Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Reading in Russia

 | 
Damiano Rebecchini
, 
Raffaella Vassena

Dostoevsky’s Poor People: Reading as if for Life

Robin Feuer Miller

Résumé

From the first of Dostoevsky’s fictions, Poor People (1846) to his last, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), acts of reading and misreading have functioned as primary vehicles for characters’ efforts to both understand and, whether deliberately or inadvertently, to misrepresent themselves and others. Poor People, a short novel in the already outdated epistolary form re-emerges in our present era of email, twitter and other social media as a starkly modern work in which the two primary characters, near neighbors, literally read each other in preference to being in each other’s company. The virtual clashes with and endeavors to supersede the actual. Is Poor People an account of the relationship between a meek character or a would-be petty tyrant and a helpless young woman or a resourceful, pragmatic one? Or is the basic unit of personality a protean one? Poor People provokes fundamental questions and contradictory responses in its readers in the same way as do Dostoevsky’s other important works. Dostoevsky has long been recognized as a master of doubling, whether through narrative devices, plot motifs or through representation of character. Those that occur in Poor People put forth a unique quartet of doublings and interactions between the virtual and the real that, far from seeming outdated as they did several decades ago, now seem unusually fresh and relevant.

Texte intégral

Finally the coffin was shut, nailed up, placed in the drayman’s cart and hauled away... The old man ran after him, weeping loudly, his weeping shaken and punctuated by his wailing. The poor fellow had lost his hat and had not stopped to pick it up. His hair was sodden with rain... The sleet was lashing and stinging his face... The skirts of his threadbare coat fluttered in the wind like wings. Books peeped from every one of his pockets; in his arms he was carrying an enormous tome, to which he clung tightly. Passers-by would remove their hats and cross themselves.
(Varvara Dobroselova’s description of Old Pokrovsky at his son’s funeral, from her autobiography in Poor People)

  • 1 Despite the datedness of the epistolary form, Joseph Frank has pointed out that “nothing is more im (...)

1From the first of Dostoevsky’s fictions, Poor People (1846) to his last, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), acts of reading and misreading have functioned as primary vehicles for characters’ efforts to both understand and, whether deliberately or inadvertently, to misrepresent themselves and others. Poor People, a short novel in the already outdated eighteenth-century epistolary form re-emerges in our present era of email, twitter and other social media as a starkly modern work in which the two primary characters, near neighbors, literally read each other in preference to being in each other’s company.1 The virtual clashes with and endeavors to supersede the actual.

  • 2 Todd 1997: 37-39. Todd writes about the “widespread obsession with literature as a activity” in the (...)

2The novice Dostoevsky was defining himself in a literary landscape in which writers passed the time reading themselves and others aloud. Reading aloud Belinsky’s letter to Gogol at a literary circle was enough to send Dostoevsky to Siberia. The more rarified atmosphere of the literary salon described so well by William Mills Todd III had given way in the 1840s to somewhat more unruly, more ubiquitous reading circles.2 For us today reading is a largely private activity or it takes place at occasional, more formalized “readings” and “slams”; for Dostoevsky and his contemporaries in the 1840s it could frequently be as social as it was private. In this essay I shall revisit a famous anecdote about Dostoevsky’s “discovery” as well as certain well-known episodes in Poor People, reframing and recasting them with a view toward learning what they can tell us not about Dostoevsky, Nekrasov and Belinsky or even Devushkin’s readings of Pushkin and Gogol, but rather about acts of reading in a more general context.

3First, consider Dostoevsky’s well-known account in The Diary of a Writer (January, 1877) of his “discovery” some thirty years earlier by Nekrasov and Belinsky: Grigorovich persuades the young Dostoevsky, who had “no contacts in literature at all,” to bring Nekrasov his manuscript:

  • 3 See Dostoevskii 1972-1990, vol. 25: 28-29 and Dostoevsky 1994, vol. 2: 840. Subsequent references w (...)

