The Eternal Husband by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Eternal Husband is one of the volumes in the Art of the Novella series that really pushes the bounds of the word “novella.” At over 200 pages, albeit small ones, it seems a short novel to me, and a bit of a strange one.

What can that mean? All Dostoevsky is strange to me, in the sense of “of external origin, kind, or character,” though I am, at this point, somewhat accustomed to that strangeness. But here I found a new kind of Dostoevskyan strangeness, something a little bit lighter and less bleak. Don’t let yourself assume from that, however, that The Eternal Husband doesn’t involve death and damnation just as his other, major works do. Maybe it really was the fuchsia cover, or maybe the simple fact that the protagonist, Velchaninov, overcame all his problem with nerve-induced illness without having to send himself to Siberia, but I felt almost free and easy reading this.

One thing that was familiar, and who knows, might make all Dostoevsky’s work appear somewhat strange, was the pacing. I should say lack of pacing. For 50 or so pages, we appear to have a certain kind of story, about a man who might not be all that much unlike Raskolnikov, only a little less nasty and violent and a bit older. But then, suddenly, a major new element is introduced that seems to bring us into a whole different kind of story altogether—for the next 65 or so pages at least. And later, Velchaninov and his friend spend 25 pages (remember, that’s more than a tenth of the novel) on a single visit to a single home, which might appear to be building to something, and does, but also doesn’t. I suppose it’s a bit nonsensical without specifics, but I can’t be the only one who sees all this swerving and confusion.

I risk making a statement here that I will one day regret through lack of reflection, but at this close distance I do believe this Velchaninov is my favorite character in Dostoevsky so far. Even if he does make himself ill through stress and worry in a way that only women in Gothic romances and Dostoevsky characters do, he has a lot more pluck and more of a head on his shoulders than your average Karamazov. And this may also be the first time I’ve been pleased with a Dostoevskyan ending.

The Brothers Karamazov: “let no one grumble if I tell only that which struck me personally and which I have especially remembered”

The marathon is at an end, and a final thanks to the lovely host of The Brothers Karamazov readalong, Dolce Bellezza. Formally, the novel offered me little. I will refer you to Amateur Reader for a taste of why rather than moan.

As a novel of ideas, it didn’t offer much more. If Zosima’s ethics are true, and everyone is guilty of everything, I see only moral disorder: Ivan, who has harmed no one, feels guilty while Smerdyakov, a devious killer, has not done anything especially more wrong than anyone else. I prefer the ethics of the trial itself: as all the witnesses are called, each is impeached with his own personal foibles and failings, past sins brought to light to reduce present credibility and respectability. We have all sinned, yes, but as individuals. Not that any of that ends up fairly, either.

The trial did have its good points for the reading experience, despite the speechifying. One of the only ways the novel induced much emotion in me was in the frustrating parallels between Smerdyakov’s convincing Ivan that Ivan would not be believed, and the actual arguments put forth by the prosecution and defense. That is, the frustration of not being able to thwart the meticulously thought-out murder—despite having known who the killer was for hundreds of pages! That was good, but somehow I am not actually sure it was the intended effect.

Dostoevsky’s intended effect…I still don’t really know it, in general. I still don’t see why some people respond to him in a mystical way, I still don’t like him, whatever that might mean, and I’m ready to move on for a long while. I don’t want to give any impression that this was a bad or regrettable experience, or that there weren’t good moments. Anyway, a few other miscellaneous points:

Kolya Krasotkin

Kolya Krasotkin is an interesting little miniature of Ivan, but with the ability to sincerely look up to Alyosha, it seems, and open himself to hope and optimism almost in spite of himself. I noted two instances where he brought my recent reading of Tolstoy to mind. On the first page of Book X, the narrator says that Kolya’s mother “had of course endured incomparably more suffering than joy on account of him, trembling and dying of fear almost every day last he become ill, catch cold, be naughty, climb on a chair and fall off, and so on and so forth”—just like Tolstoy’s foolish mothers. Somewhat later, Kolya describes “doctors and all medical scum” as “swindlers” and rejects medicine as a “useless institution”—just like Pozdnyshev. I’m not proposing that these characters or books have much to do with each other directly, just that these seem to be more currents of 19th century Russian thought I’ve been discovering over the past few months.

