ONE morning, in a flat in one of the great buildings in Gorokhovaia Street, the population of which was
sufficient to constitute that of a provincial town, there was lying in bed a
gentleman named Ilya Ilyitch Oblomov. He was a fellow of a little over
thirty, of medium height, and of pleasant exterior. Unfortunately, in his
dark-grey eyes there was an absence of any definite idea, and in his other
features a total lack of concentration. Suddenly a thought would wander
across his face with the freedom of a bird, flutter for a moment in his
eyes, settle on his half-opened lips, and remain momentarily lurking in the
lines of his forehead. Then it would disappear, and once more his face would
glow with a radiant insouciance which extended even to his attitude
and the folds of his night-robe. At other times his glance would darken as
with weariness or ennui. Yet neither the one nor the other
expression could altogether banish from his countenance that gentleness
which was the ruling, the fundamental, characteristic, not only of his
features, but also of the spirit which lay beneath them. That spirit shone
in his eyes, in his smile, and in his every movement of hand and head. On
glancing casually at Oblomov a cold, a superficially observant person would
have said, "Evidently he is good-natured, but a simpleton"; whereas a person
of greater penetration and sympathy than the first would have prolonged his
glance, and then gone on his way thoughtfully, and with a smile as though he
were pleased with something.
Oblomov's face was neither reddy nor dull nor pale, but of an indefinite
hue. At all events, that was the impression which it gave—possibly because,
through insufficiency of exercise, or through want of fresh air, or through
a lack of both, he was wrinkled beyond his years. In general, to judge from
the extreme whiteness of his bare neck, his small, puffy hands, and his soft
shoulders, one would conclude that he possessed an effeminate body. Even
when excited, his actions were governed by an unvarying gentleness, added to
a lassitude that was not devoid of a certain peculiar grace. On the other
hand, should depression of spirits show itself in his face, his glance would
grow dull, and his brow furrowed, as doubt, despondency, and apprehension
fell to contending with one another. Yet this crisis of emotion seldom
crystallized into the form of a definite idea—still less into that of a
fixed resolve. Almost always such emotion evaporated in a sigh, and shaded
off into a sort of apathetic lethargy.
Oblomov's indoor costume corresponded exactly with the quiet outlines of
his face and the effeminacy of his form. The costume in question consisted
of a dressing-gown of some Persian material—a real Eastern dressing-gown—a
garment that was devoid both of tassels and velvet facings and a waist, yet
so roomy that Oblomov might have wrapped himself in it once or twice over.
Also, in accordance with the immutable custom of Asia, its sleeves widened
steadily from knuckles to shoulder. True, it was a dressing-gown which had
lost its pristine freshness, and had, in places, exchanged its natural,
original sheen for one acquired by hard wear; yet still it retained both the
clarity of its Oriental colouring and the soundness of its texture. In
Oblomov's eyes it was a garment possessed of a myriad invaluable qualities,
for it was so soft and pliable that, when wearing it, the body was unaware
of its presence, and, like an obedient slave, it answered even to the
slightest movement. Neither waistcoat nor cravat did Oblomov wear when
indoors, since he loved freedom and space. For the same reason his slippers
were long, soft, and broad, to the end that, whenever he lowered his legs
from the bed to the floor without looking at what he was doing, his feet
might fit into the slippers at once.
With Oblomov, lying in bed was neither a necessity (as in the case of an
invalid or of a man who stands badly in need of sleep) nor an accident (as
in the case of a man who is feeling worn out) nor a gratification (as in the
case of a man who is purely lazy). Rather, it represented his normal
condition. Whenever he was at home—and almost always he was at home—he
would spend his time in lying on his back. Likewise he used but the one
room—which was combined to serve both as bedroom, as study, and as
reception-room—in which we have just discovered him. True, two other rooms
lay at his disposal, but seldom did he look into them save on mornings
(which did not comprise by any means every morning) when his old valet
happened to be sweeping out the study. The furniture in them stood
perennially covered over, and never were the blinds drawn up.
At first sight the room in which Oblomov was lying was a well-fitted one.
In it there stood a writing-table of redwood, a couple of sofas, upholstered
in some silken material, and a handsome screen that was embroidered with
birds and fruits unknown to Nature. Also the room contained silken curtains,
a few mats, some pictures, bronzes, and pieces of china, and a multitude of
other pretty trifles. Yet even the most cursory glance from the experienced
eye of a man of taste would have detected no more than a tendency to observe
les convenances while escaping their actual observance. Without
doubt that was all that Oblomov had thought of when furnishing his study.
Taste of a really refined nature would never have remained satisfied with
such ponderous, ungainly redwood chairs, with such rickety whatnots.
Moreover, the back of one of the sofas had sagged, and, here and there, the
wood had come away from the glue. Much the same thing was to be seen in the
case of the pictures, the vases, and certain other trifles of the apartment.
