Also published under the title THE SAME OLD STORY, this novel relates the shattering of young Alexander Aduyev's naive romanticism and his transformation into a harder, more practical man. On the precipice of adulthood, Alexander leaves the sheltered cradle of his mother's house in the countryside to live with his uncle, Pyotr Ivanovich, in St. Petersburg, the growing epicenter of bourgeois productivity in 19th-century Russia. Pyotr is an active, hyper-rational and objectively practical man. A leading businessman and government official, Pyotr stands as a stark foil to everything his young, naive nephew represents.
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At first, Pyotr tries to gently guide his nephew into the realities of this new world. But Alexander, a middling poet and writer, holds unrealistic notions of himself and his dreams that he refused to let go of. Soon, Pyotr finds himself disgusted by his nephew's childishly delusional views about his own grandiosity and the entitlement nurtured by his sheltered upbringing in the countryside. Pyotr knows that life is cruel and capricious, and only the strong and active find success in it. His dreamy, lazy nephew refuses to listen, and when Pyotr gets more insulting and aggressive in his attempts to convince him, Alexander takes this as proof that his ideals are correct and goes for a long visit to the countryside with some new friends.
There, he meets a young woman, the daughter of mid-level landed aristocrats, and he falls hopelessly in love with her and the lazy, idyllic life the wealth of these landed gentry allows for. At first, the woman seems to be just as taken with him, but it doesn't take long for her feelings to wane -- since, as Pyotr points out again and again, that is precisely what feelings are: capricious flights of fancy. The woman becomes infatuated with another aristocrat, and Alexander, who only too late realizes how starkly the young woman has turned away from him, embarrasses himself and flees back to St. Petersburg in disgrace.
Alexander burns his books of poetry and vows never to write another sentimental line again. He is a changed man, a harder and colder man, but clear-eyed and ready to embrace life for what it is. With his uncle's gracious guidance, Alexander begins his steady, ambitious climb up the socio-economic ladder of the new urban-industrial order.
Best part of story, including ending:
Goncharov does a brilliant job making the romanticism of youth appear both blindly silly and comprehensively universal, thereby pointing out that there is nothing special about it; it's a stage that everyone experiences, and one everyone must pass through and leave behind. It's the determined attempt to argue that last point that could rub some readers the wrong way, and occasionally makes the novel feel a tad preachy.
Best scene in story:
The devastation Alexander feels when he realizes the young woman doesn't love him, and may never have loved him beyond the whims of a moment, is incredible effective.
Opinion about the main character:
Given the discursive parameters of the book, Alexander could very well have come across as nothing but a straw man to prove the silliness of youthful romanticism, but Goncharov gives his main character the respect to make him more than a simple construct.