Literary allusion in Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk

Fyodor Dostoevsky—or at least, Makar Devushkin—read a bunch of the same Russian lit as I’ve been lately, I found out in Poor Folk. Not that I was surprised he was more than familiar with Pushkin and Gogol; but I wasn’t expecting them to crop up so explicitly in my other reading.

Poor Folk (sometimes translated as Poor People) is a bit of a strange epistolary novel (more on that later in the week), representing the correspondence of impoverished clerk Makar Devushkin with Varvara Dobroselova, a poor orphan whose virtue has been mysteriously compromised in the past—maybe. One of the things they write to each other about is literature, beginning with Devushkin touting the genius of his neighbor, who writes awful purple romantic adventure novels. He quotes bits to the more learned Varvara, who tells him to stop being so silly and sends him The Tales of Belkin.

Devushkin reads “The Stationmaster” (“The Postmaster” in my Hesperus edition) and falls in love. He is a reader for whom sympathy is paramount:

…[L]et me tell you, little mother, it can happen that one spends one’s life not realizing that right at one’s side there is a book in which one’s entire life is set forth as if on the ends of one’s fingers. As one begins to read it, one gradually starts to remember and guess and unravel all that was hitherto obscure. …[W]hen I read this one [book], it’s as though I had written it myself, just as if, in a manner of speaking, I had taken my own heart, exactly as it is, and described it all in detail—that’s what it’s like! And it’s so simple, as God’s my witness; but do you know, I really think I should have written it in the same way; why shouldn’t I have written it? After all, I have the same feelings, exactly the same ones as are described in the book, and I have sometimes found myself in situations like that of that poor unfortunate fellow Samson Vyrin, for example. …Oh, that is lifelike!

Varvara attempts to continue her positive literary influence on Devushkin by sending him some Gogol, but this trips him up. He reads “The Overcoat,” and again sympathizes strongly with its main character. But here the sympathy is too strong, and Gogol has not constructed his story as Pushkin has, so that it is lifelike, with a bittersweet ending. Gogol is both less and more lifelike: he gives us ghosts, but he also gives us real absurdity and a bare, pathetic story of desperation and poverty. Should it be a surprise that that hits too close to home? Probably not, but Devushkin takes it personally beyond any normal response. He writes back to Varenka as though “The Overcoat” really were written about him, complaining that now all his secrets are revealed and everyone knows the soles of his boots are wearing through. And he’s not prepared for Gogol’s flouting the conventions of a happy ending for virtuous people—something of especial interest to these poor folk:

Well, I mean, the author might have at least made up for it a bit towards the end; for example, he could have softened the impact by putting a bit in after the part where they scatter papers over the hero’s head, to the effect that for all his faults he was a decent, virtuous citizen who did not deserve to be treated thus by his companions, that he was obedient to his seniors (here he could have inserted an example of some kind), wished no one any harm, believed in God and died (if he really must have his hero die) lamented. It would, however, have been much better not to have left him to die at all, the poor man, but to make his overcoat be found, to have that general find out more about his virtues, invite him into his office, raise him in rank and give him a good hike in salary, so that then, you see, vice would have been punished and virtue would have triumphed, and all those fellow-clerks would have been left empty-handed. That’s how I, for one, would have written it; but the way it is, what’s so special about it, what’s good about it? It’s just a trivial example of vile, everyday life. And why did you decide to send me a book like that, Varenka; it’s simply not true to life, because a clerk of that kind could never exist. After reading such a book one feels like filing a complaint, Varenka, one feels like filing a formal complaint.

This passage is almost perfect. First, Devushkin is growing; now he can do literary criticism. Sort of—he’s still focused on demanding nice characters, happy endings, and conventional storytelling. But he’s able to be specific about what he likes and doesn’t, and he’s growing out of just wanting to read ripping adventures. And it’s easy to forgive him wanting a happy ending for “The Overcoat” when it’s really his own story in so many ways.

Again, he compares how he would have written it to how it was written. He would have written Pushkin exactly the same way; Gogol he would have made unrecognizable. Pushkin’s soppy, schmaltzy story of a down-and-out stationmaster and his impossibly lucky but foolish daughter is truly lifelike; Gogol’s brutal tale of the less-privileged of Saint Petersburg is “not at all true to life” because it doesn’t follow the conventions of a fairy tale. And Devushkin wants to file a formal complaint, a gratuitous Gogolian throw-in, I am sure, on the part of Dostoevsky.

Devushkin continues to advance his literary dreams with character sketches in his later letters, which are meant to “provide you with an example of the good style of my literary compositions,” which style “has improved of late.”

