A vital question; or, What is to be done?

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For other versions of this work, see What is to be done? (Chernyshevsky).
A vital question; or, What is to be done?  (1886) 
by Nikolay Chernyshevsky, translated by Nathan Haskell Dole and Simon S. Skidelsky

This translation follows the Russian text very closely, frequently introducing or commenting on the Russian vocabulary, to the point that the English occasionally becomes hard to follow. It is much fuller than the Tucker translation, which seems to be based on an 1875 French translation. One short section of Part Four, however, has been omitted, and is found in the Tucker translation. Comparison of translations.










No. 13 Astor Place.


By Thomas Y. Crowell & Co.


Table of Contents
(not listed in book)

I. A Fool. 1
II. The First Consequences of the Fool's Deed. 4
III. Preface. 8
  Part First. The Life of Viéra Pavlovna in Her Parents' Family. 14
  Part Second. First Love, and Legal Marriage. 47
  Part Third. Marriage and Second Love. 121
  Part Fourth. Second Marriage. 241
  Part Fifth. New People, and the Finale. 279
  Part Sixth. Change of Scenes. 329


In the present translation the American public has an opportunity of studying what the paternal Russian government regards as revolutionary literature. In the Russian cities it is possible, by offering guarantees, by depositing fifteen or twenty rubles, and by paying fifteen or twenty kopeks a day, to borrow Tchernuishevsky's novel from the libraries. It is dangerous property, however, and the person caught with it in his possession may make unpleasant acquaintance with the police. It was published first in the columns of the "Sovremennik" (Contemporary). It was written with all the enthusiasm which an ardent soul could feel at the first breath of liberty blowing on a land long ground down under the heel of oppression. It made an immense sensation throughout Russia. It is said that hundreds of young girls living in disagreeable circumstances started to follow Viéra Pavlovna's example, and hundreds of young men, to live honorable, lofty, philosophical lives in the fashion of the types represented by Lopukhóf and Kirsánof. The tendency of the story was quite too liberal, and it was hardly brought out in book form before it was ruthlessly suppressed. Even now, however, it works like a leaven; and though it is dead, it lives. It is not a novel in the strict sense of the word. The characters are all drawn from life: Kirsánof is understood to be a picture of the distinguished Professor Shévitch of St. Petersburg, and Viéra Pavlovna still lives. The extraordinary man, so singularly introduced in the third part, is regarded in Russia as an ideal picture of the famous Karakózof.

In the present unsettled state of the labor question this novel of the crushed Russian reformer has a most vital interest. It ought to come to every poor working girl like a breath from heaven, like an inspiration. There is no reason why Viéra Pavlovna's industrial experiment, which is no chimerical dream, should not be put into practice in every town where the English language is spoken. Are not the signs as certain as fate, that co-operation is to be the great system of the future? and how reasonably it is presented in "A Vital Question"! Then there will be no more strikes for eight hours of work, no more quarrels between employers and the employed, for the employed will be themselves their own employers. As regards the still more vital question upon which the book touches, it is evident what the author teaches, and with what a master hand! The present marriage system is in many instances a failure; witness the proportion of divorces to marriages in every state, not only in this country, but in countries where divorce is allowed, and the immorality everywhere. How is it to be stopped? not by free love; but by education and the joining of those who were meant to be joined. Marriage is a fact, and how is it to be purified and made sacred? Tchernuishevsky offers his theory of its practical solution, not in the philosophically absurd and weak conduct of Lopukhóf, which, perhaps, was unavoidable in a country like Russia, but in the suggestions of Rakhmétof, which, however, are only to be realized when people have attained a higher state of morality and education than is to be found, except among a very few, in whom the animal nature is absolutely tamed. Cases have been known where man and wife, growing apart by natural development, have again established love through what we call Christian grace; how many such cases are there? It takes a miracle to mix oil and water. This is a question which forces itself home to every man and woman, "What is to be done about it?" Whatever may be thought about Tchernuishevsky's solution, whatever may be thought about the morality of the business-agreement theory, whatever may be thought of the conduct of Lopukhóf, there can be no doubt of the intense moral purpose of the author; he may be mistaken, but his virtue is Spartan; it is as heroic as though it were ideally Christian.

Such is the motive of the story. But even more important than this special motive is the general theory of the equality of women, the development of which makes the real greatness of the book. Such an ideal of womanhood is offered as can scarcely be found anywhere else in literature. Even those who, possibly misunderstanding what Tchernuishevsky really proposes, think his ideas in respect to freedom of divorce unsound and immoral, cannot fail to recognize the magnificence of the prospect which he opens before "the softer sex" in Viéra Pavlovna's Fourth Vision. It ought to be read and taken to heart by every woman in the world. It lies with the women themselves to determine their treatment by men, and the terrible social state from which now so many unfortunate creatures, both married and single, are suffering, might be cured as malaria is cured by the wind of the sea, if this theory were only brought into practice. "A Vital Question" should especially be grateful to the women of this land, which is popularly supposed to be "the land of freedom."

A few words about the author himself may be interesting.