Liza Khokhlakov

Liza struck me as one of the more intriguing characters in the novel, and she’s the one I most feel I’d like to understand better (however, I don’t think she’s worth a re-read). She is very perceptive, and one of my favorite scenes was her last one with Alyosha:

“You’re unfit to be a husband: I’d marry you, and suddenly give you a note to take to someone I’d have fallen in love with after you, and you would take it and make sure to deliver it, and even bring back the reply. And you’d be forty years old and still carrying such notes.”

I especially like the forty years old; Liza has the confidence of a much older judge of character. At the same time, I don’t trust that Liza is really whole or coherent. Normally I would say I just haven’t made total sense of her yet, but with Dostoevsky I don’t have faith there is necessarily sense to be made. Is that pineapple compote brilliant or insane?

The Devil and Descartes

The devil taunts Ivan:

“Let’s say I’m of one philosophy with you, if you like, that would be correct. Je pense donc je suis, I’m quite sure of that, but all the rest around me, all those worlds, God, even Satan himself—for me all that is unproven, whether it exists in itself, or is only my emanation, a consistent development of my I, which exists pre-temporally and uniquely….”

I couldn’t say how well Dostoevsky knew his Descartes, but this is a bit of a cute joke if he did. One property of Descartes’s argument on this subject is that it holds even in the presence of a deceiving god or demon; even if a being’s perceptions are deceived by such a god, the deceived being must itself exist.

The Narrator

One thing that has consistently bothered me about the madness of the monologues in the novel is the improbability of their being recounted. The narrator notes at the beginning of Book XII that he “will say beforehand, and say emphatically, that I am far from considering myself capable of recounting all that took place in court, not only with the proper fullness, but with the proper order.” And the courtroom scene takes up only 1/10 of the book!

The Stick with Two Ends

The defense attorney, Fetyukovich, speaks for me during his closing argument:

“Here, then, is a different psychology. I myself, gentlemen of the jury, have resorted to psychology now, in order to demonstrate that one can draw whatever conclusions one likes from it. It all depends on whose hands it is in. Psychology prompts novels even from the most serious people, and quite unintentionally. I am speaking of excessive psychology, gentlemen of the jury, of a certain abuse of it.”

This is, roughly, how I often think of Dostoevsky.

Stinking Lizaveta

What does it mean that the holy fool gives birth to the murderer? To, I believe, the parricide? It would seem to strangely agree with me on the weakness of holy folly. On the weakness of Russia for holy folly? The danger that the vulnerable holy fool, dear to Russia’s bosom, could be corrupted by godless European sensuousness and produce a sort of hybrid monster, a Russian “lackey” who plays dumb but instead plots out a nasty crime?

Karamazovianism

“Karamazovian” is a frequent adjective in the novel, but what does it really mean? It usually describes unrestraint, or excess, but again and again it struck me as inapt. I never really had the impression the brothers and their father were alike, despite some superficial similarities and parallels. Every time I read “Karamazovian” it seemed a forced attempt to associate them more closely with one another, as a family, as a unit, than they really were. And yet they were undeniably close in some ways. But I remain unconvinced that this “Karamazovian” is as solid a thing as the village perhaps thought it.

The Brothers Karamazov: “Well, I’m not very good at these subtleties…”

Part III of The Brothers Karamazov seems to cover so much narrative ground compared to the first two. It begins with the elder Zosima being prepared for burial, follows Alyosha to a visit with Grushenka, removes him from the monastery, and then begins the whirlwind that is the story of Dmitri. We go back in time two days to find out what he’s been up to while Zosima has been dying, and the answer is “a lot.”

According to the narrator, “[f]or the past two days he had been in such an unimaginable state that, as he himself said afterwards, he might well have come down with brain fever.” That sentence seems to sum up Dostoevsky for me. For two days Dmitri is in full-blown crisis mode—as are his brothers, his father, and most of their connections. As Richard Pevear notes in his introduction, “[n]arrative time is extremely condensed in the novel,” and that heightens the atmosphere of crisis. And the reliance on long speeches and dialogues externalizes the psychological crises of every character. The upshot is that everyone is freaking out all the time, and not doing much else.

