19th Century Russian Literature


Sentimentalism and Poor Liza

This story is most often characterized as “sentimentalism.” The author intends to evoke a strong emotional response to his characters and narrative. At some level we as readers are to enjoy this evocation of sentiment. You may answer anyone of these questions, but be sure to read the responses that predate your own.

1) How does the narrator establish an atmoshphre conducive to a strong emotional response?

2) What gets “lost in translation” from the story to the cartoon?

3) How are we to judge the value of this (or any) story? Is there a moral lesson? Are we “better” human beings for having read it?

4) Do you think it possible to write such a story and believe in it? Or is this author manipulating us like puppets, simply to prove that he can?

5) Why can we not simply accept the hard reality of life and appreciate Erast’s decision?


  1. Elise Hanks
    February 10th, 2009 | 7:21 pm

    Karazim uses idyllic and pastoral beauty to imply virtue and innocence. The imagery of Liza as a shepherdess casts her as innocent and natural; she is untouched by society and therefore ideal in her beauty and virtues. Although I’m not very familiar with Russian literature and art history, the era of the Romantics focused on the earthly beauty of the pastoral as a tribute to pure love and movement away from sordid court affairs of adultery and forced marriages.
    The pastoral imagery, paired with the diction within the story, creates an atmosphere full of sentimentalism and sensibility. The romantic view from the abandoned monastery, as well as the romantic and pastoral images of ruins (tombstones, decaying buildings), creates an almost paradise that produces the lovely Liza. By having the narrator reflect on the story of Liza the theme of memory and love lost becomes all the more melancholy as it has already passed and the reader (as well as the narrator) is helpless against Liza’s plight.
    The appeal to emotion and morality is what lends the story heavy sentimentalism. By using words such as chaste, innocent, and pure and pairing them with virginal blushes, secret embraces, and forbidden love the narrator establishes the conflict between morality and social precedence and the complication that love adds to the equation.

  2. Matthew Lazarus
    February 10th, 2009 | 9:41 pm

    I am under the impression that most examples of fiction — especially in the realm of short fiction — have the potential to provide the reader with (when extracted from the text, seemingly) arbitrary lessons and/or points of “moral” consideration. Why not, right? You’ve got your characters, your rising conflict, your resolution, emotions class struggles traditions all at play here, why not tie a little bow around the whole thing and slap some abstract message? In the case of “Poor Liza” I would venture to say that lesson might be, bluntly: don’t be stupid about where/how you invest yourself emotionally, don’t get involved with deceptively accommodating urban menfolk if you’re a starry-eyed country lass, and (maybe most substantially) always keep things in perspective. Where did I draw these lessons from? Where did I learn to use the imperative like that? It seems Western, capitalist I might even say, to be of the mindset that wherever my time is invested there must be in doing the act some opportunity for personal gain — in this case, we’re talking about how to benefit morally from reading a short story. I think it to be rather presumptuous of the population of readers who, when presented a text, feel entitled to not only a jolly good read, but a life lesson to seal the deal. Who made that the rule? Why can’t a story be a story for art’s sake? Isn’t art basically an extracurricular activity anyway? A luxury accepted by those who can afford to not (at least initially) spend their time providing for themselves in a more direct and conventional way? Isn’t it all just rubles in the end? I think if you want, you can (certainly in the case of this story where the moral guidelines are drawn so cleanly) buy into a greater more worldly lesson in practically all works of fiction. Just so long as you recognize that no one (least of all the author I hope) is forcing you to. Sure, I’ll read a story now and then and feel it deep in my morals, but when I do, it’s all me.

  3. Jennifer Ridder
    February 10th, 2009 | 11:52 pm

    I think the reader does appreciate Erast’s decision. In fact, I think that Karamzin has set the reader up to not be surprised by Erast’s choice for his and Liza’s future. He describes Erast as “weak and flighty” (58) but also a person who believes that he can “transport himself mentally to those times (real or unreal) when…people passed all their days in happy idleness” (58). Therefore, one must question what his motives for pursuing Liza are in the first place. The nonchalant description of him makes it is easy to think that he is prying on the poor girl for entertainment. The reader never believes that they share true love for it seems to be just a game. The sport appears to continue when Erast mandates that “there is no need to tell her anything”(59) and begs Liza to keep their relationship a deliberate secret to her mother and the world. To any reader his love seems to be forged for amusement: hiding, secrets, and sex. Therefore, when Erast never returns to Liza, becomes engaged to another women, and forces Liza out of his house, the reader is not upset and does not have to accept the reality of life, because the “hard reality” of men’s games has already been presented to them. The reader expects their love to end, because they can still believe it was never real. The surprising and hard to digest bit, is the single ending paragraph where the reader learns that “To the end of his life Erast was unhappy…he could not fiand solace and considered himself a murderer” (67). Even then, though it seems that Erast is filled with sorrow over Liza’s suicide as he was truly in love with her, the reader is still able to question whether he is burdened by his ending the love affair and never fulfilling their promises, or by his guilt of having been an agent for her death.

