Terrible Perfection: Women in Russian Literature is a book critiquing the portrayal of women in Russian literature, both by male and female authors. The author, Barbara Heldt, sought to apply feminist thought and gynocriticism to texts in order to expose the unrealistic and unfair portrayal of women. Gynocritrical writing focuses on literature written by female authors with the intent to analyze the ways in which women are portrayed and study the development of a female literary tradition and to discover the way female authors present and construct meaning.
The book claims that most nineteenth century literature featured strong, noncomplex “positive heroines” alongside weak heroes. Instead of being full characters, these women existed only to inspire the stories of their male counterparts. Heldt traces a historical trend of the Russian literary misogyny of male authors from folktales all the way through Tolstoy.
The book then goes on to analyze both memoirs and poetry of real Russian women, discovering that the characteristics imposed on fictional women by male writers, including preoccupation with love, men, and self-perfection, do not relate to those exemplified by women’s own stories. In order to find an authentic portrayal of the female self, she studied autobiographies of historical Russian women (Nadezhda Durova) and Russian poets, finding a common feeling of dual alienation caused by roles of both women and poets (Anna Akhmatova). The only place the women Heldt studied seek perfection is in their writing.
Heldt grew up in the 40’s and 50’s in America. She pursued an education in an attempt to avoid “the Woman’s Fate” of being defined by her husband in regard to her career, but ultimately realized she had fallen into this fate anyway, despite her best efforts to avoid it. After college, Heldt became a guide for the US Information Agency, working in Stalingrad and Kharkov in 1961 to pay for the first year of grad school at Columbia, eventually having to get married in order to continue her education and pursue a PHD.
After completing her thesis, she worked as an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago for three years, eventually being let go in favor of keeping her male colleague, who was less qualified, on board. After realizing that her coworker was payed 20% more than she was, Heldt filed a class action lawsuit against the University of Chicago, prompting the President of the University to memorably ask “What does that f***ing b**** want now?”