Nevertheless, its master was accustomed to regard its appurtenances with the
cold, detached eye of one who would ask, "Who has dared to bring this stuff
here?" The same indifference on his part, added to, perhaps, an even greater
indifference on the part of his servant, Zakhar, caused the study, when
contemplated with attention, to strike the beholder with an impression of
all-prevailing carelessness and neglect. On the walls and around the
pictures there hung cobwebs coated with dust; the mirrors, instead of
reflecting, would more usefully have served as tablets for recording
memoranda; every mat was freely spotted with stains; on the sofa there lay a
forgotten towel, and on the table (as on most mornings) a plate, a
salt-cellar, a half-eaten crust of bread, and some scattered crumbs—all of
which had failed to be cleared away after last night's supper. Indeed, were
it not for the plate, for a recently smoked pipe that was propped against
the bed, and for the recumbent form of Oblomov himself, one might have
imagined that the place contained not a single living soul, so dusty and
discoloured did everything look, and so lacking were any active traces of
the presence of a human being. True, on the whatnots there were two or three
open books, while a newspaper was tossing about, and the bureau bore on its
top an inkstand and a few pens; but the pages at which the books were lying
open were covered with dust and beginning to turn yellow (thus proving that
they had long been tossed aside), the date of the newspaper belonged to the
previous year, and from the inkstand, whenever a pen happened to be dipped
therein, there arose, with a frightened buzz, only a derelict fly.
On this particular morning Oblomov had (contrary to his usual custom)
awakened at the early hour of eight. Somehow he looked perturbed; anxiety,
regret, and vexation kept chasing one another across his features. Evidently
he had fallen a prey to some inward struggle, and had not yet been able to
summon his wits to the rescue. The fact of the matter was that, overnight,
he had received from the starosta of his country estate an exceedingly
unpleasant letter. We all know what disagreeable things a starosta
can say in his letters—how he can tell of bad harvests, of arrears of debt,
of diminished incomes, and so forth; and though this particular official had
been inditing precisely similar epistles during the past three years, his
latest communication had affected its recipient as powerfully as though
Oblomov had received an unlooked-for blow. Yet, to do Oblomov justice, he
had always bestowed a certain care upon his affairs. Indeed, no sooner had
he received the starosta's first disturbing letter (he had done so
three years ago) than he had set about devising a plan for changing and
improving the administration of his property. Yet to this day the plan in
question remained not fully thought out, although long ago he had recognized
the necessity of doing something actually decisive.
Consequently, on awakening, he resolved to rise, to perform his
ablutions, and, his tea consumed, to consider matters, to jot down a few
notes, and, in general, to tackle the affair properly. Yet for another
half-hour he lay prone under the torture of this resolve; until eventually
he decided that such tackling could best be done after tea, and that, as
usual, he would drink that tea in bed—the more so since a recumbent
position could not prove a hindrance to thought.
Therefore he did as he had decided; and when the tea had been consumed he
raised himself upon his elbow and arrived within an ace of getting out of
bed. In fact, glancing at his slippers, he even began to extend a foot in
their direction, but presently withdrew it.
Half-past ten struck, and Oblomov gave himself a shake. "What is the
matter?," he said vexedly. "In all conscience 'tis time that I were doing
something! Would I could make up my mind to—to—" He broke off with a shout
of "Zahkar!" whereupon there entered an elderly man in a grey suit and brass
buttons—a man who sported beneath a perfectly bald pate a pair of long,
bushy, grizzled whiskers that would have sufficed to fit out three ordinary
men with beards. His clothes, it is true, were cut according to a country
pattern, but he cherished them as a faint reminder of his former livery, as
the one surviving token of the dignity of the house of Oblomov. The house of
Oblomov was one which had once been wealthy and distinguished, but which, of
late years, had undergone impoverishment and diminution, until finally it
had become lost among a crowd of noble houses of more recent creation.
For a few moments Oblomov remained too plunged in thought to notice
Zakhar's presence; but at length the valet coughed.
"What do you want?" Oblomov inquired.
"You called me just now, barin?"
"I called you, you say? Well, I cannot remember why I did so. Return to
your room until I have remembered."
Zakhar retired, and Oblomov spent another quarter of an hour in thinking
over the accursed letter.
"I have lain here long enough," at last he said to himself. "Really, I
must rise. . . . But suppose I were to read the letter through
carefully and then to rise? Zakhar!"
Zakhar re-entered, and Oblomov straightway sank into a reverie. For a
minute or two the valet stood eyeing his master with covert resentment. Then
he moved towards the door.
"Why are you going away?" Oblomov asked suddenly.
"Because, barin, you have nothing to say to me. Why should I
stand here for nothing?"
"What? Have your legs become so shrunken that you cannot stand for a
moment or two? I am worried about something, so you must wait. You
have just been lying down in your room haven't you? Please search for the
letter which arrived from the starosta last night. What have you
done with it?"
"What letter? I have seen no letter," asserted Zakhar.
"But you took it from the postman yourself?"
"Maybe I did, but how am I to know where you have since placed it?" The
valet fussed about among the papers and other things on the table.