Nikolaï Gavrilovitch Tchernuishevsky[1] was born in 1829, in the city of Sarátof. His father, a man of remarkable intellect and character, was an archpriest of the cathedral, who was revered and loved by all who knew him. The young Nikolaï was placed in the Theological School at Sarátof, where he devoted himself with remarkable assiduity to the study of the ancient languages, and particularly of the Bible. At this time he was an unquestioning believer; but as his mind developed, he found that the atmosphere of the Greek Church suffocated him. His old father made no opposition, and sent him to the University of Petersburg, where he entered the philological faculty, and devoted himself to the mastery of the ancient languages, and especially the Slavonic. He was an indefatigable reader, and having been introduced to the study of sociology, he locked himself in his room, and read everything that he could find in Russian, French, and German on the subject, and the training he had received in the seminary quickly enabled him to become a master of it. After his graduation in 1850 he was engaged as instructor of literature in the School of Cadets; but at the end of a year, at the request of his mother, who was very dear to him, he gave up the pleasant circle of acquaintances, and the delightful life in Petersburg, and became a teacher in the gymnasium of his native town. It was a particularly trying position for a man of his liberal views; but he had the satisfaction of exerting an immense influence in the circle in which he moved. It is said that through his silent example and personal popularity many of the petty officials who hitherto had wasted their time and energies became interested in self-culture, and, what was more for Russian tchinovniks, refused to accept bribes. Nikolaï met a young girl belonging to this circle, and fell in love with her. His mother died in 1853, and shortly after, with his father's blessing, he married, and moved to Petersburg, where he earned a precarious existence by various literary work. Finding that English translations were becoming fashionable, he learned English in two months, and translated a novel. Meantime, he was working for his degree of magister. His dissertation on "The Æsthetic Relation of Art to Reality" was so radical in its ideas that it caused his rejection. He got into difficulty with the director of the Corps of Cadets, and resigned his position as teacher, and thenceforth devoted himself to literature. His dissertation gave him a place in the office of the "Sovremennik" as critical and political writer.

After the accession of Alexander II., while the Emperor was still enjoying his prestige as "Tsar-Liberator," Tchernuishevsky, through the journal, energetically devoted himself to the instruction of the people, in the science of political economy. That involved him in a controversy with the conservative political economists of Russia. He was charged with revolutionary sentiments. At first the government tried to buy him off, by offering him the office of editor of certain government publications. He accepted the position of editor of the "Military Magazine," under certain conditions, but he could not hold the position. From this time began a systematic effort to ruin him. Anonymous articles and pamphlets were attributed to him, and finally he was arrested; though nothing was really found against him, he was kept in prison for two years. A spy was introduced into his cell; but the worst that he could be charged with was that he said, "Now is the time, not to think, but to act." But there were rumors of a Polish insurrection, and of risings among the serfs, and such a man was dangerous; therefore he was tried and condemned on forged documents. The reading of the sentence took place on the morning of the twenty-fifth of June, 1864, two years and two months after his incarceration. A great throng gathered, in spite of the rain, and just as the sentence was finished and the sabre was broken, according to the custom when a well-born person is condemned, and while the executioner was fastening Tchernuishevsky's hands to the rings on the scaffold,[2] a great bouquet fell at his feet. Tchernnishevsky was sent to the mimes. At this time there were upwards of three thousand people imprisoned in Central Russia alone. Two years later occurred the attempt of Karakózof on the Emperor's life. It happened on the fourth of April (O. S.); and by a singular coincidence Tchernuishevsky's novel was dated April 4, 1863. It was proposed to bring him back to trial as an accomplice. This absurdity was not carried out; but after Tchernuishevsky had served seven years, Count Shuválof, the head of the police, had him excepted from the usual respite. Afterwards he was sent to Yakutsk, and imprisoned under the close guard of two gens d'armes and two Cossacks. In the words of the historian, "Thus Nikolaï Gavrilovitch Tchernuishevsky was cut off from society and science."

The story of Tchernuishevsky's imprisonment is heart-rending. Even before he was sentenced, he was allowed to see his sick wife only after he had starved himself almost to death, and even then only in the presence of others. Afterwards he was allowed to write her once a year; but this privilege was taken away from him when some spies reported that there was a plot to have him rescued. He was not allowed to have books or writing material, and in sheer desperation he punctured a vein in his arm, and wrote in letters of blood on the wall of his cell. It was not strange that his mind—one of the brightest minds that Russia ever produced—was broken by such tortures. Tchernuishevsky, at last accounts, was still living under police supervision in Astrakhan. A reporter of an English daily interviewed him a year or two ago, and found him still intelligent, but a mental wreck. Such action is worthy of the Austrian government towards dangerous Silvio Pellicos; but is it not incredible that a country in the nineteenth century should employ such means to deprive itself of a man who would have reflected more glory on the realm of its emperors than the emperors themselves?

The present translation has been made with great care, and it is hoped that it may be forgiven, even by that school of critics which lays down the commandment, "Thou shalt not commit translations." One single change has been made, which it is right to mention, for the sake of those who believe that a ready-made coat must be worn without alteration, even if it does not fit. In one single scene Kirsánof's character has been slightly mended, better to suit the American ideal of man. A very few Russian words have been retained, in cases where there was nothing corresponding to them in English. Such are sufficiently explained in the text. Tchernuishevsky's style is often exceedingly awkward. He sometimes strove after originality, at the expense of wisdom; but it cannot fail to be recognized that "A Vital Question" deserves a high rank among modern novels. Those who begin it will not be likely to lay it down unfinished.

Nathan Haskell Dole.
S. S. Skidelsky.

Philadelphia, June 4, 1886.

  1. It is also sometimes spelt Cerniscevski, in the Polish fashion.
  2. "The disgraceful post," as it is called, stands upon the scaffold, provided with rings and chains. The convict's hands are thrust through the rings, and he is fastened so that he cannot move.

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This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1935, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 87 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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