Love, Forgiveness, the Pride of the Protest, and What Makes a Compelling Heroine: Dostoyevsky’s Beautiful Eulogy for George Sand
By Maria Popova
On June 8, 1876, the great French novelist, memoirist, and playwright Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand, took her last breath five weeks before her seventy-second birthday. Over the course of her long and prolific career, she had touched millions of readers and influenced generations of writers. Among them was beloved Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky — a young man at the time of Sand’s literary debut, which had profoundly shaped his sensibility as a writer.
When he read about Sand’s death in the newspaper, Dostoyevsky was moved to write one of the warmest eulogies in literary history, on par with Susan Sontag’s remembrance of Borges and JFK’s of Robert Frost. It was eventually included in A Writer’s Diary (public library) — the same superb collection that gave us Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people and his arrival at the meaning of life in a dream. Despite a certain patina of datedness — this was an era when a woman writer was always a “poetess” — the eulogy emanates a tenacious timelessness, not only in celebrating Sand but also in serving as a genial testament to the circles of influence ripping through creative culture.
With the intention “merely to say a few farewell words to the deceased at her fresh grave,” Dostoyevsky laments that the most recent issue of his periodical had gone to press just before the announcement of Sand’s death:
I had no time to say even a word about this death. And yet, only having read about it, I understood what that name has meant in my life; how many delights, how much veneration this poetess has evoked in me at the time, and how many joys, how much happiness she has given me! I am putting down every one of these words unhesitatingly because this was literally the case.
With an eye to Sand’s idealism as a “service rendered to mankind as a whole,” Dostoyevsky considers how many others were as touched by her work and spirit as he was:
I imagine that much as I, then a young lad, everybody in those days was impressed with the chaste, sublime purity of the characters and of the ideals, and the modest charm of the austere, reserved tone of the narrative — and such a woman wears trousers and engages in debauch!
Pointing out that Sand become more popular with the Russian public than even Dickens, Dostoyevsky — who had served eight years in a Siberian prison camp for reading banned books — considers her singular allure to the national spirit at a time of severe ideological despotism in Russia:
The reader managed to extract even from novels everything against which he was being guarded… George Sand was one of the most brilliant, stern and just representatives of that category of the contemporaneous Western new men who, when they appeared, started with a direct negation of those “positive” acquisitions which brought to a close the activities of the bloody French — more correctly, European — revolution of the end of the past century.
Sand’s work, he argues, attested to the idea that “the renovation of humanity must be radical and social” and was a centerpiece not only of women’s emancipation but of the broader socialist movement toward freedom:
Her sermons were by no means confined to woman alone… George Sand belonged to the whole movement, and not to the mere sermons of women’s rights. True, being a woman herself, she naturally preferred to portray heroines rather than heroes, and, of course, women of the whole world should now don mourning garb in her memory, because one of their loftiest and most beautiful representatives has passed away, and, in addition, an almost unprecedented woman by reason of the power of her mind and talent — a name which has become historical and which is destined not to be forgotten…
In a sentiment triply poignant against the contemporary fact that books featuring female protagonists rarely receive literary acclaim, Dostoyevsky considers the compassionate idealism that made Sand’s heroines so widely resonant and bewitching:
Her heroines represented a type of such elevated moral purity that it could not have been conceived without an immense ethical quest in the soul of the poetess herself; without the confession of the most complete duty; without the comprehension and admission of most sublime beauty and mercy, patience and justice. True, side by side with mercy, patience and the acknowledgement of the obligations of duty, there was the extraordinary pride of the quest and of the protest; yet it was precisely that pride which was so precious because it sprang from the most sublime truth, without which mankind could never have retained its place on so lofty a moral height. This pride is not rancor quad même, based upon the idea that I am better than you, and you are worse than me; nay, this is merely a feeling of the most chaste impossibility of compromise with untruth and vice, although — I repeat — this feeling precludes neither all-forgiveness nor mercy.
In a contemporary peasant girl she suddenly resurrects before the reader the image of the historical Joan of Arc, and graphically justifies the actual possibility of that majestic and miraculous event. This is typically Georgesandesque task, since no one but she among contemporary poets bore in the soul so pure an ideal… A straightforward, honest, but inexperienced, character of a young feminine creature is pictured, one possessing that proud chastity which is neither afraid of, nor can even be contaminated by, contact with vice — even if that creature should accidentally find herself in the very den of vice. The want of magnanimous sacrifice (supposedly specifically expected from her) startles the youthful girl’s heart, and unhesitatingly, without sparing herself, disinterestedly, self-sacrificingly and fearlessly, she suddenly takes the most perilous and fatal step. That which she sees and encounters does not in the least confuse or intimidate her; on the contrary, it forthwith increases courage in the youthful heart which, at this juncture, for the first time, realizes the full measure of its strength — the strength of innocence, honesty and purity; it doubles the energy, reveals new paths and new horizons to a mind which up to that time had not known itself, a vigorous and fresh mind not yet soiled with the compromise of life.
To be sure, Dostoyevsky points out, Sand’s archetype of the courageous and independent woman-protagonist was not met without resistance by those who admonished against “the future poison of woman’s protest, of woman’s emancipation.” But her very devotion to unsettling the era’s limiting norms and envisioning a more expansive version of humanity is also what rendered Sand immortal:
George Sand … was one of the most clairvoyant foreseers (if this flourishing term be permitted) of a happy future awaiting mankind, in the realization of whose ideals she had confidently and magnanimously believed all her life — this because she herself was able to conceive this ideal in her soul. The preservation of this faith to the end is usually the lot of the lofty souls, of all genuine friends of humanity… She based her socialism, her convictions, her hopes and her ideals upon the moral feeling of man, upon the spiritual thirst of mankind and its longing for perfection and purity, and not upon “ant-necessity.” All her life she believed absolutely in human personality … elevating and broadening this concept in each one of her works.
As to the pride of her quests and of her protest — I repeat — this pride never precluded mercy, forgiveness of offense, or even boundless patience based upon compassion for the offender himself. On the contrary, time and again, in her works George Sand has been captivated by the beauty of these truths and on more than one occasion she has portrayed characters of the most sincere forgiveness and love.
A Writer’s Diary contains much more of Dostoyevsky’s warmth, idealism, and compassionate genius. Complement this particular piece with John F. Kennedy’s eulogy to Robert Frost and Susan Sontag’s breathtaking remembrance of Borges.
Published June 8, 2015