"You never know anything," remarked his master. "Look in that basket
there. Or possibly the letter has fallen behind the sofa? By the way, the
back of that sofa has not yet been mended. Tell the joiner to come at once.
It was you that broke the thing, yet you never give it a thought!"
"I did not break it," retorted Zakhar. "It broke of itself. It
couldn't have lasted for ever. It was bound to crack some day."
This was a point which Oblomov did not care to contest. " Have you found
the letter yet?" he asked.
"Yes—several letters." But they are not what I want."
"I can see no others," asserted Zakhar.
"Very well," was Oblomov's impatient reply. "I will get up and search for
the letter myself."
Zakhar retired to his room again, but had scarcely rested his hands
against his pallet before stretching himself out, when once more there came
a peremptory shout of "Zahar! Zakhar!"
"Good Lord!" grumbled the valet as a third time he made for the study.
"Why should I be tormented in this fashion? I would rather be dead!"
"My handkerchief!" cried Oblomov. "Yes, and very quickly, too! You
might have guessed that that is what I am wanting."
Zakhar displayed no particular surprise or offence at this reproachful
command. Probably he thought both the command and the reproach natural.
"Who knows where the handkerchief is?" he muttered as he made a tour of
the room and felt each chair (although he could not but have perceived that
on them there was nothing whatsoever lying). "You lose everything," he
added, opening the door into the parlour in order to see whether the
handkerchief might not be lurking there.
"Where are you going?" exclaimed Oblomov. "'Tis here you must
search. I have not been into those other rooms since the year before last.
Be quick, will you?"
"I see no handkerchief," said Zakhar, spreading out his hands and peering
into every corner. "There it is!" suddenly he croaked. "'Tis just
underneath you. I can see its end sticking out. You have been lying on it
all the time, yet you actually ask me to find it!" He hobbled away without
waiting for an answer. For a moment or two Oblomov was taken aback, but soon
found another means of putting his valet in the wrong.
"A nice way to do your cleaning!" he said. "What a lot of dust and dirt,
to be sure! Look at those corners! You never bestir yourself at all."
"If I never bestir myself," retorted Zakhar offendedly, "at least I do my
best, and don't spare myself, for I dust and sweep almost every day.
Everything looks clean and bright enough for a wedding."
"What a lie!" cried Oblomov. "Be off to your room again!"
That he had provoked Zakhar to engage in this conversation was a fact
which gave him small pleasure. The truth was he had forgotten that, once a
delicate subject is touched upon, one cannot well avoid a fuss. Though he
wished his rooms to be kept clean, he wished this task to be carried out
invisibly, and apart from himself; whereas, whenever Zakhar was called upon
to do even the least sweeping or dusting, he made a grievance of it.
After Zakhar had retired to his den Oblomov relapsed into thought, until,
a few minutes later, the clock sounded a half-hour of some sort.
"What is that?" cried Oblomov in horror. "Soon the time will be eleven,
yet I am not yet up and washed! Zakhar! Zakhar!"
"Are my washing things ready?" his master inquired.
"Yes, they have been ready a long time. Why do you not get up?"
"And why didn't you tell me that the things are ready?
Had you done that, I should have risen long ago. Go along, and I will follow
you; but at the moment I must sit down and write a letter."
Zakhar left the room. Presently he reappeared with a much-bescribbled,
greasy account-book and a bundle of papers.
"If you are going to write anything," he said, "perhaps you would like to
check these accounts at the same time? Some money is due to be paid out."
"What accounts? What money?" inquired Oblomov petulantly.
"The accounts sent in by the butcher, the greengrocer, the laundress, and
the baker. All are wanting their money."
"Always money and worry!" grumbled Oblomov. "Why do you not give me the
accounts at intervals instead of in a batch like this?"
"Because each time you have sent me away, and then put matters off until
"Well, these accounts can wait until the morrow."
"No, they cannot, for the creditors are pressing, and say they are going
to allow you nothing more on credit. To-day is the first of the month, you
"Ah! Fresh cares, fresh worries!" cried Oblomov gloomily. "Why are you
standing there? Lay the table, and I will rise, wash, and look into the
whole business. Is the water yet ready?"
Oblomov raised himself and grunted as though he really intended to get
out of bed.
"By the way," said Zakhar, "whilst you were still asleep the manager of
the building sent the dvornik to say that soon you must quit the
flat, since he wants it for some one else."
"Very well, then. We must go. Why worry me about it? This is the third
time you have done so."
"But they keep worrying me about it."
"Then tell them that we intend to go."
Zakhar departed again, and Oblomov resumed his reverie. How long he would
have remained in this state of indecision it is impossible to say had not a
ring at the doorbell resounded through the hall.
"Some one has called, yet I am not yet up!" exclaimed Oblomov as he
slipped into his dressing-gown. "Who can it be?"
Lying down again, he gazed curiously towards the door.
[Gorokhoviaia Street:] One of the principal streets
[starosta:] Overseer or steward.
[barin:] "Master" or "sir."
[dvornik:] Porter or doorkeeper.