I brought the manuscript, saw Nekrasov for a minute, and we shook hands. I was embarrassed at the thought that I had come with my work and left quickly, having said scarcely a word to Nekrasov […] On the evening of the day I handed over the manuscript, I went off to visit an old friend who lived some distance away; we spent the whole night talking about Dead Souls and reading the work – I can’t remember how many times we had read it before. This is what young people did in those days; two or three would get together: “Why don’t we read Gogol, gentlemen!” And they would sit down and read, perhaps all through the night. Many, many of the young people of the day seemed to be filled with a spirit of some sort and seemed to be awaiting something.3

4The narrative continues – Dostoevsky relates how, after a night of reading aloud, he had arrived back home at four in the morning, “on a St. Petersburg ‘white night,’ as bright as day.” And what happens? His doorbell rings – his visitors? Another group of readers!

Suddenly the bell rang, giving me a great start, and then Grigorovich and Nekrasov, in utter rapture and both almost in tears, burst in to embrace me. They had come home early the evening before, taken up my manuscript, and begun to read it to see what it was like: “We’ll be able to tell from the first ten pages.” But when they had read ten pages they decided to read ten more; and then, without putting it down, they sat up the whole night reading aloud, taking turns as one grew tired. “When he was reading about the death of the student,” Grigorovich told me later when we were alone, “I suddenly noticed that at the point where the father was running after the coffin, Nekrasov’s voice broke; it happened once, and again, and suddenly he couldn’t restrain himself; he slapped the manuscript and exclaimed, ‘Ah, the so-and-so!’ He meant you, of course. And so we kept on all night.” When they had finished (there were 112 pages (seven printer’s sheets) in all!) the two of them agreed they must come see me at once (25: 29; Diary, 2: 841).

5Luckily, as we have seen, that other all-night reader, Dostoevsky, had just arrived home from his own reading-aloud marathon.

  • 4 B. N. Mironov reports that the literacy rate in Russia for 1850 was 19% for men and 10% for women. (...)
  • 5 Dickens 1981: 53. At a low point in his childhood, the abused and neglected David Copperfield begin (...)

6Despite the abysmally low literacy rates in Russia of the 1840s, the literate seemed to read feverishly and as often as possible.4 Poor People paints a vivid picture, not of the intellectual readers of Dostoevsky’s set – the serious, would-be authors and the already famous ones interacting – but of reading amongst clerks and seamstresses, drunks and starving tutors. Poor People’s characters “read as if for life,”5 and for them, the reading of words – not only the words of the Bible, but of a hodgepodge of other texts as well as their own written words prove to be as necessary to them in their dire poverty as bread.

  • 6 See Dostoevskii 1972-1990, vol. 18: 70-104, and “Mr. – bov and the Question of Art,” Dostoevsky 197 (...)
  • 7 For a fuller discussion of this subject see my chapter, “Conversion, Message, Medium, Transformatio (...)

7Upon Dostoevsky’s return in 1859 from his ten year sojourn in Siberia as a convict and a soldier reduced to the ranks, he wrote an impassioned series of articles advocating the importance of peasant literacy and freedom of choice of reading materials rather than trying to control the reading of the newly literate through suitable “readers.” “Mr. – bov and the Question of Art” is the most famous of the articles on literacy.6 But Poor People already makes a similar case for universal literacy and freedom of choice in what one reads – with more nuance and passion – a decade earlier. Dostoevsky’s fiction frequently makes the same points his journalism advocates directly, but it does so with more nuance, indirection and persuasiveness. Few people today read “Mr – bov” or his other worthy essays on the importance of literacy, but Poor People has endured.7 The midnight oil burned in Russia’s ubiquitous reading circles not just for Dostoevsky and his ilk but for readers living in corners and in kitchens, provided they could read.

8Dostoevsky’s reminiscence of this white night of reading continues: on that momentous early dawn, the encounter among Dostoevsky, Grigorovich and Nekrasov went on into the morning. “They spent about a half-hour with me then, and in that half-hour we discussed God knows how many things; we spoke of poetry and of truth and of the ‘current situation,’ and of Gogol too, of course, quoting from The Inspector General and Dead Souls; but mainly we spoke of Belinsky” (25: 29; Diary, 2: 841). Dostoevsky then describes how Nekrasov brought the manuscript straight to Belinsky with the words, “A new Gogol has appeared!” “‘You find Gogols springing up like mushrooms,’ Belinsky [had] remarked sternly.” Upon Nekrasov’s return to Belinsky’s place that evening, however, he found that Belinsky had already read it. “Bring him here; bring him here as soon as you can” (25: 30; Diary, 2: 842). And so begins a second sleepless night of reading.

