Death Objectified, Life Affirmed: Mortality and Materialism in Russian Folktales Featuring Koschei the Deathless
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Koschei the Deathless, a stock villain of Russian folklore, is a powerful sorcerer who achieves immortality by physically hiding his death, which is treated as an object rather than an event. This project investigates the objectification of Koschei’s death as a product of cultural anxieties about the uncertainties of peasant life in the Late Tsarist period. The project has two parts, the first a literary analysis of the portrayal of Koschei the Deathless in early English translations of Russian folktales and their subsequent adaptations, and the second investigates how specific social factors (including literacy and mortality rates) may have influenced particular narrative attributes. This project uses the function-oriented methodology popularized by Soviet folklorist Vladimir Propp. Propp’s method for deconstructing folktales relies on identifying the function, or role, performed by specific narrative elements in a given story. Whereas Propp’s analysis of the Russian folktale was concerned solely with the literal functions of its narrative elements, this project is concerned instead with symbolic function, assessing the metaphorical value of particular aspects of the Koschei tales. The Koschei tales provide insight into attitudes among the Russian peasantry towards death and dependence on material resources during the mid-19th century. These stories portray a consistently negative view of immortality, emphasizing the value of a finite lifespan and ultimately helping the peasantry confront the fact of mortality. The life-affirming qualities of these folktales enables their persistence in contemporary Russian literature and popular culture.