to find that the short man is Ivan Babichev, Andrei’s brother, and the girl is Valya, Ivan’s daughter. Kavalerov hears that Valya has left her father and comes under the impression that Andrei is attempting to draw her away from Ivan for either Volodya, or himself. After being ignored by Andrei at an airshow, Kavalerov leaves the apartment. Before leaving for good though, he writes a letter criticizing Andrei and proclaiming that he will win over Valya and Volodya. He returns to the apartment to leave the letter, but encounters Volodya. After a brief confrontation, Kavalerov leaves and decides to take the letter with him. However, Kavalerov realizes he mistakenly took the wrong letter with him. He returns to the apartment to apologize, but is kicked out. Drunk, Kavalerov wanders the street where he finds Ivan. Ivan and Kavalerov wander the streets of Moscow drunk together as Ivan tells stories. Ivan recounts a tale in which his supper machine, Ophelia, supposedly killed Andrei at the opening of his Two Bits. The reader later finds this story to be false after Andrei is seen later in the story. Together Ivan and Kavalerov decide the only way to get back at society is to kill the man they are envious of, Andrei. The two develop a plan to kill Andrei with Ophelia at Volodya’s soccer game, but the plan backfires as Ophelia kills Ivan instead of Andrei. Kavalerov accepts his fate, and returns to his apartment complex to live with a widow in poverty. The novel ends with a plot twist as Ivan returns to live with Kavalerov and the widow.
Nikolai Kavalerov is the central focus of the novel as well as the narrator of Part 1. He is a young man of 28 years old. Kavalerov's life is by no means bright and cheerful. He craves to matter in life and desires to have a meaningful existance. However, he is outcast from society and left to wander the streets in a drunken haze. This is his condition at the start of the novel as he is taken in off the street by Andrei Babichev, a middle aged businessman. During his stay at Babichev's, Kavalerov becomes increasingly envious of Babichev's success and position in society to the point where he thoroughly hates Babichev. As the novel progresses, his narration provides a deep psychological profile into his warped state of mind.
Andrei Petrovich Babichev is a middle aged man who runs a sausage buisness called Two Bits. He is rather bland and uninteresting, yet he is still successful and respected in society. Through Kavalerov's narration, a grotesque description of Babichev's physical appearence is given. He is over weight and a slob. He also represents the "new man" that emerged out of the New Economic Policy. Despite living in a supposed communist society, he runs a private sausage making business caller Two Bits and is successful. He is also envied and despised by both his brother Ivan and Kavalerov.
Ivan Babichev is Andrei's brother and Valya's father. He has created a machine named Ophelia, which he believes to be the perfect being, yet he, like Kavalerov, is outcast from society and resorts to drunkenly wandering the streets in a similar fashion. He despises his brother Andrei and even plans to use his creation Ophelia to murder him. Ivan is further contrasted with his brother because he represents the old way. Society under the New Economic Policy now values small business owners like Andrei far more than Ivan.
Valya is a young girl of 16 and is Ivan's daughter. She is the ideal new era woman and as a result, Andrei Babichev hopes to marry her off to Volodya, who represents the ideal new era man. Andrei's intentions for Valya are strongly opposed by both Kavalerov and Ivan. Kavalerov even says that he intends on taking her away from Andrei so that he can marry her himself.
Volodya is a young man who periodicly stays at Andrei Babichev's house and has easily won Babichev's favor. He is athletic, plays soccer very well, and represents the model young Soviet citizen of the era. Because of this, it is Andrei's intention to have him marry Valya. Unlike Kavalerov, he is admired by society and never has to deal with any of the hardships of rejection and destitution.
The novel does not reveal what Ophelia exactly is until well into the second part. She is a machine that is the end product of Ivan Babichev's attempt to create the perfect being. Ivan's ultimate intention is to have her kill his brother, Andrei.