  4. Kaylen Baker
    February 11th, 2009 | 12:45 am

    Karamzin, as Elise notes, uses nature in correspondence with emotions and events in this story which ultimately, yes, manipulates us like puppets – not to prove that he can but to make us believe something he believes in. When Liza is in love, “never have the skylarks sung so well” (60), and when she is distraught about Erast leaving the sky is red, “like a scarlet sea” (64).

    Karamzin doesn’t completely fall for his story – his characters are unrealistically one-shaded. But he wants us to believe in the values that his simplicity creates – honesty, innocence, not being capricious, and reconciliation (especially in heaven). Liza’s mom says, “‘I will stop weeping in the next world. There, they say, everyone will be happy'” (55).

    Death dominated this story. Karamzin wants to believe that everyone, even sinners like Erast, if they repent, have a place in heaven. “Now, perhaps, [Liza and Erast] have already become reconciled!” (67). It’s fascinating that the characters affect the weather through their actions and emotions, unless it involves death, which possibly Karamzin saw as inescapable and irrevocable. “‘I cannot live,’ thought Liza… ‘If only the sky would fall upon me'” (66). It doesn’t.

    The last tool Karamzin uses to manipulate us is using a narrator that speaks to us, the readers. The narrator reminisces fondly about Liza’s story, (he enjoys feeling sad), and since we know it affected someone else, it prepares us to be affected as well. When the narrator addresses us, he presumes to know how we feel, and forces us to agree.

  5. Alexandra Boillot
    February 11th, 2009 | 2:32 pm

    Karamzin creates an emotional atmosphere principally through Liza’s mother and the many references to nature and it’s beauty. Ultimately, it is Liza’s mother that I feel sorry for in this story, and I believe that Karamzin deliberately makes Liza’s mother pitied by readers from the beginning to create this sentimentalism. Throughout the story, readers sympathize with the mother for losing her husband, living in poverty, and being sick. They hope that the mother can get her wish of seeing Liza happily married so that she can die in peace. At each event in the short story, Liza’s mother is figured in, reasserting her role as the central character. For example, when Erast leaves for the army, he insists on coming back once more to say good bye to Liza’s mother. Consequently, when Liza commits suicide, the readers’ thoughts immediately go to Liza’s mother and her misery.
    The role of nature adds to the sentimentalism as well in that there is a strong connection between nature and the predominant emotion of the short story at the time. At the beginning of the story, the nature is described very thoroughly and beautifully but there is a hint of sadness at the emptiness of the nature surrounding the monastery and Liza’s house. Karamzin uses his descriptions of nature in this way to manipulate the emotion’s of his readers. Before Liza meets Erast, nature is innocent and beautiful just like her but after she meets him, and in their times together, the nature around her is absolutely radiant. Finally, in her times of sadness and at the end of the book all of nature is completely empty and sorrowful. The paralleling of Liza’s feelings with the descriptions of nature truly create an emotional atmosphere where readers’ can feel the emotion radiating from Karamzin’s story.

  6. Lisa Eppich
    February 11th, 2009 | 3:10 pm

    I don’t think we can completely judge the value of “Poor Liza” by looking at it through today’s understanding and breadth of literature. If we do that, it’s easy to say that this comes off as a nicely written, but simple story with a message of heartache that’s been told and retold countless times.
    For one, part of the value here is historical, in that this story can be seen as a passage from older church writings or stories like that in the primary chronicle, to what we can call real literature. A story like Poor Liza didn’t really exist before because it was Karamzin and Pushkin who began writing in colloquial speech instead of church Slavonic, so while the message of this story seems clichéd today, the style in which this story is written and the way it elicits an emotional response was really revolutionary for its time and still today comes off as very elegant and captivating.
    And, while this story is more or less predictable for us now, this predictability can be part of what drives home the moral. The fact that the reader knows something bad is going to happen to Liza right from the beginning, with narrator speaking of “the lamentable fate of poor Liza”, and other foreshadowing forces the reader to some degree or another to be compelled to warn Liza of what she doesn’t see coming, sort of like the “don’t go in there” effect when you watch a horror movie. I don’t think we’re necessarily better people for reading this story and it might be too much of a stretch to see this as a really early precursor to the Chekhovian ending, but the reader understanding Liza’s fate before she does heightens the story’s moral impact because it can reminds us of how easy it is to get swept away in something and the powerlessness that comes with that, both as observers and as people experiencing those feelings, and how sad it is that such a beautifully written story is ultimately so tragic.

