Authors: Ivan Goncharov

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Russian novelist, essayist, and critic.

June 18, 1812 (June 6, Old Style)

Simbirsk, Russia

September 27, 1891 (September 15, Old Style)

Saint Petersburg, Russia


Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov was born into a well-to-do merchant family living the manorial life of Russian gentry. In 1822 Goncharov went to Moscow to study at the Moskovskoe Kommercheskoe Uchilische (Moscow school of commerce), where he became seriously interested in literature. He left the school in 1830 and entered the philological department of Moscow University. After graduating in 1834, he began to work as a secretary to the governor of Simbirsk. In 1835 Goncharov left for Saint Petersburg to work as a translator in the Ministry of Finance. Although he was, according to Leo Tolstoy, a thorough townsman, Goncharov demonstrated in his novels a profound concern for the disintegration of gentry traditions. His first novel, Obyknovennaia istoriia (1848; A Common Story, 1894), first published in serialized form when Goncharov was thirty-five years old, traces the disillusioning sentimental education of an idealist who makes the transition from an idyllic country estate to Saint Petersburg and becomes a smug opportunist.

Ivan Goncharov.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Between 1852 and 1854 Goncharov took part in an expedition to Japan on the military frigate Pallada. The cycle of essays Russkie v Iaponii v kontse 1853 i v nachale 1854 godov (1855), revised in 1858 under the better-known title Fregat “Pallada” (The Voyage of the Frigate Pallada, 1965), gives a brilliant, realistic account of this trip. On his return from the expedition, Goncharov worked as a censor in the Ministry of Education, an editor for the government newspaper Severnaia pochta (The northern mail), and a member of a government council on press and printing affairs. His second novel, Oblomov (English translation, 1915), was published in 1859. The hero, who gives the novel its title, is a cultured, intelligent man of generous impulses who is nevertheless hopelessly slothful and ineffectual—indeed, for a number of pages he cannot even get out of bed—and who sinks slowly and undramatically into the depths of what he himself calls “Oblomovism.” This characterization was immediately recognized as representing a significant type in Russian society, and the name Oblomov became proverbial. In his autobiographical essay “Luchshe pozdno, chem nikogda” (Better late than never, 1879), Goncharov himself remarked that he intended to present the lethargy of Russia in contrast to the ferment of foreign influences; the author’s sympathy, however, is obviously for Oblomov.

Goncharov worked slowly on another novel, Obryv (1870; The Precipice, 1916), in which he again portrays a talented, intelligent man doomed to remain a dilettante, as well as a young man torn between old and new values. The book also contains a sympathetic portrait of an old-style grandmother and an unsympathetic portrait of a contemporary nihilist.

After retiring in 1867, Goncharov wrote reminiscences, criticism, and a few short stories. In the 1870s, he wrote a curious book titled Neobyknovennaia istoriia (An uncommon story), which, when it was finally published in 1924, revealed Goncharov's conviction that Ivan Turgenev had stolen ideas from The Precipice to use in his novel Dvorianskoe gnezdo (1859; Home of the Gentry, 1970). Some scholars have viewed this as evidence of Goncharov having suffered from paranoia or delusions; others have argued that the similarities between the two works lend credence to some of the allegations. Regardless, the two men, who had previously been close friends, no longer communicated after 1860, and Goncharov lived quietly until his death in Saint Petersburg in 1891.

Author Works Long Fiction: Obyknovennaia istoriia, 1847 (serial), 1848 (book; A Common Story, 1894; also known as The Same Old Story, 1957; An Ordinary Story, 1993) Oblomov, 1858–59 (serial), 1859 (book; English translation, 1915) Obryv, 1869 (serial), 1870 (book; The Precipice, 1916) Nonfiction: Russkie v Iaponii v kontse 1853 i v nachale 1854 godov, 1855 (revised 1858 as Fregat “Pallada”; The Voyage of the Frigate Pallada, 1965) Neobyknovennaia istoriia, wr. 1875–78, pb. 1924 Literaturno-kriticheskie stat’i i pis’ma, 1938 (A. P. Rybasova, editor) I. A. Goncharov-kritik, 1981 (V. I. Korobov, editor) Miscellaneous: Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 1884–87 (8 volumes) Sobranie sochinenii, 1952–55 (8 volumes) Bibliography Diment, Galya, editor. Goncharov’s Oblomov: A Critical Companion. Northwestern UP, 1998. Provides criticism and interpretation of Goncharov’s novel. Diment, Galya. “The Two Faces of Ivan Gončarov: Autobiography and Duality in Obyknovennaja Istorija.” Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 32, no. 3, 1988, pp. 353–72. Discusses Goncharov’s use of autobiographical facts in his writings. Ehre, Milton. Oblomov and His Creator: The Life and Art of Ivan Goncharov. Princeton UP, 1973. An excellent starting point for research, with its detailed literary biography and deep analysis of Goncharov’s work. Kuprianova, Nina. “‘I Used to Have My Own Field.’” Soviet Literature, July 1987, pp. 147–52. Brief biographical survey and literary analysis of Goncharov’s novels. Lavrin, Janko. Goncharov. Yale UP, 1954. Brief biographical survey and literary analysis of Goncharov’s novels. Lyngstad, Alexandra, and Sverre Lyngstad. Ivan Goncharov. Twayne Publishers, 1971. Provides a psychological sketch of the author and a discussion of his literary works. Reeve, F. D. The Russian Novel. McGraw-Hill, 1966. Places Goncharov in the context of Russian literary history. Setchkarev, Vsevolod. Ivan Goncharov: His Life and His Works. Jal-Verlag, 1974. Brief biographical survey and literary analysis of Goncharov’s novels.

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