Alienation in Envy pertains to the characters Nikolai Kavalerov and Ivan Babichev. We see this primarily through Kavalerov at first as he is the narrator of Part One. He constantly feels rejected by society and is never able to fit in. Before he was taken in by Babichev, he was thoroughly alone, drunk in a street gutter, and after he gets kicked out of Babichev's house, he goes back to the same existence, only this time alongside Ivan.
Desire to have meaning
Throughout he novel, Kavalerov desires to to have his existance on this earth matter. This can be summed up perfectly in his quote, "In our country the roads to glory are obstructed by barriers... A talented man must either abate or dare to raise the barrier with a big scandal. I, for example, would like to argue. I like to show the strength of my personality. I want my own glory. We're afraid to give a man attention. I want more attention." He despises those like Babichev and Volodya who have a meaningful position in society, and is so distraught from his own state of being that his mental state even begins to deteriorate.
This is also shown in Ivan Babichev as well. Being down and out in a similar fashion to Kavalerov, he too desires to matter in life. This can be seen in his creating of Ophelia. Ivan had this idea of creating the absolute perfect being, and as a result, he ended up with this machine. Ophelia was his attempt to do something extraordinary that would place him above the likes of individuals like his brother Andrei.
The idea of freewill is another common theme throughout the novel. Kavalerov, in his alienated and dejected state, feels constrained by the society in which he lives. This society, as he sees it, elevates the status of bland, uninteresting, generic people like Babichev, and Kavalerov cannot stand it. In his monologues, he discusses using freewill as a means to overcome this constraints. For example, he says on page 18, "If only to pick up and do it like this: to kill yourself. Suicide without any motive. Out of mischief. To show that everyone has the right to dispose of himself." Kavalerov's emphasis is not on whether he uses free will in a positive way. He will have no benefit in committing suicide if he intends to act accordingly, but it will still be an act of freewill just the same. If he were to do so, suicide will show that he, not society nor anyone else, is truly the one in control of his existence, and that he has the ability to end such existence if he so pleases.
With the contrast of events in Part One and Part Two, Olesha never makes if both, neither, or one of the two is actuality. This becomes apparent at the start of Part Two as the narration changes from first to third person. Events start to get stranger and more bizarre starting when Kavalerov meets Ivan while talking in front of a street mirror. Events become stranger still after Ivan is killed by Ophelia, but somehow miraculously is alive again at the ending. It makes the reader wonder if any of this is actually happening or whether it is just a distortion of Kavalerov's warped psychological state of mind. However, this also leads the reader to question the reality of the Part One. If Kavalerov is descending into madness, how can his narration be taken as concrete fact? In the end, it remains inconclusive what is reality and what is imagination.
As the title suggests, Envy is a crucial component of the novel. On the most obvious level, it is the emotion felt by Kavalerov and Ivan with regards to Anfrei Babichev. The both see him as this bland, generic, uninteresting man, yet they thoroughly envy his success. They both become overwhelmed by this envy to the point where it engulfs their entire state of mind. Everything they think about is their resentment of Andrei. However, Kavalerov and Ivan only stand as examples of a much larger force of envy. As Kavalerov explains, "You, without realizing it yourself, are the bearer of a historic mission, You, so to say, are a clot. You are a clot of the envy of the dying epoch. The dying epoch envies what is coming to place." This refers to how the old ways envy the new. Both Kavalerov and Ivan desire to be distinguishable and to do something extraordinary. Ivan even goes so far as to try and build the most perfect being by creating Ophelia, but in this new society, he is rejected just as Kavalerov. Andrei, on the other hand, is bland and generic, yet he is a wealthy and successful businessman. Neither Kavalerov nor Ivan can understand how such a man could have such a high status, and as a result, they both detest and envy him.
Gender is represented indiscreetly in Envy through the “new man” and “new woman.” Throughout the novel, the qualities the “new man” and “new woman” will discuss are mentioned and represented through symbolism like the Two Bits. In his book, Olesha’s Envy, Rimgaila Salys notes ways gender is discreetly represented. He describes Anichka as the castrating mother and Ophelia as the feminine machine that kills its male creator with a phallic needle.