My impression is that fans of Dostoevsky appreciate the psychological aspects of his work, the way he portrays human psychology. I continue to be confused by this, as it seems he only wants to portray one slice of psychology, and the world of his novels is so swallowed up in that slice that it appears to be the whole. I think a fair argument could be made that psychological crises are especially formative or important (Dmitri’s “I’ve found out more in this one cursed night than I’d have learned in twenty years of living…!”), but there is certainly more to life than the times you feel like you have brain fever—that is to say, when you don’t feel like “yourself” at all.

Dmitri’s current brain fever stems from his desire for Agrafena Alexandrovna. He is an odd duck, but I want to fight for him when he is mocked so badly for imagining a happy future life together with Grushenka:

Then, oh, then a totally new life would begin at once! He dreamed of this other, this renewed and now “virtuous” life (“it must, it must be virtuous”) ceaselessly and feverishly. He thirsted for this resurrection and renewal. The vile bog he had gotten stuck in of his own will burdened him too much, and, like a great many men in such cases, he believed most of all in a change of place: if only it weren’t for these people, if only it weren’t for these circumstances, if only one could fly away from this cursed place—then everything would be reborn! That was what he believed in and what he longed for.

Dostoevsky and, to a lesser extent, the narrator, scorn the idea that man alone can accomplish the salvation Dmitri wants. Humans forgiving other humans for their sins won’t cut it. Dmitri’s pathetic belief in that possibility gets him knocked down more than a few pegs. But can Dostoevsky really be so transparent? All his talk of forgiveness and who can forgive what of whom and how it all adds up to happiness and virtue seems so obviously and explicit.

What interests me most about the developments in Part III is how they relate to traditional mystery narratives. I don’t know enough yet to say much, but everything feels tilted by the fact that we’re spending time with someone we’re absolutely certain didn’t do it and not in any way attempting to investigate who did, except by what seem to be casual mentions by the narrator. Perhaps it’s because the narrator thwarts much that would normally build suspense by dropping facts and saying he’ll explain them later, then going back and filling things in for us, but the reader’s mental investigation of the crime does not build in the normal way either.


Thanks to Dolce Bellezza for hosting the Brothers Karamazov readalong, now in its third week. Visit her blog for more posts on Part III.

“Reason is a scoundrel, stupidity is direct and honest.”

Since I posted last week about miracles, I wanted to note a few more times they came up in Part II. First, Madame Khokhlakov, the “lady of little faith” from the audience with Zosima, tells Alexei about how the elder’s prophecy from the day before came true, “even literally, and even more than that.” Not only did the old lady receive word that her son was well, she found out he would be coming home in just three weeks. Madame Khokhlakov is insistent that the miracle “must be made known to everyone, everyone!” When Father Paissy hears of the miracle, he wants to keep quiet about it “until we have more confirmation, for there is much frivolousness among people in the world, and this incident also may have taken place naturally.” But the narrator notes that he does not really believe “in his own reservation.” It’s as though even in front of his brothers Father Paissy wants to appear to be an unbelieving realist, just on the outside, just for a moment, but the faith that causes him to believe in the miracle can’t quite allow it.

The other example comes from Ivan, at the end of his “getting acquainted” with Alexei. The so-called rationalist or atheist tells his younger brother:

[L]et this [eternal harmony and forgiveness], let all of this come true and be revealed, but I do not accept it and do not want to accept it! Let the parallel lines even meet before my own eyes: I shall look and say, yes, they meet, and still I will not accept it. That is my essence, Alyosha, that is my thesis.

Here Ivan proves himself not to be the unbelieving realist who the narrator says “will always find in himself the strength and ability not to believe in miracles as well, and if a miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact, he will sooner doubt his own senses than admit the fact.” Ivan does not doubt his senses or refuse to admit what he sees, no matter how outrageous. If parallel lines meet, he will admit it—but he won’t accept it. Yesterday in her comments section Bellezza described Ivan as “so cerebral”, as opposed to “emotional based.” In fact it is this habit of Ivan’s, of admitting things and refusing to “accept” them, that makes him strike me as unreasonable, irrational, and emotional. What can it even mean, “I admit it, but I don’t accept it,” other than an expression of anger, or fear, or what have you? And this, to me, so far at least, is the essence of Ivan’s character.

