Dostoevsky’s poor little clerk

If Dostoevsky does Gogol’s “ambitious poor clerk[s],” but with a theory to blame for their failure, what is Makar Devushkin’s excuse for his behavior?

Devushkin is a simple man and he has a simple excuse: fate. His poverty is not his fault. He is a good government clerk, capable, competent, but of course he must take care of Varvara (why, again?), of course he must send her sweets, even if it means the buttons fall off his jacket and he can’t pay his rent. But none of that is his fault. He explains himself in a letter to Varvara justifying the bad behavior brought on by his worsening financial circumstances:

It was at that point that my spirits sank, little mother; that’s to say, at first, being overwhelmed by the feeling that I was no good for anything and was little better than the sole of one of my own boots, I thought it improper for me to believe myself of any consequence, and started to view myself as something improper and, to a certain degree, indecent. Well, once I had lost all respect for myself, once I had abandoned myself to the denial of all my good qualities and of my own sense of self-worth, then I was done for, my downfall was assured! It is all predetermined by fate, and I am not to blame for it.

He won’t accept responsibility for his immediate situation; he won’t accept responsibility for his stalled career; he won’t even really accept responsibility with respect to Varvara, because he lies to her to cover up his foolish behavior. But none of it is his fault; her letters scold him and his are full of non-apologies, telling stories of affliction in a bid for her sympathy.

The poor clerk, so proud of his value on the job, won’t even own up to the mistake that ultimately saves both him and Varenka:

Well, so I got down to the task of copying; I did the work cleanly and well, except that—I don’t know how to explain it to you, whether it was the work of the Unclean One, whether it had been preordained by some secret Fate, or whether it simply had to happen that way—I left out a whole line; Lord knows what sense it must have made, it simply didn’t make any.

The Unclean One, of course! It was preordained. This is truly impressive: he has three possible explanations, and all are the same! Poor Devushkin, preordained to be poor and unloved, to miserably roam the streets of Petersburg in the rain, in old boots.

I could be reading this wrong, but I don’t see a great distance put between Dostoevsky and Devushkin. He is a sympathetic character in the book. We aren’t meant to take him as seriously as he takes himself, but we are meant to feel bad for him and that necessitates, if not accepting, then at least ignoring his excuse-making. But I can’t ignore it; Devushkin’s character repels me, and if Dostoevsky really does want me to sympathize with him, I might be starting to understand my dislike.

Bonus Question Round:

  • Is there more narrative distance between Dostoevsky and Devushkin than I experience, i.e., are we not meant to sympathize with him?
  • Are we meant to sympathize with Varvara? Is it possible to sympathize with one and not the other?
  • Do others see Devushkin’s excuse-making in a totally different light?
  • Does the fact that Devushkin’s lack of personal responsibility turns me off mean that I’m refusing to accept Poor Folk on its own terms, or that I think it fails on those terms?
  • Could I possibly have had a bonus question round about a book fewer people have read?

(No, the answers cannot be found in this post or my others; you’ll probably need to have read it. And it would probably help if you were relatively familiar with my reading neuroses as well.)

4 comments to Dostoevsky’s poor little clerk

  • It’s not just you. Ethical criticism is just what Dostoevsky demands. The sort of aesthetic messing around I prefer, or rely on, seems out of place with D. Instead, I have to take his ideas seriously, which means – well, now I’m talking about my own intellectual limitations, which is not the point.

    The point is, I think you’re asking the right questions, on D.’s own terms! You might not come up with the same answers.

  • nicole

    Yeah, so the other night I got into talking about this with mon chum, because after your comment I was like “this is my whole problem!” Because (a) I care about “aesthetic messing around” and (b) taking his ideas seriously really brings out my intellectual limitations. The consumption partner thinks I am having an overly ideological reaction that is not actually necessary. I.e., that Dostoevsky doesn’t necessitate/expect that. We had a whole disagreement thing about Raskolnikov’s redemption and whether I have an issue with authors not giving characters their just deserts. I don’t see it that way—but obviously I am worried this is what’s going on, because that’s the concern generating most of the questions above. The CP said something about D’s own intro/preface/whatever to The Brothers Karamazov and how maybe that will help. I’ll have to see.

    Are you doing that one in April after all? I hope so.

  • Dostoevsky’s preface to Karamazov is no help to me, not yet. There is more than one way to take it, at least.

    The existentialists had no trouble stripping what they wanted out of Dostoevsky and discarding the rest (the Orthodox mysticism, for example). So your pal is objectively correct – it is not necessary to accept the whole package.

    But does that do damage to the novel that Dostoevksy actually wrote? Does that even matter? It’s a challenge to me, at least. I read about 20 pages of Karamazov last night, so I guess I’m leaning towards reading the whole thing again.

  • chad

    I just finished reading “Poor Folk.” Here are a few initial thoughts on your questions. I think the big theme of this novel is that we are all unique individuals, and even “poor folk” are subject to the same virtues/faults that we spend endless time dissecting when it comes to kings/queens/conquerors/and tyrants of history. I think it is safe to say that the poor have less margin for error when it comes to bad decision-making and its consequences to their lives. Every drunken debauche and kopeck misspent puts Dievushkin in the direst of straits. At some point, we all realize our shortcomings and can become overwhelmed by them, one way to continue on is to put things in the “hands of fate” and to hope that better days are to come, and maybe better decisions to be made. But we will drown if we take on the weight of all of our bad decisions. I think the nobility of Dievushkin’s character is summed up by his giving of his last 20 Kopecks to Gorshkov. One can explain away his charity to Varvara as obsessive,delusional love, but the giving to Gorshkov shows his unselfish love for humanity. A poor, drunken, love obssessed lout can still redeem himself by “giving till it hurts” to one even lower than himself.
    Varvara is a woman on her own in 19th century Russia, can we blame her for accepting all the gifts from Makar, whether or not she loves him? She does give back 25 of the 45 roubles given to her by Dievushkin, indicating that she does not take from him more than she needs. She survives while maintaining as much dignity and virtue as is possible, that is my initial read on her character.