The Superfluous Man

The superfluous man (Russian: лишний человек, líshniy chelovék, “unnecessary person”) is an 1840s and 1850s Russian literary concept derived from the Byronic hero. It refers to an individual, perhaps talented and capable, who does not fit into social norms. In most cases, this person is born into wealth and privilege. Typical characteristics are disregard for social values, cynicism, and existential boredom; typical behaviors are gambling, drinking, romantic intrigues and duels. He is often unmindful, indifferent or unempathetic with society’s issues and can carelessly distress others with his actions, despite his position of power. He will often use his power for his own comfort and security and will have very little interest in being charitable or using it for the greater good.

Russian critics such as Vissarion Belinsky viewed the superfluous man as a byproduct of Nicholas I’s reign, when the best educated men would not enter the discredited government service and, lacking other options for self-realization, doomed themselves to live out their life in passivity. Scholar David Patterson describes the superfluous man as “not just…another literary type but…a paradigm of a person who has lost a point, a place, a presence in life” before concluding that “the superfluous man is a homeless man”.

The superfluous man is often in contrast politically with the great man.