  7. Ben Tabb
    February 11th, 2009 | 4:38 pm

    While I agree with Jennifer that Erast’s decision was not a surprise to the reader, as it is Liza’s misfortune is foreshadowed as early as the title, I don’t agree that his love for her, at least in the beginning of the story, does not seem pure. When we first lose faith in him, as Liza cannot find him in the city, he proves us wrong by showing up at her house. He sees her everyday, and happily spends his time innocently with her, even though she is of a lower class and even though he knows society would frown upon it. It appears he cares for her more than his wealth: “All the glittering amusements of high society seemed insignificant to him in comparison to the pleasures with which the passionate friendship of an innocent soul nourished his heart” (61).

    The turning point, the author admits, is the loss of Liza’s innocence. While she becomes more attached to Erast, he only wants more sex, which he has suddenly developed a taste for: “He desired more, more and finally, he could desire nothing” (63). Only at this point, at least from my view, do we begin to see Erast’s love fade, and the foreshadowed unhappy ending begins to come into view. Alas, although Erast’s decision is one which makes sense to him at the time, I felt upset at him for the avoidability of his decision. Had he further dedicated himself to Liza, and married her, this would never have been an option. Furthermore, if he hadn’t gambled away his money, this certainly wouldn’t have been necessary. For me, having seen both how happy they were together, and how such a fate could have been avoided is what makes it difficult to appreciate Erast’s decision, even if it was logical at the time it was made.

  8. Brett Basarab
    February 11th, 2009 | 4:42 pm

    It is so difficult to appreciate Erast’s decision because it seems he was mostly influenced by social norms and the burdens of everyday life rather than his true feelings. He leaves Liza and marries a rich woman because of his enormous debts, rather than a true love for the woman. One also gets the sense that class issues play a role in Erast’s decision; he is clearly a higher class than Liza in that he offers her more for the flowers than she asks for. Unfortunately, it is much more acceptable for him to marry a woman of his own social status. His peers would look down on his marriage to a peasant such as Liza. All these factors make Erast’s final decision all the more heartbreaking. At the end of the story, Karamzin strongly suggests that both Erast and Liza are still in love. Liza is obviously so heartbroken that she is driven to suicide. Erast, on the other hand, while his previous actions were irresponsible and selfish, seems heartbroken too . The narrator says that “to the end of his life Erast was unhappy” and that “he himself told me this story and led me to Liza’s grave” (67). Clearly, Erast still has strong feelings for Liza and is devastated by her death. Perhaps in his irresponsibility he did not realize how strong his love for Liza really was. It is hard for the reader to accept that practical issues brought an end to the love affair. It was not that Erast and Liza were no longer in love. Instead, the obligations of life got in the way.

  9. Stewart Moore
    February 11th, 2009 | 5:00 pm

    The hard, realistic decisions of Erast are generally unjustifiable because Karamzin has portrayed Liza as almost a diving being. This pure figure meets her tragic death because she loves a man who claims he loves her as well, but who then leaves her for wealth. We feel as if we have witnessed a white swan being killed by loud, irreverent poachers who only kill for the sake of watching the creature die.

    Liza is presented to us as a pure saint. Karamzin tells of how she forsakes her own happiness and pleasures to look after her mother. She even hides the sadness of her father’s death, so that her mother will not be saddened by her lamentations. She is portrayed as a pure peasant girl who would sacrifice everything she owns, even her own life, for the sake of others.

    Erast is not the same. Although he is portrayed as a generally good, upstanding man, he is not the humble servant that Liza is. We know this from the first time we meet Erast, when Liza’s mother tells her to be wary of upper class men who seem to be kind. Originally Erast had planned to use Liza for his own pleasure and happiness. Then he thinks he is legitimately falling in love with her, “I will not use her love for evil…” (p61) However Karamzin quickly warns us of the evil nature of men and of the foolish thought of thinking a male can control himself (thanks K for giving us bad rep), “Foolish young man. Do you know your own heart? Can you always answer for your impulses?” (61)

    As a result we expect Erast to leave Liza. And when he leaves for the war, we are faced with the age old question of which is better honor without love or love with political shame. In my mind it is not nesesarily bad that Erast left for the war, after all he could have justified his actions by saying he wanted to defend those he loved. Erast’s real fault occurred when he chose to marry a wealthy women to regain his fortune instead of turning to a poor, simple yet happy life with Liza in the country.

    To many Erast’s choices here seem unacceptable because he chose money over the girl he supposedly loved. She was the greatest, kindest, most self-sacrificing woman in the world, yet he could not muster up the courage to live on a lower income with her. His actions show that he loves his status and wealth more than Liza, and this paired with the fact that Liza is a angel, amplifies our disapproval of Erast’s decisions.

    Erast’s revelation in the final lines does comfort us in the sense that we find out he feels terrible and guilty for Liza’s death. He is repentant for his neglection of Liza, yet he cannot bring her back. We are left with the sad shell of what was once a man that knows its failings but can do nothing to reverse them. Because he suffers until his death, we feel slightly sorry for Erast, but we can never fully put out of our minds the horror and pain he caused to a beautiful, sweet, innocent girl.