I suggested the other night a trilemma of “confused, unimaginative, or malicious” to explain Dostoevsky’s representation of Ivan. My uncharitable reading is malicious: Ivan would look Dostoevsky’s kingdom of heaven on earth straight on and say, “I admit it, but I do not accept it!” Men like him are the recalcitrant middle children of Russia who simply won’t say yes to the eternal harmony of brotherhood and have to make everyone so uncomfortable and unhappy in the process.

The Brothers Karamazov: “it is on him that the structure is being built”

One of the things I’ve been exploring for as I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky’s concern with privacy, which first came to my attention when I was reading Gogol. There are certainly instances of it here, for example when Alyosha offers money to Captain Snegiryov, who “suddenly became ashamed that he had shown me his whole soul like that.” But what I find more of is quite the opposite.

I still have not unpacked entirely the Grand Inquisitor, but one of the issues that comes up there as well as in the “Life of the Elder Zosima” has to do with freedom (or, I should say, “freedom”), individuality, unity, brotherhood, and all that jazz. While this has never before struck me as a major Christian concern, it was definitely something important in Tolstoy’s Confession as well as here. Perhaps it is a concern of the “real Russians” Alyosha speaks of, along with the existence of God and immortality.

Ivan, who rejects the world God created, still has the “childlike conviction that the sufferings will be healed and smoothed over, that the whole offensive comedy of human contradictions will disappear like a pitiful mirage, a vile concoction of man’s Euclidean mind, feeble and puny as an atom, and that ultimately, at the world’s finale, in the moment of eternal harmony, there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, all bloodshed….” But again, he does not accept this conviction, despite the fact that he has it.

Everyone else has it too, but they accept it. The “positive” messages from Alyosha and the elder Zosima are ones of unity and against individualism and freedom. Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor asserts that “They will finally understand that freedom and earthly bread in plenty for everyone are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share among themselves.” Economically unsound, let’s just say. He also asserts that “all that man seeks on earth” is “someone to bow down to, someone to take over his conscience, and a means for uniting everyone at last into a common, concordant, and incontestable anthill—for the need for universal union is the third and last torment of men.”

The elder Zosima’s mysterious visitor likewise says:

Until one has indeed become the brother of all, there will be no brotherhood. No science or self-interest will ever enable people to share their property and their rights among themselves without offense. Each will always think his share too small, and they will keep murmuring, they will envy and destroy one another. You ask when it will come true. It will come true, but first the period of human isolation must conclude. …For everyone now strives most of all to separate his person, wishing to experience the fullness of life within himself, and yet what comes of all his efforts is not the fullness of life but full suicide, for instead of the fullness of self-definition, they fall into complete isolation. For all men in our age are separated into units, each seeks seclusion in his own hole, each withdraws from the others, hides himself, and hides what he has, and ends by pushing himself away from people and pushing people away from himself.

Well, here is the privacy, but it’s a flaw. We have to overcome the privacy for brotherhood. Also, this is practically straight out of Tolstoy’s Confession, with its obsession with brotherhood and idea that isolation is suicide.

The elder Zosima himself says, “The world has proclaimed freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide!” I would say “freedom is slavery,” but do I really have to?

So since this is, as they say, a novel of ideas, I’ll just get down to it: the ideas are entirely uncongenial to me, if not incomprehensible. And I don’t think any of it really holds up if you aren’t already a Christian.* This brotherhood everyone is on about—no one bothers to explain why it is good or desirable; why isn’t this “universal” need for unity instead a weakness? Further, it is only possible through God and Jesus. The Grand Inquisitor and Zosima recognize that man is fallen and that as such is in a period of isolation, unable to share and love each other actively. It takes Christ to make all this come to pass.

But from outside that perspective, the isolation taken as temporary and undesirable seems more like a simple fact of human nature and the physical constraints of the world. While many would still decry that isolation, find it depressing or what have you, and hope that one day man could achieve brotherhood in some other fashion, there’s no reason it should necessarily be so. It’s not that “all men in our age are separated into units,” but that men are separated into units, period.

