Literary City in Estonian Prose reflects the Urbanization Process

Bright city lights have inspired many stories in real life and in fiction. In studied prose, alike, urban environment is both strange and inviting. Source: pixabay.com
Bright city lights have inspired many stories in real life and in fiction. In studied prose, alike, urban environment is both strange and inviting. Source: pixabay.com

In Estonia, people started to move into towns in late 19th and early 20th century. This brought about great changes to the way of living and urban culture started to develop. Estonian prose from that time shines a light on the process from a literary, yet realistic point of view.

Elle-Mari Talivee (PhD), researcher of Under and Tuglas Literature Centre, recently defended her doctoral thesis[1] at the Tallinn University. She sought answers to why, how, and who depicted the urban environment in Estonian prose in 1877–1903.

Talivee wanted to know in how the urban sentiment started to develop. “Urban population started to grow rapidly, but life in the city was an unfamiliar concept to people,” she explained and brought an example that texts show how in the beginning of urbanization, a city was distant and scary, but on the other hand also desirable for the rural population.

The city slowly inched closer to people, became more necessary and inherent, and the literature reflects this process, Talivee noted.

The Three Stages of the City

Talivee’s research shows that urban experience can be divided into three stages. The first one is a certain spatial move that marks the beginning of the city’s description. The city appears as part of the landscape on the horizon, emphasizing the contrast between rural and urban.

In stage two, writing speaks of the city as an inhabited space. Greater detail is added, a style of urban description develops, and particular moods associated with the city are reflected and demonstrated throughout a social-critical paradigm—the city may be a ruinous phenomenon, Talivee wrote. It is also a landscape of anonymity and loneliness.

In stage three, features of the “new city” are added to the urban landscape. “The connections between space, time, and man strengthen, while the development of space-time and the city itself become a character: one, which (or whom) the reader can perceive,” Talivee noted.

Interesting Connections

What she found surprising is the relation of women and city in the prose. “The relationship is often depicted in a simplified way: the city means ruin for women. I would say that the alteration of the city is often depicted through a woman’s character and the destiny of women is not always the same,” Talivee says.

Another thing she found very interesting was the reflection of the “real” city development in fiction. For example, the depictions of the outskirts in the late 19th century, and the way their inhabitants think about their life. “Estonian writers Eduard Vilde and Eduard Bornhöhe were outright lecturers—education saves from the suburb, they wrote,” she illustrated, and added that the writers were, in a way, pioneers who embraced the urban landscape in their own way.

Important for People

Talivee said that fiction can show us how we have become so urbanized. “I believe that fiction helps us understand the process. What is more, it has the ability to generalize and has creative freedom to emphasize something which is not possible in memoirs or travelogues,” she explained.

Furthermore, Talivee noted that knowing the narrative of the city is good for urban planning, as it could help to avoid taking away something inherent to the city.

In the future, Talivee sees room for literary Narva, studying fiction with digital means and for one of her favourite texts—“Bob Ellerhein” by Maximilian Põdder.

[1]The full text of Elle-Mari Talivee’s doctoral thesis “Writing the City: The Urban Landscape in Estonian Prose, 1877–1903” is accessible at the ETERA site: http://www.etera.ee/zoom/30636/view?page=1&p=separate&view=0,0,2067,2834

This article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.