  • 8 Freud 1962: 98.

9Every student of Russian literature knows this lovely, partly apocryphal story of the discovery of Dostoevsky; it is a parable in its way of the deep appreciation Russia had for its writers. “A new Gogol has appeared”; one generation of writers welcomes the next into the folds of its overcoat. But this anecdote is equally a tale about reading – reading aloud, dropping everything to read something new, reading with hunger and devotion. Belinsky, in his praise to Dostoevsky of his story, focuses on the moment when Devushkin’s button falls off in front of his supervisor, discovering there a moment of tragic horror. He asks Dostoevsky, “have you yourself comprehended all the terrible truth that you have shown us?” (25: 30; Diary, 2: 842). He tells Dostoevsky that people like Belinsky himself, “critics and journalists,” try to awaken their readers to the social horrors surrounding them, but that Dostoevsky with single images like his copy-clerk’s wayward button “touches the very essence of the matter […] in a single instantaneous image that is tangible, so that the most unthinking reader suddenly understands everything! That is the secret of art; that is truth in art” (25: 30-31; Diary, 2: 843)! In Belinsky’s view (as refracted by Dostoevsky), an artist’s rendering of a button can stir a reader to action more powerfully than the persuasive rhetoric of a thinker or social activist. One can almost hear Freud some seventy years later saying, “before the problem of the creative artist, analysis must, alas, lay down its arms.”8

  • 9 In a paper delivered in November, 2012 at the ASEEES meeting in New Orleans, Berman designated the (...)

10Before considering Makar Devushkin and Varvara Dobroselova as readers both of themselves and of each other, it is useful to take stock of the general milieu of reading we encounter in Poor People. The space of this short novel is crowded with impoverished, nearly destitute readers – reading grammars, almanacs, journals, autobiographies, letters, stories, satires, poems, novels – both actual and fictive, that is, written by other characters. I will designate these fictive works as “secondary works,” peopled with “secondary characters.”9 The characters of Poor People – most on the edge of irremediable, dire poverty – are as busily writing and reading as their more prosperous and respectable counterparts. Writing and reading in the poverty-stricken urban underworld Dostoevsky creates are not simply leisure activities; they are as essential as food, shelter, money and work. Man does not live by bread alone but, for better or worse, by the written word. He defines himself by it.

11It is no surprise that the young Dostoevsky was himself at this same time writing and reading in a similar way. He writes numerous feverish letters about all kinds of literature during this period. In a single letter of 24 March, 1845, for example, he describes, as he often does, his literary thoughts, his progress in writing, and the degree of his financial woe and debt, to his brother Mikhail:

  • 10 Dostoevskii 1972-1990, vol. 28/1: 106; and Dostoevsky 1988a: 106-107 (Letter to Mikhail Dostoevsky, (...)

And now about food! You know, brother, that in this regard I am left to my own resources. But no matter what, I have sworn that even if things reach the point of desperation, I will stand firm and won’t write to order... Perhaps you want to know what I do when I’m not writing – I read. I read a terrible lot, and reading acts on me strangely. I’ll read something again that I’ve long since read and reread, and I seem to acquire new energy, to go deeply into everything, to understand distinctly, and I myself extract the ability to create.10

12Poor People addresses subtle questions about what it means to be a reader, why we read, and the moments when writing and reading merge. But what are these characters actually reading? The novel begins with an epigraph about reading from Vladimir Odoevsky’s 1839 story “The Living Corpse”:

  • 11 Dostoevskii 1972-1990, vol. 1: 13; and Dostoevsky 1988b: 3. This epigraph comes from V. F. Odoevsky (...)

Oh, those storytellers! They can’t rest content with writing something useful, agreeable, palatable – they have to dig up all the earth’s most cherished secrets!… I’d forbid them to write, that’s what I’d do! I mean, have you ever known the like? A man reads… and finds himself reflecting – and before he knows where he is, all kinds of rubbish come into his head. I’d forbid them to write, truly I would; forbid them to write altogether!11

  • 12 For further discussion of the subtleties of this epigraph and how it contributes to polyphony of Do (...)