  10. Catherine Ahearn
    February 11th, 2009 | 5:49 pm

    I actually thought it very easy to accept the reality of life and appreciate Erast’s decision. I think that Karamazin makes it hard to accept within the context of the story because the world in which Liza lives is not one that expects or accounts for this kind of heartache and “betrayal.”

    From the beginning of the story it is made clear to the audience that Erast is “weak and flighty.” On page 58 the narrator interrupts the story to give us an account of Erast’s character and this description, I believe, is supported by his actions in the story. His “decent mind” and “good heart” are shown explicitly in his generosity toward Liza and her mother as well as in his love for Liza, which I have no doubt he truly believed in. However he is also portrayed as selfish and bored making it seem that Liza is his distraction and momentary object of focus.

    The circumstances of the demise of their fall is as much Liza’s fault as it is his, and so I do not blame him for the emptiness in their relationship right before his departure. He is shown to be honorable by going to war, and act I can accept and acknowledge as legitimate. Further, the circumstances of his marriage to the widow support the narrator’s characterization of him. The fact that he played off his fortune while at war does not strike us as something out of character for him either, and, being of wealth, it is no surprise to me that he would try to secure his position once again. He did, after all, first think of Liza before moving into the widow’s home. It is not that he did not love her, but that extenuating circumstances kept him from being able to put love first.

    To me, his only unforgivable mistake Erast made was not fully explaining to Liza the reasons behind his decisions. The fact that Liza did not know of his character beyond his dealings with her is something that both characters can be blamed for.

    I recognize that this may be a pessimistic reading of the story, or maybe I just don’t buy into sentimentalism. However, I did enjoy the story and in doing so greatly disliked Erast for who he was, not what he did. I think this is due to Karamazin’s use of narrative voice. The narrator pulls the reader in by both acknowledging the reader and the fact that he is retelling a story and also by being obviously invested in the retelling of the tale. The narrator’s own emotional response to the plot as well as those of the characters makes it more likely for the reader to feel dislike and disgust toward Erast’s decision.

  11. Matthew Rothman
    February 11th, 2009 | 7:53 pm

    What becomes lost in translation between the original short story and the cartoon are the characterization and narration that provide the most compelling facets of the story. As Alexandra observes in Post 5, the sympathy within the story stems from the mother’s tragedy. The short, silent animation medium removes the ability of the animator to convey the back story that is so central to the written work. As a result, in the wake of reading the story, the cartoon seems to present a simplistic and incomplete version of the events that Karamzin narrates.

    In addition, the narrator himself becomes a character in his own story at various points: the final paragraph on page 65 introduces a layer of metafiction that the author uses to manipulate the emotions of the reader. The characters themselves display little complexity and less realism. The compelling aspect of the story emerges from Karamzin’s elaborate descriptions of environment and setting. His use of natural imagery and setting, combined with his subjective narration of the mother’s story, provides the reader with a specific point of entry into an otherwise mundane tale. Karamzin wears his own perspective on his sleeve, and demands that his readers accept its veracity.

    To return to the original point, the removal of the narrative voice changes a story that is fundamentally subjective into an objective account of a tragic romance. The romance itself supplies little of interest, so the cartoon must succeed on a visceral standard rather than the linguistic merits of the story. The metafiction inherently created by the open presence of authorial voice vanishes from the cartoon, and consequently the story loses its most interesting facet.

  12. February 11th, 2009 | 7:59 pm

    I have always assumed that the authors of dirty Harlequin romances don’t have much passion for their work. Rather, they approach their books as income-generators and view their readership as fools. Was Poor Liza written by one of these authors?
    “All of her veins began to throb, and of course this was not from fear. She got up and wanted to leave, but could not. Erast jumped out onto the bank, approached Liza, and her dream was partially fulfilled: for he glanced at her with a caressing look and took her by the hand…”
    This type of over-the-top romanticism is what separates Karamzin’s Poor Liza from YouTube’s version.
    I can’t follow directions. I watched the cartoon before I read the story. It think, however, that my blunder gives me a rare perspective on the “lost in translation” issue. After watching the eloquent, wordless cartoon I was expecting a simply written, yet intoxicating love story like Pushkin’s “Stationmaster.” The story, however, because of its harlequinesque tone, made me feel more like Karamzin’s puppet.
    But I think I overpowered the puppet master. I (skeptically) saw through Karamzin’s sentimental tone. And, as I read, I imagined Karamzin twisting his words to the limit, attempting to draw his audience into his love story, and daring us to commit to its sentiment. The YouTube cartoon version lacked this struggle with the author that I felt (and was most intrigued by) while reading.
    Maybe, though, if I had read this on Valentines Day I would have felt differently.

