(English, tale; French, nouvelle or histoire; German, Geschichte, Erzählung), one of the epic literary genres, the definition of which has changed in the course of history. In ancient Russian literature, the term povest’ was originally applied to short works or prose (and sometimes verse) that lacked a sharply expressive style of literary language, regardless of their generic content (for example, the Tale of the Ravaging of Riazan’ by Batyi, the Tale of Peter, Prince of Murom, and His Wife Fevronia, and the Tale of Frol Skobeev).
After the term roman (novel) was adopted by Russian writers in the mid-18th century, the generic designations of prose works became less clear, and different terms were applied to works of similar length. For example, F. A. Emin classified his Miramond as a roman, and M. M. Kheraskov referred to his Polydorus as a povest’. After N. M. Karamzin, the povest’ was considered a relatively short prose work, and the roman a relatively long one. Thus, Pushkin published one of his works under the title Povesti Belkina (Tales of Belkin), but he referred to The Captain’s Daughter as a roman.
In 1835, V. G. Belinskii proposed a general definition summarizing the distinction between the roman and the povest’, which he described as “a novel [roman] … broken into parts,” or “a chapter torn from a novel.” Short prose works called rasskazy (short stories), many of them written in the style of literary sketches (ocherki), appeared in the 1840’s. The concept of the rasskaz came to occupy a special place among the designations of literary genres. Gradually, a firm theoretical conception developed: the rasskaz was the short form of epic prose, the povest’ was the medium-length form, and the roman was the long form. These definitions are still accepted.
However, as Belinskii observed, the povest’ “may contain” not only “a light sketch of manners,” “a sarcastic sneer at man and society,” but also “the deep mystery of the soul” and “the cruel play of passions.” In other words, prose works of the same length (for example, medium length) may vary in their generic content. They may be descriptive of manners and mores (“a sneer at man and society”) or they may be novel-like (romanicheskie), revealing the “mystery of the soul” and the “play of passions.” A third possible type of generic content is the heroic (the conflict of social forces). Thus, the creative work of N. V. Gogol includes povesti exemplifying three types of generic content (“The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled With Ivan Nikiforovich,” “The Portrait,” and Taras Bulba). A. P. Chekhov’s creative work includes povesti (texts of medium length) that are essentially short novels (for example, Three Years and My Life). Sometimes, even long narrative verse works, or epic “poems” that lack elevated subject matter, are called povesti, thereby adding to the confusion over terminology. Obviously, the existing generic terminology must be reviewed and made more precise.
REFERENCESBelinskii, V. G. “O russkoi povesti i povestiakh g. Gogolia.” Poln. sobr. soch. vol. 1. Moscow, 1953.
Belinskii, V. G. “Razdelenie poezii na rody i vidy.” Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 5. Moscow, 1954.
Kozhinov, V. V. “Povest’.” In Kratkaia literaturnaia entsiklopediia, vol. 5. Moscow, 1968.
Timofeev, L. I. Osnovy teorii literatury, 4th ed. Moscow, 1971.
Pospelov, G. N. Problemy istoricheskogo razvitiia literatury. Moscow, 1972. Pages 152–89.
G. N. POSPELOV