Olesha wrote Envy in only six months. However, he claimed to have worked on parts of the novel, like the intro, for as many as five years. According to interviews, Olesha had no master plan for Envy’s direction, but rather let it shape itself. This lack of direction is apparent through the variations in Envy’s many manuscripts. Earlier versions of Envy included characters like an American sniper named David Williams and a poet called Clemet. Kavalerov emerged from a different character, Zvezdalov. In other versions of Envy, Kavalerov was a murderer. Other plot variations included Kostya Belov, a NEP man who competes with Andrei Babichev for the love of a woman. The novel is believed to be structured around Ivan Babichev, as he is the character who changes the least through the manuscripts.
Envy was first published in Russian in 1927 in the literary magazine Red Virgin Soil. Envy was first published as a complete work in 1928 by Russian publisher Zemly i Fabrika. The novel was published eight years later, in English, by Hogarth Press.
The renown Russian novelist and literary critic Vladimir Nabokov claimed that Olesha’s Envy is one of the greatest works produced within the Soviet Union. In talking about the books significance, Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour in her book The Invisible Land: A Study of the Artistic Imagination of Iurii Olesha states, “Envy is one of Olesha’s most successful works because, in his youthful confidence, Olesha maintains the distance between himself and his characters which is the sign of true artistic control.” In the novel, every character is unique in their own right and individually flawed. On top of this, Olesha keeps his distance by avoiding to sympathize any one specific character. At the time it was written, the magazine Pravda said (about Envy), “This work without a doubt places Olesha among the ranks of the best contemporary writers. Splendid mastery of style, subtle psychological analysis, vivid description of negative types-all this holds the reader’s attention from beginning to end.” He has praised for favoring neither capitalism nor communism while pointing out the flaws within both systems. As a result, some view the work as a critique of communism, some view it as a critique of capitalism, and others just view it as a work of art.
In 1929 there was a stage adaptation of Envy entitled A Conspiracy of Feelings
1. In the novel Envy, does there seem to more of a saterical critique of the individual characters or society itself? In which do the main problems seem to manifest themselves?
2. "Here we're afraid of paying attention to anyone. I want a lot of attention" (Olesha 26-7). Compare this quote (and Nikolai's behavior over the course of the book) to the Underground man and his similar need for validation. Do you think they are alike in this regard?
3 How, if at all, does Olesha incorporate the writing techniques of his predecessors, such as Dostoevsky or Pushkin?
4 What is the role of machines in the novel? How are the portrayed and what do they represent?
5. Acording to Nabokov Envy is the best novel of the Soviet era. Knowing Nabokov's thoughts on other Russian writers what does Nabokov see in this novel?
6. How does envy compare to We in terms of themes? Do you think they are trying to say something similar to or different from one another?
7. Why does Babichev ask Kavalerov about Jocasta? Why is Ophelia called Ophelia other than the reason given by Ivan?
8. How do you interpret the shift in point of view (from first-person to third-person narration) between parts one and two of the novel Envy?
9. From part 1 do you like Andrei as a character and feel he is helping Nikolai because he wants to do the right thing? Do you like Nikolai? How does this change from part 1 to part 2?
Beaujour, Elizabeth Klosty. The Invisible Land; a Study of the Artistic Imagination of Iurii Olesha. New York: Columbia UP, 1970. Print. Salys, Rimgaila. Olesha's Envy: A Critical Companion. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1999. Print. Olesha, Yuri. Envy. Trans. Marian Schwartz. New York: New York Review, 2004. Print. Olesha, Yury. Envy. Trans. T.S. Berczynski. Adris, 1975. Print.
Liukkonen, Petri, and Ari Pesonen. "Yuri Olesha." Yuri Olesha. 2008. Web. 11 May 2012. <http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/olesha.htm>. "Yury Olesha." - New World Encyclopedia. New World Encyclopedia, 2 Apr. 2008. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Yury_Olesha>.