13As with all Dostoevsky’s subsequent epigraphs, however, the epigraph (although it constitutes the words of another author) seems to be the only moment when Dostoevsky speaks directly to his readers.12 Thus we, the readers of the novel, are asked to contemplate its significance in the light of what is to follow. The epigraph does not emanate from the correspondence between Devushkin and Varvara, and so, in that sense, does not count as part of the world of their reading, although for us it soon melds with Devushkin’s literary insights.

14Devushkin’s first letter to Varvara abounds with literary references, much of it to now forgotten popular literature of the time. He tells Varvara that he is reading a book that makes similar comparisons to his own wish to live as free as a bird. Its (unknown) author writes, “Why am I not a bird, a bird of prey?” In addition to this unnamed work of poetry, Devushkin throws out allusions that constitute a motley literary grab-bag: the story of Noah’s Ark and Homer are referenced, as is Baron Brambeus – the pseudonym for O. I. Senkovsky, the editor of the conservative The Library of Reading – a journal popular, as Gogol himself had noted, among civil servants and other less well-educated readers. Devushkin himself clearly does not know all these at first-hand, but he is proud to report that his fellow lodger, “a civil servant” who “works in the literary department somewhere” does (1: 16; 5-6).

15In swift succession in other letters follow references to Pegasus, to the merits of Lomond’s French grammar versus Zapolsky’s, to an “ancient, semi-decomposed, utterly worm-eaten treatise in Latin,” to Theresa and Faldoni, the eponymous characters in the novel by the French writer N. G. Leonard that had been translated into Russian in 1824, to the many (unnamed) books Petenka Pokrovsky had lovingly acquired and had lent to Varvara, to the complete eleven-volume collection of Pushkin’s works, to the bookstalls of Gostiny Dvor where old Pokrovsky rummaged through numerous folios, songbooks and almanacs, and to his money wrapped in a greasy scrap of newspaper. Aside from the pivotal centers of “The Stationmaster” and “The Overcoat” which form the literary nexus of Poor People, and which have tended to be the focus of critical readings of this work, the characters are also engaged with the popular and scandalous French novelist Paul de Kock, the villainous Lovelace from Richardson’s Clarissa, and the journal The Bee. There are also Ratazyayev’s “secondary fictions and characters,” Italian Passions, Yermak and Suleika and an “extract” from a humorous-satirical work of his as well. Devushkin himself contemplates writing The Poems of Makar Devushkin, but realizes that as soon as (his) book appeared, “I should certainly not dare to show my face on the Nevsky Prospekt […]. Well, what would happen if everyone found out that the author Devushkin’s boots were covered in patches”(1: 53; 55)? The world of these poor people teems with printed matter.

16Devushkin’s reading of Pushkin’s “The Stationmaster” is transformative. On July 1, Devushkin confesses to Varvara that thus far he has read little:

  • 13 McDuff points out that The Picture of Man, an Edifying Treatise on Aspects of for All the Educated (...)

Very little, practically nothing: The Picture of Man, a clever book; The Little Bell-ringer, and The Cranes of Ibicus, that is all, I have never read any more than that. Now I have read “The Stationmaster” […] let me tell you […] it can happen that one spends one’s life not realizing that right at one’s side there is a book in which one’s entire life is set forth as if on the ends of one’s fingers […] when I read this one, 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 […] I really think I should have written it in the same way; why shouldn’t I have written it? After all, I have the same feelings, exactly the same ones as are described in the book”(1: 58-60; 62-63).13

  • 14 Recall Northrop Frye’s observation: “It has been said of Boehme that his books are like a picnic to (...)