  13. Patrick O'Neill
    February 11th, 2009 | 9:15 pm

    It does become quite evident early on to the reader that Erast’s intentions are less than genuine, and that the whole affair to him is more or less a sport. In his post, Ben argues that Erast’s love may in fact be authentic but my personal interpretation still is that Liza’s love simply offered an escape from the banality of high society and an accessible opportunity to satisfy his craving for wordly pleasure. We do know for certain, however, that their love meant a lot more for Liza than it did for Erast, as evident from the outcome of the story.

    I disagree with the assertion that the reader cannot but accept Erast’s decision in light of these facts. From the very beginning of the narrative, Karamzin evokes a strong sense of compassion in the reader towards Liza. The author introduces her as a young lady, living a rather poor life with a sickly mother who still weeps for her dead husband. Karamzin portrays his protagonist as a dutiful daughter, who possesses great humility and a strong moral sense. Furthermore, Liza’s faithfulness and devotion to her lover evoke all the more sympathy. I agree wholeheartedly with Stewart when he says that Karamzin portrayed the girl “as almost a divine being.” Even the fact that she loses her purity halfway through the story does not seem detract from her virtue (at least for me), although it does cause a profound change in Erast.

    Ultimately, a more detached viewing of the facts does cast Erast’s decision in a very logical light. The sympathy and pity created for Liza throughout the story makes it very difficult to view the facts in this logical perspective, though. Thus I feel that Karamzin clearly demonstrates with this work that he is a master of the craft and very capable of toying with the emotions of the reader, so much so that he or she has a hard time accepting the cold, hard truth of the matter.

  14. Harry Morgenthau
    February 11th, 2009 | 9:30 pm

    Stewart in post 9 refers to Liza as the white swan who has been heartlessly poached by Erast. She is a “divine being.” Many of you have considered blaming Erast for his unthoughtful treatment of this poor, impressionable young woman, but maybe some of that blame should be transferred to Liza for her overly obsessive love of a man she knows very little about. While Erast is clearly at fault for the painful end to the relationship, it is easy to see Liza’s doting nature as suffocating. Should we blame Erast for instigating a relationship he should have known could never work out, or Liza for throwing herself at him so thoughtlessly?
    The sad end to the relationship and to Liza’s life gives a clear suggestion that we be careful in love. The love between Liza and Erast is beautiful and wonderful for them as long as it works, as long as they are both fully involved, but when the love becomes unbalanced, it fails. Erast cannot fulfill his promise, and Liza is blind to see it.
    For me, Liza’s death is not a tragedy, but a warning: total, immortal love is a lie, and unerring belief in it is simply dangerous. Liza dies because she has become so obsessed with Erast that her own self is no longer sufficient. At the moment she needs another person to consider herself whole, she loses. Grief is understandable, but the level to which Liza takes it is ridiculous. Liza had the power to rebound, to continue her loving care of her mother, but she detonated. That is the greatest failure of the story.

  15. Zachary Harris
    February 11th, 2009 | 10:24 pm

    I personally think that while the story did not have a real moral, its effect was to reveal a truth about life, mainly being that it is miserable and that little can be done to change this.

    All of the characters begin the story unsatisfied with their lives and finish it even worse off. Lisa must work incredibly hard to support her family after her father dies and has little time to spend enjoying life. While she does find temporal happiness with Erast, she becomes excessively clingy to him as he is the only outlet she has for satisfaction. When he disappears from her life she has nothing left to live for so she commits suicide.

    Lisa’s mother too lives a life of almost total despair. While she continues to live on after the death of her husband, it is a miserable life that she only persists in living in order to ensure her daughter finds a suitable husband. She, like her daughter, became so attached to a man, and thus his death made her life awful to live. The death of her daughter at the end of the story, while not explicitly discussed, most likely exponentially worsened her situation as her daughter was the only thing she was living for.

    Finally, Erast also lives a horrible life. While he grew up in wealth and has always had his material needs provided for, he is bored with his life and finds no joy in it. While he eventually finds being with Lisa to make his life satisfactory, after he begins having relations with her, she no longer provides him with the meaning he needs to be happy with life. While at this point he is unhappy, his life becomes torturous after he loses his money gambling, is forced to marry a woman he does not love, and must feel the guilt of causing Lisa’s death.

    Karamzin is thus, to me, showing that life is bleak and that there are few good things that make it worth living. When you find one of these things, you may be happy for a time, but in the end they will make your life miserable when they disappear.

