Privacy and embarrassment in Poor Folk

As I noted yesterday, I’ve been following along in Caryl Emerson’s highly interesting and enjoyable Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature as I’ve gone from Pushkin up, so far, through Dostoevsky. I’ve always been ambivalent at best about Dostoevsky, not having cared at all for Crime and Punishment, but going into Poor Folk I had something new to focus on (in addition to epistolarity, of course): privacy.

One thing the Cambridge Introduction does is divide post-18th-century Russian literature crudely into two lines, one following Pushkin and the other Gogol. Dostoevsky is on Team Gogol, something that surprised me at first because, well, I really like Gogol. And yet:

[T]he “Gogol side” is governed by the opposite dynamic [from the “Pushkin side”], a private world of evasion and concealment, abundant in texts of embarrassment and exposure. …In Dostoevsky, concern for privacy can reach insane, pathological, conspiratorial proportions, cunningly masked by self-defensive narrative shields and comic narrators.

That did sound right, from what I remembered of C&P, and it also sounded very right as I read Poor Folk. Both Makar Devushkin and Varvara Dobroselova are obsessed with privacy. They don’t want anyone to know they are corresponding or are such close friends; she doesn’t want anyone to know where she lives; they don’t want anyone to know he is buying her sweets and treats and helping pay her bills; and they are so private about the actual scandal that’s gone on that even in their private correspondence it is never named explicitly enough for the reader to be sure that there even was a scandal.

A major reason for their desire for privacy is their poverty itself; they are ashamed of their small possessions and unimpressive apartments, and don’t want the higher-ups to notice when their shoes are down at heel (or worse). But they also simply have private personalities. When Varvara writes about the tutor of her teenage years, she describes his father as “horribly inquisitive,” full of “comments and questions,” and “constantly interfer[ing].” Questions are bad; mind your own business. There’s no reason to torment poor folk with such interference.

In turn, poverty makes privacy more difficult, if not impossible. Devushkin and Varvara are both indebted to people they cannot avoid seeing on occasion, and must deal with their share of embarrassment. When Devushkin is really in the decline, money- and sensewise:

The landlady treats me with contempt, and I get no respect from anyone; I’m terribly short of money, I have debts; and as for my life at the office, where even previously my fellow clerks weren’t exactly in the habit of putting out the red carpet for me—well, little mother, now it doesn’t bear speaking about. I hide my feelings, I scrupulously hide my feelings from them all, and I hide myself, and when I come into the office I do it stealthily, and I keep away from everyone else. I mean, you’re the only person with whom I can summon up the strength of mind to confess it…

But he can’t hide himself in the office; he sits in a room with other clerks, copying away. Hunching over a desk will not hide him. And poor folk like Devushkin and Varvara “don’t have identifiable homes, a possibility that is concretely realized by Dostoevsky when he houses his heroes in crowded apartments that are in effect corridors, breeding places for ‘accidental families,’” notes Emerson.

Yesterday, I noted Devushkin’s bad reaction to “The Overcoat”; problems of privacy also crop up because of literature. While Devushkin is happy with Pushkin, he says of “The Postmaster,” “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 turned it inside out so that people could see what was in it, and described it all in detail.” The process of writing anything that is “lifelike” means laying bare the heart and making one’s most private thoughts and feelings public.

But where Pushkin makes public the bittersweet story of a drunken postmaster who’s lost his daughter, a man to be pitied by all, Gogol has written something much bleaker, about a man whose affliction is much less melodramatic: sheer poverty. Devushkin responds to this with fury; he feels the worn elbows of his jacket have been exposed to the world. He’s been doing his best not to let anyone notice him at all, and now this story has been written about him, he won’t be able to walk down the street without dying of shame.

And what is the point of writing things like that? What use do they serve? Will a person who reads that story make me an overcoat, do you suppose? Do you suppose that he will buy me a new pair of boots? No, Varenka, that person will simply read the story and then demand a sequel to it. I sometimes hide myself away, I hide myself away in order to conceal the things I have failed in, I’m sometimes afraid to show my face anywhere, because I tremble at the thought of what wicked tongues may be saying about me, because people can concoct a lampoon about one out of anything at all, anything, and then one’s entire public and private life is held up for inspection in the form of literature, it is all published, read, ridiculed and gossiped about! Why, in this instance it will be impossible for me to go out in the street; in this instance everything has been described in such detail that I will now be instantly recognized by my walk alone.

That’s it—that’s the problem: “people can concoct a lampoon about one out of anything at all” and then, it’s over, buddy. Your entire public and private life. Inspected and violated. Among other problems, this leads to constant anxiety that Devushkin and Varvara’s letters will be discovered (also relevant to an upcoming entry on epistolarity here) and their relationship—what was that again, by the way?—laid bare. You might as well be dead if the neighbors start calling you Lovelace (poor, poor Devushkin!).

On the other hand, those things that are kept private are just fine, even if they’re sinful and hurt the ones you love, like when Devushkin justifies his bender and encounter with the law to Varvara: “Of course, I brought myself discredit and my pride took a knock, but after all, no one else apart from yourself knows anything about it; and if that is so, then it’s just the same as if the whole thing had never happened. Perhaps it is—what do you think, Varenka?”

There’s a striking moment of openness toward the end of Poor Folk, after a friendly boss has saved Devushkin and Varvara from utter financial ruin:

I told everyone about what His Excellency had done: I told them everything and concealed nothing. I swallowed my pride. What role could a thing like pride or reputation play in a situation like that? I told it all out loud—to the glory of the doings of His Excellency! I spoke enthusiastically and with ardour, and I did not blush—on the contrary, I was proud to have the occasion to tell such a story.

Does privacy take second place to honor? To pride? Now that Devushkin has a story to be proud of rather than ashamed—though that itself is somewhat surprising—can he tell it rather than hide himself? Or is it because it was when Devushkin couldn’t hide that he came into his windfall?

This trail has both led me to like Dostoevsky a bit more and also to start figuring out some of what I don’t like about him. As Emerson notes, “The first realm of Gogol’s that Dostoevsky will appropriate is the painful, embarrassed world of the ambitious poor clerk who insists that he cannot be the person he knows he really is—but unlike Gogol’s timid little men, these characters will find some other person, or some theory, to blame for it.” Despite the fact that Dostoevsky did “brilliantly…apply his new devices of psychological prose to Gogol’s flattened world,” that is, I think, the problem for me.

2 comments to Privacy and embarrassment in Poor Folk

  • This is probably one of my favourite things about Russian literature – this idea of things being kept secret and having a confidante who knows truly what goes on (and sometimes even isn’t completely in the loop themselves).

  • nicole

    I’ve never thought of Russian literature in precisely those terms, but then I haven’t read that much Russian lit in my “adult reading life” either. I’m also especially attuned to the idea of confidantes because of I’ve read quite a bit of epistolary fiction over the past year or so, so I didn’t really make that connection. But now that I’m looking for it, I’m sure I will find it.

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