17It is the great writers – the finest stories – that, for better and for worse, indelibly pierce Devushkin’s heart and transform his existence. No matter that Devushkin misreads Pushkin’s story; his entire being has been moved and uplifted. The artist’s intention is secondary to the response of the reader; the work of art lives its own life in the world.14

18In brief, this is the literary milieu that encases the correspondence between Devushkin and Varvara. Although both write to convey the narratives of their lives, Devushkin is, above all, struggling to discover his own writing style. Presentation of self means nearly everything to him. Devushkin is aware that his search for style leads him to a kind of verbosity. When he and Varvara do finally have an outing together, he delights in the concise manner in which she then represents it in a letter. He writes to her on June 12, “I was thinking you were going to describe everything we saw yesterday in proper verses, yet all you have produced is one single small sheet of prose […] [but] it is none the less uncommonly well and pleasingly described […] Even though I fill ten pages with my scribbling nothing comes of it. I am unable to describe anything […] but when a man reads the kind of thing you write, his heart is moved, and then various painful thoughts come into mind” (1: 46; 46). As we will see, however, this kind of reading – when the heart is moved and painful thoughts come to mind – becomes increasingly fraught with danger for Devushkin once he encounters Gogol. Pushkin may have been bearable, but Gogol is not. Nevertheless, her letter to him of June 11th inspires him to tell her about his life and, from the age of seventeen onward, his experiences of having been bullied. “And it was not enough that they made me into a watchword, into a term of abuse almost – they latched on to my boots, my uniform, my hair, the shape of my body” (1: 47; 47).

19Devushkin proclaims himself to be living at what he characterizes as “double intensity,” because his Varenka is so nearby and because he is being invited to the literary evenings in his lodging. Both these intensities have reading at their core. He reads not only Varvara’s letters, but her appearances at her window – and whether her curtain is drawn or open. To his delight there is a reading circle of sorts right in his lodgings: “We are going to read literature” (1: 49; 50). Devushkin’s attendance at the literary evenings in his own apartment, led by Ratazyaev, indoctrinate him with a panoply of opinions that offer us a humorous glimpse into the clichés of the 1840s, which are, ironically, not so different from our own platitudes as we struggle to convince our universities of the importance of literary studies. Devushkin earnestly explains to Varvara why the reading of literature is so important: “Oh, literature is a wonderful thing, Varenka, a very wonderful thing. I discovered that from being with those people […]. It is a profound thing! It strengthens people’s hearts and instructs them, and – there are various other things about it all in a little book they have […]. Literature is a picture, or rather, in a certain sense both a picture and a mirror; it is an expression of emotion, a subtle form of criticism, a didactic lesson and a document” (1: 51; 52).

  • 15 Todd describes the controversy over the “commercialization” of writing. Shevyrev “led the charge ag (...)

20These lofty, aesthetic and moral considerations quickly give way to economic ones. ” Goodness, you should just see how much money they get for it. […]. What effort does it cost [Ratazyayev] to write a printer’s sheet of prose? Indeed, some days he writes five […]. He’ll produce some little anecdote or other, or an account of some curious event […]. I mean, that’s real estate, it’s a capital-investment property” (1: 51-52; 53)!15 To prove his point, Devushkin copies out for Varvara uproarious excerpts from Ratazyaev’s novels Italian Passions and Yermak and Suleika, which Devushkin, awash in confusion, admires. “He writes floridly, in gusts, with figures of speech and all sorts of ideas; it’s very fine!” He urges the skeptical Varenka to try reading him again, “preferably when you’re happy and content and in a good mood, as when, for example, you have a sweet in your mouth – that’s the time you should read it” (1: 56; 59). Should literature delight or instruct? Devushkin seems torn. In either of its guises, Dostoevsky shows us in this first novel, it can have both a positive and a negative effect. Dostoevsky was to continue to explore the myriad ramifications of the double-edged power of literature and art all his life.

  • 16 Dostoevsky describes how “memories arose in my mind of themselves […]. They begin from a certain po (...)

21Devushkin’s ongoing effort to understand himself and represent himself thus plays out more in his conscious search for his own style and less in any more traditional effort to examine and evaluate his past. In the first letter to Varvara, he had told her that his tender expressions of his dreams were taken from a book. But in his second letter to her, he was already rejecting that style. “After all, it does sometimes happen that a person goes astray in his feelings and writes down nonsense […] As regards poetry […] it would not be seemly for a man of my age to engage in the art of writing poems. Poetry is nonsense” (1: 20; 10)! However, when his narrative does veer into recollections of his past, his tone sounds uncannily like Dostoevsky’s decades later at the beginning of “The Peasant Marei” (1876) where Dostoevsky muses upon his own process of artistic creation. Fact and fancy blend, and Dostoevsky allows himself to “correct” his memories.16 Even Dostoevsky’s memories of Belinsky’s and Nekrasov’s discovery of Dostoevsky through his Poor People are subject to a similar blending of fact and fancy. He reports, “I recall the moment with the most complete clarity. And never could I forget it thereafter. It was the most delightful moment of my entire life. Recalling it while in prison used to strengthen my spirit. Even now, I recall it each time with delight” (25: 31; Diary, 2: 843).