  16. Hannah Wilson
    February 11th, 2009 | 10:35 pm

    The value of literature is our ability to relate it to our own lives. We may not be “better” (more moral) humans after reading it, but literature can caution us and show the consequences of our actions. Like Harry, I see “Poor Liza” as a warning. Throughout the story both Liza and Erast are preoccupied with things other than love. While they cherish their moments together, they do not realize the significance of their relationship until it is too late. Erast, as Catherine pointed out, is described as unreliable, “weak and flighty” and “carefree” (p. 58), so it is not shocking that he does not discover the true romance of their relationship until after she is courted by another suitor. While I agree with Patrick that for Erast their love was an escape from high society, I think that it provided Liza with the same sense of escape. She would physically escape from her house at night in order to have time for herself, away from her sickly mother. Harry and Patrick are quick to judge Erast, however, Liza makes similar errors. When he leaves for the war, the narrator comments that the idea of leaving her mother behind prevented her from running after Erast. Both equally sacrificed their love for what they thought would be a more socially and/or morally acceptable reason. As readers we relate to Erast and Liza’s struggles to reconcile their love with the outside world and realize, through them, that we must accept the consequences of these decisions. Liza cannot accept the consequences and ultimately commits suicide. On the other hand, Erast continues to live a sad life thinking he has killed his only love. As readers we are asked which is better, life without love or love without life? The beauty in Karazim’s story is that we are not given an answer. He presents us with reasons for both, but the value of literature is to challenge what we already know, not to impose the authors moral code upon us.

  17. Susanna Merrill
    February 11th, 2009 | 10:37 pm

    I’m not sure that there’s a moral to this story in the sense of a moral aphorism we can extract. I was interested in Matthew’s response: his suggested “moral,” that Liza should have been less naive, that one should be cautious in emotional investment and “keep things in perspective,” was the opposite of the impression I got from the story. My own initial impression was that the story celebrated the beauty of Liza’s vulnerability, the sort of innocent courage of her lack of calculation, and her very inablility to keep things in perspective. I think this impression is created by Karamzin’s description of Liza herself, by Liza’s mother’s love for her, and by the romantic description of the narrator’s grief over Liza’s fate, among other factors. The actual plot, of course, supports Matthew’s conclusion.
    This story may be manipulatively sentimental, and the characters overly simplistic, but its main theme (rather than moral) is compelling and complex enough. The real beauty, depth, and goodness in life depends on guilelessness, and willingness to give of oneself totally without thought of personal vulnerability. Liza, like other people who show themselves capable of the faith in the goodness of the world necessary for such emotional vulnerability, is very attractive. On the other hand, Liza’s faith is unjustified, and the reader sees from the beginning that it is unjustified. She is, basically, very silly, and as we read the story, we want to warn her against her folly, or at least we are aware that we would make different decisions.
    If there is a message to the story, it is that innocent beauty is easily destroyed, and not only by pure evil, but even by the ordinary, well-meaning world. As I said, I don’t think this is a moral. Karamzin cannot present generous innocence in such romantic terms and expect us to wish it or warn it way, but he cannot present such cruel heartbreak and expect us to emulate Liza’s actions. Whatever its faults, or lack of subtlety, this story is a touching presentation of the contradiction of our desires for beauty and for safety.

  18. Ashley Quisol
    February 11th, 2009 | 10:57 pm

    The plot of this story is absolutely ridiculous and contrived; the pure hard working daughter of the sullen widow being swept away by the wealthy noble in a chivalrous, then tawdry, love affair that goes terribly wrong due to war and gambling, all set in a romantic pastoral setting, contrasting the harsh city, ending in tragic suicide…..
    The fascinating part of it all is that Karamzin leaves us mourning for his heroine despite the absurdity of the entire affair. The story is only so gripping because the narrator pulls you in and tells you straight away that you will pity this Poor Liza because of her terrible misfortune……and you do, because he says so. Karamzin plays completely on the feelings of the reader by throwing blatant imagery of injustice from the start: the widow cries, the beauty works, the man of means is idle, etc. As if that were not enough, the use of nature to reflect the mood of the story completely engulfs the reader in sentimentality. Poor Liza is clearly a moral lesson (so obvious that it is known from the second page) but the story’s value does not lie in its appearance as a trite fable, but rather in the fact that we buy into it’s absurdity at all; Karamzin forces us to care and it is for this reason only that the reader cannot appreciate Erast’s decision.
    True, some have written that they can, but it is only in using clear judgment that they have come to this conclusion. If they had heard this tale, first had from the narrator, and if it had been true (as he states it to be) I doubt that anyone could easily accept Erast’s decision.
    And no, I am not a better human being from reading this story.

  19. Kara Shurmantine
    February 11th, 2009 | 11:11 pm

    3) How are we to judge the value of this (or any) story? Is there a moral lesson? Are we “better” human beings for having read it?