One thing I focused on during this read of Poor Folk, only my second work by Dostoevsky, is the idea of privacy, put into my head by my Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature, which is aiding me in my late adventures. This is a big thing in Poor Folk, and ties closely to the use of Gogol but also to many other things, so I’m saving it for a more detailed post. But it’s helped me see Dostoevsky in a new light. So, more on that later, and more on the epistolarity of the novel (to go with my not actually abandoned project on the subject). Also hopefully more on why I didn’t really like this book much, and still don’t much like Dostoevsky. If only I could figure out why. We’ll try that this week.

5 comments to Literary allusion in Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk

  • Isn’t this stuff funny. Dostoevsky writes in the shadow of Gogol, yet is the anti-Gogol. The Double, which I like quite a lot, is pure ripoff, a rewrite of The Nose.

    A big difference, which will become more evident as Dostoevsky matures, is that D. is a genuine Novelist of Ideas, and perhaps a genuine mystic. Gogol, whatever preposterous notions he came up with retrospectively, was not, thank goodness.

  • nicole

    Yeah, the “mystic” is definitely (part of) what I don’t like. This makes me want to read The Double now. But isn’t that seeming like an awful lot of an author I “don’t like”?

  • An awful lot of an author you don’t like – exactly. That’s why I’m reluctant about Karamazov. Now that is an awful lot. Although I read the beginning last night and – well, I can see a way in.

  • My friend mentioned to me your site, so I thought I’d read it for myself. Very interesting insights, will be back for more!

  • austinlaw

    Dostoevsky focused on the subjectivity of the human experience, but from a perspective hinting at omnicience. Although the protagonists are sympathetic figures in a way, and they write in the first person subjective, the expression of their affairs, attributes and attitudes reflects a kind of condescension in the author. Note the satirical portrayal of Pokrovsky’s father:

    Sometimes there came to the house a ragged, poorly-dressed, grey- headed, awkward, amorphous—in short, a very strange-looking— little old man. At first glance it might have been thought that he was perpetually ashamed of something—that he had on his conscience something which always made him, as it were, bristle up and then shrink into himself. Such curious starts and grimaces did he indulge in that one was forced to conclude that he was scarcely in his right mind. On arriving, he would halt for a while by the window in the hall, as though afraid to enter; until, should any one happen to pass in or out of the door— whether Sasha or myself or one of the servants (to the latter he always resorted the most readily, as being the most nearly akin to his own class)—he would begin to gesticulate and to beckon to that person, and to make various signs.
    Dostoyevsky, Fyodor (2009-11-03). The Collected Works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Unexpurgated Edition) (Halcyon Classics) (Kindle Locations 397-403). Halcyon Press Ltd.. Kindle Edition.

    Moreover, Nicole in a previous blog observed a thinly veiled mockery of Devushkin in his bewilderment upon reading of the protagonist’s fate in Gogol’s Overcoat. As she noted, everyone but Devushkin seems to know that the joke is on him. This is another example of what many readers don’t like about Dostoevsky in Poor Folk.

    On the other hand, this was written when Dostoevsly was still a young man – only twenty-four. Most great writers have been kicked around some. The expression of “subversive” ideas hinted at in Poor Folk and otherwise landed Dostoevsky in the Gulag of Tsartist Russia for four years, and he came out a changed man. His later novels, I believe, are less inclined toward derisiveness when evaluating the human condition. See, eg., the Autobiography of Dostoevsky by Jennifer Jay:

    In his novel, The Idiot, written twenty years after his arrest and imprisonment, the character Prince Myshkin tells a story of an execution that much resembles Dostoevsky’s own staged one.

    …But better if I tell you of another man I met last year…this man was led out along with others on to a scaffold and had his sentence of death by shooing read out to him, for political offenses. About twenty minutes later a reprieve was read out and a milder punishment substitute…he was dying at 27, healthy and strong…he says that nothing was more terrible at that moment than the nagging thought: “What if I didn’t have to die!…I would turn every minute into an age, nothing would be wasted, every minute would be accounted for…(Part I, chapter 5)

    This concept of a better use of time, of wasted minutes, was one that struck Dostoevsky especially. In a letter to his brother Mikhail, Fyodor told him of his new outlook towards life. Never before had Fyodor had a true appreciation for life. “When I look back on my past and think how much time I wasted on nothing, how much time has been lost in futilities, errors, laziness, incapacity to live; how little I appreciated it, how many times I sinned against my heart and soul – then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute can be an eternity of happiness.”

    Thanks for your insights.