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.)