It’s also not clear, to an outsider, why all this sharing is so important. Obviously people don’t like it, it makes them unhappy, and they especially don’t want to share their private feelings—Dostoevsky included. Sharing his sin is redemptive for the mysterious visitor, but he is a believer and living under extremes of irrational human self-torture. He must believe that he can be forgiven by people other than whom he has wronged. Perhaps without that belief we are simply doomed to a certain degree of human self-torture, but again, that just seems like a fact of human nature and the nature of the world.

I don’t like when a major part of my reaction to a novel is “I disagree with your ideas, which are unsupported.” But I’m clearly having trouble breaking into Dostoevsky any other way.

*Neither does half of what Ivan says; I can’t believe anyone thinks the man is an atheist as he does not seem to have really considered Christianity as anything other than true.

“Something shapeless, and impossible to understand as well.”

Now to look at one of those messy monologues I complained about yesterday: Ivan Fyodorovich on the merits of ecclesiastical courts. He believes the state of the world would be much improved if criminals were excommunicated rather than confined or executed. As Father Paissy says, “the Church ought to be transforming itself into the state, from a lower to a higher species,” and if that were to happen criminals would have a much greater deterrent. According to Ivan, “[t]ime and again…the criminal of today says to himself” that “‘I stole…but I have not gone against the Church, I am not an enemy of Christ.'” Exile and hard labor don’t reform criminals, but they would be reformed if they were dealt with by the Church:

If anything protects society even in our time, and even reforms the criminal himself and transforms him into a different person, again it is Christ’s law alone, which manifests itself in the acknowledgment of one’s own conscience. Only if he acknowledges his guilt as a son of Christ’s society—that is, of the Church—will he acknowledge his guilt before society itself—that is, before the Church. Thus, the modern criminal is capable of acknowledging his guilt before the Church alone, and not before the state. If it were so that judgment belonged to society as the Church, then it would know whom to bring back from excommunication and reunite with itself. But now the Church, having no active jurisdiction but merely the possibility of moral condemnation alone, withholds from actively punishing the criminal of its own accord.

Ivan’s monologue is, I would say characteristically for Dostoevsky, bizarre. “Full of ruts and roots and switchbacks and dust.” Unpacking it, I took a cue from its own hint, late in this passage, of “society as the Church.” What if we just tightened it up a bit?

If anything protects society even in our time, and even reforms the criminal himself and transforms him into a different person, again it is Christ’s law alone, which manifests itself in the acknowledgment of one’s his own conscience. Only if he acknowledges his guilt as a son of Christ’s member of society—that is, of the Church—will he acknowledge his guilt before society itself—that is, before the Church. Thus, the modern criminal is capable of acknowledging his guilt before the Church society alone, and not before the state. If it were so that judgment belonged to society as the Church, then it would know whom to bring back from excommunication and reunite with itself. But now the Church society, having no active jurisdiction but merely the possibility of moral condemnation alone, withholds from actively punishing the criminal of its own accord.

Wielding this red pen I uncover the real conflict at the heart of the issue. The Church represents society, and when that relationship is made transparent, it is society that stands in stark contrast to the state. Thus the Russian state does not represent society, the vast gulf between the two illustrated here through the issue of ecclesiastical courts, which would (at least according to our several interlocutors) represent society and, in doing so, would bring justice and reform to the country. Which the state—now de-legitimized—has no hope of doing.

Also, note that while the state holds this illegitimate monopoly on justice, society fails to do its part and looks on complacently as criminals are ineffectively punished and fail to reform. Tsarist Russia’s corrupt political system has corrupted civil society as well.

I can only clear up the mess for a moment, though, because on the next page Ivan Fyodorovich reveals the context-dependency of his solution: “Russian criminals still have faith. Though who knows: perhaps a terrible thing would happen then—the loss of faith, perhaps, would occur in the desperate heart of the criminal, and what then?” Then neither the state nor the Church can legitimately represent society…and what then?

The Brothers Karamazov: believing is seeing

There has been a terribly interesting, for me at least, discussion going on in the comments at Wuthering Expectations about Dostoevsky’s narrator in The Brothers Karamazov and his weakness compared with the other characters: “The non-omniscient omniscient narrator has no more understanding of anyone else than does, for example, the reader. The art of Dostoevsky is centered on the monologues.”

