I read this for Tom's April readalong, and I was quite excited about it because What is to be Done? was an important part of a literary debate in 19th century Russia about what Russian society should be. Turgenev first asked the question in Fathers and Sons, and here Chernyshevsky tries to answer it. He doesn't claim great literary talent; in fact, he says right out that he hasn't got much. He wrote a novel--while in prison--because that was the way Russians got around the censors to write about revolutionary ideas. Such ideas are very thinly veiled in this novel, which likens Russia to a bad wheatfield that is sorely in need of drainage and general reform.
There is a plot, though. Vera is a young woman who is desperate to escape her family, especially her mother, who is a crook and a cheat, and who wants to arrange an advantageous marriage for her daughter. Vera is rescued by Lopukhov, a virtuous medical student and tutor who marries her (this being the only means of escape open to a young woman). They have an odd, formalized but friendly marriage, and Vera starts a sewing collective. Well, she starts a sewing business which is run along profit-sharing lines, and her seamstresses share expenses by moving in together--there is a lot about how to take advantage of economies of scale, but (disappointingly) nothing whatsoever about sewing. Chernyshevsky is all about the message; there is hardly any detail or setting or anything to bring the world of the novel to life.
Vera's business is a good success, but she falls in love with Lopukhov's best friend Kirsanov. Lopukhov sets her free by committing suicide, and Vera is heart-broken until this sort of Revolutionary Superman guy, Rakhmetov, visits and gives her a letter from Lopukhov explaining that really he has run off to Europe so she can be free. Vera marries Kirsanov and they live happily ever after for about 150 more pages.
--but Olga didn't want to be free. She wanted to be a bourgeois housewife like everyone else. So Chernyshevsky wrote himself a story where everything would be like he wanted, and he spends a lot of time explaining just how to live so as to be happy and have plenty and everything just wonderful.
I honestly have no idea why Russian revolutionaries loved this book so much. Lenin thought it was fantastic and life-changing. Why? Vera starts a business, and she is treated as an equal to her husband--not the usual thing to be sure, but drawing a line from Vera's ideal of everyone doing as they please and the Bolshevik Revolution is something of a difficult exercise for me. And there's this guy who lives like an ascetic, among the people, working to bring the revolution forward by...giving advice. That's pretty much it. Nobody acts like a Bolshevik that I can see (this novel is pre-Marx, for one thing).
It's a historical curiosity far more than it is great literature. The first two-thirds or so are quite readable, but the last third loses shape and becomes more difficult to stick with as Chernyshevsky doesn't seem to know where to point his characters next. Vera is free; what else is there to do? If you want to read it, be sure to get the 1989 translation by Katz; you can get the first translation free digitally, but the Katz is a lot better. You'll need ILL.
The next chapter in this literary debate is Dostoevsky's Notes From the Underground. I'll be getting that pretty soon, but since May is "WWI month" at the Classics Club I think I'll tackle August 1914 first.