Poor Folk is much later than the other epistolary novels I’ve read thus far; published in 1846, it appeared more than a century after the pop culture phenom of Pamela and over 50 years after Lady Susan, the latest one I’ve read at this point, was likely written (though it wasn’t published until 1871). Plus, it’s Russian, and while I have French and German novels still on my list this is the only one so far that wasn’t Anglo.
So this is already an old form, some might say a tired form, and we’re not likely to see many new techniques here. Poor Folk consists of the mutual correspondence of two people; seemingly, in fact, their full correspondence during the selected period. There are a few unusual things though. First, we have Varvara, a young, vulnerable maiden, a Clarissa if you will, but she is the confidante of the older man, Devushkin.* On top of that, our correspondents are unusually close to each other, physically. Devushkin notes in his very first letter to Varvara that he can see her window from his room. And yet they write to each other incessantly.
They see each other in person, too, but not very much. There is a vague idea that it might be scandalous to see each other more often, but on the other hand they are always inviting each other over. They use a servant as a go-between to share money, millinery, and sweets. It’s never made explicit what their relationship is; they may or may not be related, Devushkin is certainly in love with Varvara, and she has a history so painful it’s barely alluded to.
Except that actually, her painful history makes up a large part of her letters. Amid quotidian terms of endearment and concerns about staying warm, wishes to stay healthy and make sure to put sugar in the tea, Varvara includes a rather lyrical account of her life before her mysterious downfall. She grew up in the country, then the family moved to Petersburg and everything went to hell. Her clean, rustic childhood memories were replaced with the bleakness of lost fortune, a dead father, and predatory relatives in the grey and misty metropolis. She has notably mixed feelings on these reminiscences:
Memories, whether bitter or joyful, are always a source of torment; that, at least, is how I find it; but even this torment is sweet. And when the heart grows heavy, sick, anguished and sad, then memories refresh it and revive it, as on a dewy evening after a hot day the drops of moisture refresh and revive the poor, withered flower which has been scorched by the afternoon sun.
This is where I like Dostoevsky and his psychological insight. First, memories hurt, then once they’ve tormented you to the full they freshen you up again.
Devushkin’s Petersburg is a teeming apartment building, where he’s convinced the other residents make fun of him and does his best to hide with his letters. Varvara’s Petersburg was shaped by the period she spent with her mother, a distant relative, and a tutor, whom she greatly admired and who eventually died:
I tugged the curtain to one side; but the incipient day was sad and melancholy, like the poor, fading life of the dying man. There was no sun. The clouds had spread the sky with a misty shroud; it was so rainy, gloomy, melancholy, that sky. A drizzling rain had found its way to the window-panes and was sluicing them with rivulets of cold, dirty water; all was dark and dreary. The wan daylight only just managed to penetrate the room, scarcely vying with the trembling glow of the lamp that had been lit in front of the icon. The dying man gave me a look of utter melancholy and shook his head. A minute later he was dead.
So Varvara uses the letters to remember and retell her past, on her terms, to a man too simple to appreciate Gogol but who thinks she’s a positive saint for what she’s gone through. His letters, in turn, are almost a form of worship, mixed with the scolding of an indulgent grandfather:
What do you lack with us? We dote upon you, you are fond of us—so go on living over there in your quiet way; sew or read, or, if you wish, don’t sew—it’s all the same, just as long as you go on living with us. Just think for yourself what life would be like here without you!
Well, they don’t seem to see each other that much; so what would life be like here without her? After all, she’s across the street or whatever but you’re still writing letters. But this turns out to be foreshadowing. Though it would seem an epistolary novel could continue after the correspondents moved apart—actually, isn’t that when it should start?—this one must end at that point because Varvara’s husband won’t let her continue to write. The correspondents have used all their letters as proxies to actually be together, and Varvara makes her last letter a proxy for all the ones she will no longer write, in a touching goodbye to Devushkin:
I am leaving you the book, my lace-frame, the letter I began, did not write; when you look at those lines, you must imagine the words you would like to hear me say or have me write, all the things I would like to write to you; and what would I not write to you now! Remember your poor Varenka, who loved you so hard. All your letters are at Fedora’s, in the top drawer of the chest-of-drawer. …So let us say good bye for ever, my friend, my sweet, my darling—for ever! …Oh, how I would hug you if you were here!
Note that she has also left all Devushkin’s letters behind; she won’t have any proxy for him where she’s going. She won’t imagine the words he would write, or the progression of his prose style, and he seems to sense it in his desperate last response:
To whom am I going to write my letters, little mother? Yes, think about that, little mother—ask yourself: ‘Who’s he going to write his letters to?’ Who am I going to call ‘little mother’?
No, you must write to me again, white me another little letter about it all; and when you have finished your journey, you must write to me from there. Otherwise, my heavenly angel, this will be my last letter; and, I mean, it’s impossible that this letter should be my last. I mean, how can it be, so suddenly, my last? No, I will write, and you will write… Otherwise the style I’m developing now won’t… Oh, my darling, what is style? I mean, I don’t even know what I’m writing…I write only in order to write…as much as possible to you….
I think that last sums up Devushkin’s half of the novel quite nicely. What an astounding amount of blogging I’ve done about this short novel; thank you for your patience. I haven’t read enough other, possibly better, Dostoevsky to know, but there was something about this.
*The contrast to Clarissa is made explicit in several passages about how Devushkin’s neighbors find his letters to Varvara and begin calling him “Lovelace.” He is awfully offended, but later makes it up with the main rumormonger and believes a line about how Lovelace actually means something noble.