    It’s hard to judge the value of a work of art, and even harder to determine what, in the first place that “value” means. Is pure, aesthetic, joyful or sentimental beauty what gives art its value? Or, at the other extreme, is the message of a work, the moral lesson it conveys, the essence of “valuable” art? It’s hard to claim, for instance, that Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son contains more beauty than your average Kinkade; it’s horrifying, in fact, but we universally assign it more artistic value. On the other hand, many would prefer the steadfast morality of a paper Christian pamphlet to the unapologetic flippancy of an Oscar Wilde play, yet no one would ascribe a pamphlet-writer more artistic merit than Wilde. It’s tricky and perhaps impossible to accurately or definitely judge the value of “Poor Liza.” Karamzin’s language is beautiful, quivering with fragile poetry and delicate, pastel adjectives; his morals seem unshakable. Is the value in his aesthetically radiant language or his moral stance (which, by the way, is by no means clear to me)? Is Karamzin’s profoundly humanizing portrait of eighteenth-century Russian peasantry, or his sympathetic portrayal of a confused, privileged Russian nobleman proof of artistic merit? I felt sympathy for naïve girls and frustration with life’s “hard reality” upon finishing the story—is this emotional response confirmation of the story’s artistic value? I’m not sure at all what makes art valuable. I think it’s some sort of combination—beauty, morality, evocativeness. I don’t know if I’m “better” after reading “Poor Liza”—in fact, I’m almost positive that I’m not.

  20. Jacquelyn Wright
    February 11th, 2009 | 11:54 pm

    I think the emotional arc created by Karamzin in this story is totally necessary. Yes, it is (to our modern sensibility) over-the-top; yes, it echoes of Romanticism. It is this effect – we all notice it, some cringe, some turn their ears attentively (I did both) that seems unnecessary to the essential elements of the story – but it is there for a reason. Perhaps the this rhetoric of sentimentalism is this story’s most compelling attribute. I would argue that this is why we are “forced to care”, in response to Ashley’s comment. It casts a very clear emotional trajectory for us to follow – the clues are all laid out for us. It creates a context for the powerful emotions contained in this story, not just particularly to characters. It allows the experience of pain, grief and loss to pervade all elements throughout the story, and when not directly played to, is implied.

    In terms of morals, I think there is no clear direction to point to. Our emotions say, “OMG WHAT ABOUT LIZA THATS AWFUL NOO” but that is distinct from morals. Is that a point Karamzin is trying to make? The clear, hard choices are presented on both sides of the class spectrum here. Money dictates all. So what is the real motivation of the story – love or money? I don’t really know for certain, and in this story, one cannot exclude the other.

    In the film, the character of the narrator is lost. The authenticity of experience is dictated visually, so there is no need. But without the vessel of experience the narrator’s perspective provides, we lose his rhetorical guidance and context for our emotional response. Or is that the same thing…!?

    Is it (sentimentalism) all a manipulative tool that evil Karamzin utilizes to lure us into his meaningless plot only to toy with our sympathies and throw us back out with no answers?
    I could be convinced either way.

  21. Gabriel G Suarez
    February 12th, 2009 | 12:11 am

    Why can’t we be fairer to Erast? Why can’t we accept that this young man, this romantic boy, lost everything that enabled him to roam the countryside, fall in love, revel in those halcyon days? Why can’t we see that he, too, is a tragic character, just as stirring as Liza? Because he is not.

    Liza is simply far more tragic of a character. Liza, the young shepherdess, her mother’s life, a model of restraint and hard work, of humility and dignity, surely God’s most favored creature, she who wanted no more but to please her mother, is dragged by the least controllable force in literature to ruin. She lies to her mother, loses her innocence, all for Erast, all for this one “friend.” And it backfires.

    My knee-jerk reaction was to side with Liza on this one. Upon reading the question, I thought to myself: “Maybe Erast’s tale is equally moving.” But it isn’t. Erast is a selfish young pseudo-romantic who craves money above all else. He is, in the end, a creature of high society, a modern gentleman. His modernity hungrily tears apart Liza’s holy simplicity, her honest submission to Lord and mother. His false and empty promises drive a beautiful girl, with the innocence of a child, to suicide.

    “Maybe we would forget our souls if tears never dropped from our eyes.” This is the crux of my sympathy for Liza; it is this line that illustrates her tragedy. She felt more innocently happy than ever around Erast, truly like a child in the arms of his parents. But it was this ecstasy that led her to her death. Why couldn’t she just have been happy?

    Meanwhile, Erast is living with a rich widow in Moscow. He abandoned his love for his lifestyle. And maybe that, specifically, is why we sympathize more with Liza. In a contest of love and innocence versus lifestyle and riches, literature will always move us to side with those ideals which make our hearts tighten and our stomachs sink. A rational, level, and honest argument could be made for riches, of course, but to me, the function of literature is to momentarily free me from the tyranny of rational thought.

  22. Anonymous
    February 12th, 2009 | 2:31 am

    I definitely chuckled aloud at least a few times while reading the story. The frequent and (in my opinion) humorous oscillations between the emotional extremes made the story too laughable to be taken seriously on some level. The repeated plunges from the one extreme with all the flowers and “cheeks burning like the sunset” and love and ecstasy, into the other with tears (plenty of them), “plaintive songs,” and precipitous suicide, of course, are exactly what Karamzin has to use to give us the soap opera feel he’s looking for.