  • 17 Varvara’s insights on memory throughout her embedded autobiography are keen and worth analyzing in (...)

22Correspondingly, Devushkin writes, “In my memory even the bad things, the things that sometimes vexed me, are somehow cleansed of what was bad and appear to my mind in an attractive light” (1: 20; 11).17 Fact and fancy inevitably blend in memory. But when Devushkin rereads these remarks, he writes to Varvara that he finds his letter to be incoherent, concluding in a P. S., “I can’t write satires about anyone now. I have grown too old […] to show my teeth in vain! People would just laugh at me – as the Russian proverb says, ‘The man who digs a pit for another will end up in it himself’” (1: 21; 12). In this letter of April 8 he has played for Varvara the tripartite role of writer, reader and critic of his own words. Throughout the novel Devushkin searches for a style. Varvara’s approval of it is more important to him than any interaction with her in the real world.

23On July 6, five days after having given Devushkin The Tales of Belkin to read, Varvara sends him Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” The contrast between his impassioned but positive misreading of “The Stationmaster” and his equally passionate reading of “The Overcoat” lies at the very heart of this novel and has been recognized as such by virtually all its readers. Where Devushkin’s identification with Vyrin was manageable – painfully pleasurable – for him, his reading of “The Overcoat” cuts too close to the bone:

After this I can’t live quietly in my own little corner any more […]. So what if I do sometimes walk on tiptoe in order to save my boots where the pavement’s bad? […] Do I look into other people’s mouths to see what they’re eating? […] 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? […] No, Varenka, that person will simply read the story and then demand a sequel to it […]. People can concoct a lampoon about one out of anything at all, anything, and then one’entire public and private life is held up for inspection in the form of literature” (1: 63; 68).

24Devushkin’s fear of exposure is as acute as Golyadkin’s in Dostoevsky’s next work, The Double (1846); he finds himself exposed and shamed by imagining the general public recognition of him in fiction. Although writers may frequently write to provoke a burst of self-recognition in their readers, and readers may read for this experience, such recognition brings Devushkin no catharsis, only horror and shame. His identification with Akaky Akakevich is complete; the line between real life and fiction has vanished. Yet is perhaps Devushkin partly right in his critique? Do more well-off readers go out and purchase overcoats for the poor or do they merely demand a sequel?

  • 18 Consider Belinsky’s remark about another painful moment in the novel – Pokrovsky the funeral of his (...)

25Devushkin’s reading of Gogol unleashes a chain reaction which threatens to destroy him, even as his prose starts to take on the eloquence of Pushkin or Gogol. Unwittingly he is finding that very style he has been seeking but is now too devastated to notice it. Gogol’s Akaky Akakevich, like the knight of the mirrors in Don Quixote, reflects an image of Devushkin that he cannot bear to confront. He becomes overcome with irrational fears of exposure, of invasions of privacy: “The landlady said that the devil had taken up with the infant, and then she called you an indecent name. But all of that was nothing compared to Ratazyayev’s villainous intention of putting you and myself into literature and describing us in an elegant satire” (1: 70; 77). While his reading of Gogol crushes him, our reading about the effects of his reading, even as it moves us, may also make us smile.18 Devushkin’s predictions prove partly right. In his suffering he never realizes that he has found his style, even if he is about to lose Varvara, both virtually and in reality.