I agree, and the effect on me is also to think Dostoevsky was not fully in control, that “characters are in control of their own selves, their ideas.” I am putting this down on the list of Reasons I Have Trouble with Dostoevsky. It is these messy confessional mystical outpourings, held together with…what?

With my mind on the general weakness and blandness of the narrator, then, I was surprised to note that several of the passages that interested me enough to flag them during my reading involved that narrator alone. In particular, passages that deal with themes (presumably, as I’m only through Part I) central to the novel—the nature of faith, realism, and miracles—and usually reserved for the monologues of (thus far) Ivan Fyodorovich, Pyotr Alexandrovich, the elder Zosima, and the others. Here, for example, after his warning that the novice Alyosha is not “sickly” or “ecstatic” but “red-cheeked”:

[I]t seems to me that Alyosha was even more of a realist than the rest of us. Oh, of course, in the monastery he believed absolutely in miracles, but in my opinion miracles will never confound a realist. It is not miracles that bring a realist to faith. A true realist, if he is not a believer, will always find in himself the strength and ability not to believe in miracles as well, and if a miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact, he will sooner doubt his own senses than admit the fact. And even if he does admit it, he will admit it as a fact of nature that was previously unknown to him. In the realist, faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith. Once the realist comes to believe, then, precisely because of his realism, he must also allow for miracles. The Apostle Thomas declared that he would not believe until he saw, and when he saw, he said: “My Lord and my God!” Was it the miracle that made him believe? Most likely not, but he believed first and foremost because he wished to believe, and maybe already fully believed in his secret heart even as he was saying: “I will not believe until I see.”

This description of a realist’s reaction to miracles will be recalled shortly after, when the narrator reports on the elder’s audience with the “women of faith,” the first of whom is a “shrieker,” like Alyosha’s mother. The narrator explains his road to understanding the (temporary) healing of shriekers:

[W]hen the chalice was brought out, and they were led up to the chalice, the “demonic possession” would immediately cease and the sick ones would always calm down for a time. As a child, I was greatly struck and astonished by this. And it was then that I heard from some landowners and especially from my town teachers, in answer to my questions, that it was all a pretense in order to avoid work, and that it could always be eradicated by the proper severity, which they confirmed by telling various stories. But later on I was surprised to learn from medical experts that there is no pretense in it, that it is a terrible woman’s disease that seems to occur predominantly in our Russia, that it is a testimony to the hard lot of our peasant women, caused by exhausting work too soon after difficult, improper birth-giving without any medical help, and, besides that, by desperate grief, beatings, and so on, which the nature of many women, after all, as the general examples show, cannot endure. This strange and instant healing of the frenzied and struggling woman the moment she was brought to the chalice, which used to be explained to me as shamming and, moreover, almost as a trick arranged by the “clericals” themselves—this healing occurred, probably, also in a very natural way: both the women who brought her to the chalice and, above all, the sick woman herself, fully believed, as an unquestionable truth, that the unclean spirit that possessed the sick woman could not possibly endure if she, the sick woman, were brought to the chalice and made to bow before it. And therefore, in a nervous and certainly also mentally ill woman, there always occurred (and had to occur), at the moment of her bowing before the chalice, and inevitable shock, as it were, to her whole body, a shock provoked by expectation of the inevitable miracle of healing and by the most complete faith that it would occur. And it would occur, even if only for a moment. That is just what happened now, as soon as the elder covered the woman with his stole.

The narrator approaches the miracle of healing like an unbelieving realist. At first he does not believe in the miracle, just as above, and doubts the reality of the outward display he sees at mass. But when the “miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact,” that is, when he learns from doctors that this nervous disease is real (and thus that its cure must also be real), he admits it as “a fact of nature that was previously unknown to him.” And what is that fact of nature but the very fact he stated above: that miracle follows from belief. The miracle of healing is real because the women believe in miracles; they are healed, through natural means, because of their faith in the supernatural. Faith itself creates psychosomatic effects which in turn permit the realist to continue as a realist, “believing” in miracles only as natural phenomena.

Is he, then an unbelieving realist? The narrator may not give us messy confessions, but he doesn’t give us nothing either.


This is the first week of the Brothers Karamazov read-along hosted by Dolce Bellezza. Check out more posts on Part I.

Epistolarity in Poor Folk

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.

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.)

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.