    As several of the other posts have pointed out, using such devices must be intentional, and although I wouldn’t call his technique self-serving (“because he can”), I do imagine the author mocking throughout the story, “Well, are you going to fall for this or not?” My favorite passage illustrates at least the narrator’s own skepticism at the blissfulness of other (and his own?) stories:

    “He transported himself mentally to those times (real or unreal) when, if we are to believe poets, all people wandered carefree across meadows, went swimming in pure springs, they kissed like turtledoves…” (58).

    On the other hand, like Hannah and Harry, I took into consideration that the story might in fact be a warning, for one, to grown men with a penchant for cute country girls for whose deaths they might end up feeling at fault. This warning, I think, is more directed at little girls everywhere, to be careful of over-investing oneself (emotionally or physically) with seemingly good-willed men. Moreover, watching the Soiuzmultfilm rendition of the story through visual media on YouTube transformed it all the more, for me, into a public service announcement/propaganda (“Watch out for those capitalist bourgeois–they’ll getcha!”). But I digress…

    Ultimately, whether the reader decides to take Liza as the innocent shepherdess-become-victim (think Jesus), whose friendship (and charm) could only convert the cosmopolitan Erast away from city life for a while and leave both void of happiness, or the reader decides to see the story as an exposé of the character of the meek, poor Russian woman with whom a man can only fall in love, the sentimentalist style is one that could have been done without and not have sacrificed much of the thematic meaning.

  23. Casey Mahoney
    February 12th, 2009 | 2:32 am

    …oops. That was me ^^

  24. Natalie Komrovsky
    February 12th, 2009 | 4:46 am

    After reading the story, watching the youtube video of “Poor Liza” was somewhat comparable to actually being on Red Square in Moscow vs. the postcard of Red Square that I mailed my parents. One is breathtaking, the other is completely forgettable.

    Just to clarify, I didn’t find “Poor Liza” to be breathtaking, but it certainly evoked more emotion than the cartoon did. The detailed descriptions of the characters and their emotions make this story what it is. You can immediately feel how captivated Liza is by Erast. The cartoon on youtube attempts to replace words with images and music and comes up short. The youtube version of this story, in comparison with the actual story, is very much like the color scheme it employs in the cartoon-very drab. It lacks vibrancy. You can feel the vibrancy in the story as Karamzin describes the love Liza and Erast share, or the way Liza describes the cottage and the field that morning after she had seen Erast. The youtube cartoon demonstrates Liza’s purity by making her pale. woo. The music was certainly a valiant effort, and I very much liked the glass shattering part, but it didn’t make me feel. The actual story, Karamzin’s words (or rather, his translator’s) suck you into the story so that you’re truly feeling for Liza. While reading the story, I yearned to protect Liza from what I saw coming. While watching the cartoon, I wanted to tell her to stop hovering in such a ghostly way. It’s creepy.

    I would say the main difference between the two versions is that I observed the youtube cartoon, but felt the actual story.

  25. Adam Levine
    February 12th, 2009 | 10:31 am

    I believe that the narrator’s distance from the story helps to increase the sentimentalism of “Poor Liza.” Logically, if the narrator were Liza’s secret friend, or perhaps the shepherd passing by her along the Moscow River, it would make sense that he would find this tale so depressing. However, his separation from the people and events of the central plot, coupled with his dramatic reaction to the outcome, allows the reader to believe that he or she can also feel the depth of sorrow inherent within the account. Speaking about believing, Ashley rightly says, “…you do, because he says so.” If this stranger is crippled with grief over Poor Liza’s fate, we too ought to feel the same way.

    Can this be considered “puppeteering”? Hardly. In fact, Karamzin allows his narrator to draw personal agency into this story, by leaving certain parts of the narration to the reader’s own imagination. He begins to do this when Liza’s mother first meets Erast; the narrator says, “He listened to her attentively, but his eyes were – is it necessary to say where?” (57). It appears clear that Erast’s eyes are on Liza, but already the narrator hints at the reader’s perceptiveness, recognizing that ultimately he or she is in control of understanding the story. When the two lovers part at the end, the narrator blatantly says, “But I cannot describe everything that they said on this occasion” (64). When Liza’s mother bids farewell to Erast, he continues to place the reader in charge by stating, “The reader can easily imagine what she was feeling at this moment” (64). By faithfully believing that the reader will “easily” feel the emotions of this scene, the narrator confidently supplies the reader with power, thus undermining the idea that he or Karamzin plays puppeteer. Like Hannah, I believe that literature provides readers with insights into humanity, and in this case, the sentimentality of “Poor Liza” depends upon the interpretation of the individual reader, not the author or narrator. This can clearly be seen from the blogs, in which multiple people disagree about the degree to which this story over-romanticizes.

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