The Mahtra War(s)

Representations of gender and social relations in Volume I of Eduard Vilde’s historical trilogy

This article examines the social relations of gender in Eduard Vilde’s historical novel Mahtra sõda („The Mahtra War”, 1902), focused on the widespread peasant rebellions of 1858 in northern Estland. It is argued that gender is a major axis for the representation of village life as the novel analyzes the intrusion of colonial violence into a peasant family through sexual abuse of young women who worked as servants at the manor and their forced marriages, emphasizing that women’s survival strategies and resistance are shown in the context of gendered social relations. The Trauerspiel of the Mahtra rebellion draws close attention not only to the event’s structure and pathos, but also to its extended costs of the subsequent brutal punishment to the peasant family. Amidst the two intersecting romantic plots, the Swiss-French governess Juliette Marchand articulates Enlightenment critique of the practices of colonial violence and the institution of serfdom. Vilde’s historical trilogy deserves further analysis in light of current debates concerning the poetics of the historical novel, and on the novel’s contextual impact on the prodromes of the 1905 revolution.