26Devushkin and Varvara thus read all manner of written materials, and they read for all manners of reasons, whether for distraction, pleasure, affirmation, self-recognition, or knowledge. For Devushkin in particular, reading has become increasingly fraught with danger; it has burdened him with a degree of self-recognition and shame that is too intense, that can drive him to drink and even be life-threatening. His recognition of himself in Akaky Akakevich is a tragedy that offers him no catharsis. When his superior pities Devushkin in the episode with the vagrant button, Dostoevsky engages in the kind of dual narrative that occurs later in Crime and Punishment when Marmeladov tells his drunken tale of woe to Raskolnikov in the tavern: here, Devushkin, full of shame, describes the incident to Varvara, while the young Dostoevsky manages to render a narrative that is redolent of both Pushkin and Gogol and on a par with each of them. Within Devushkin’s own narrative, the reader may wonder if Devushkin’s superior, His Excellency, might not have been partly influenced by his own reading of “The Overcoat,” as evidenced by his subsequent generosity to Devushkin. If so, Devushkin’s despairing cynicism is partly wrong, “a person [who has] read that story” is indeed ready to buy him new clothes (1: 63; 68). No wonder Nekrasov and Belinsky were euphoric.

27Ironically, Dostoevsky shared the same terror of exposure as did his timid hero – in a letter to his brother of February 1, 1846, he worries that he will be mistaken for his character. Sounding not unlike Devushkin, he renounces any shared voice with him, but finds himself to be a new Gogol:

Poor Folk came out on the 15th. Well, brother! What fierce abuse it met everywhere... There was the Devil only knows what in The Northern Bee […]. They rail at it, rail, and rail at it, but nevertheless read it. (The almanac is being bought up unnaturally, terribly […]). I’ve thrown them all a dog bone! Let them gnaw away – the fools are building my fame […]. Our public has an instinct, as does any crowd, but it lacks education. They don’t understand how one can write in such a style. They’ve gotten used to seeing the author’s mug in everything; I didn’t show mine, however. But they can’t even imagine that it’s Devushkin speaking, and not I, and that Devushkin can’t speak in any other way (28/1: 117; Letters, I: 121-122).

28Devushkin and Varvara exchanged fifty-two letters between April 8 and September 30 of an unnamed year. The final letter, the fifty-third, is written by Devushkin but is not sent. In general these letters – thirty sent by Devushkin, twenty-two by Varenka – portrayed two characters with an obsessive need to narrate their stories in order to craft a version of themselves through words that can render their existence bearable. Devushkin regarded himself as Varvara’s protector against the vile seducer Bykov (and failed to notice any possible overlap between himself and the hated Bykov), whereas Varvara, increasingly pragmatic and succumbing to the allure of material possessions (and, for example, not hesitating to send Devushkin hither and thither to obtain the perfect kind of lace for her wedding gown), ultimately accepts a marriage proposal from Bykov as the best solution to her situation while still making an effort to preserve the sentimental drama of her correspondence with Devushkin. Behind their backs Dostoevsky was able to tell a story to his actual readers in which darker tones emerged: is the sentimental Devushkin a “bird of prey” too? What is the significance of Varvara’s intention to wed the father of the young man she had loved? If she had indeed been seduced by Bykov before the events of the novel began and even possibly been made pregnant by him, the triangle among Bykov, the dead Petenka Pokrovsky and Varvara becomes even more troubling.

29As Devushkin searches increasingly frantically for a style and for Varvara’s approval of it, their interaction becomes a prototype of those internet courtships where one party wishes to avoid actually meeting the other even through skype. He is loath to wave at her from his window or to cross the courtyard to her apartment; he sees her only on rare occasions. He fears her critique of his style more than her actual anger. “Don’t be too hard on my writing, darling; I have no style, Varenka, no style at all. If only I had just a little bit! I write what wanders into my mind, so as to provide you with some diversion. If only I had done some studying, everything would be different” (1: 23-24; 16-17). Yet Devushkin is the skilled narrator of the tragic story of the Gorshkov family, reworked by Dostoevsky later in both Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, as well as of other vivid, yet delicately told anecdotes and vignettes that stand in contradistinction to the lavish and self-deprecating frames and apologies which festoon his letters.

  • 19 Varvara’s inserted autobiography rivals other rich inserted narratives in Dostoevsky’work. It is of (...)

30It is curious that his rendering of the disturbing Gorshkov story and Varvara’s heartrending autobiography with its account of old Pokrovsky and his son’s death, as well as other anecdotes they narrate to each other, go oddly unremarked on by either of them in their letters of reply. As readers of each other, they are selfish; each focuses on details pertinent to themselves; each, despite robust qualities as a narrator and observer, fails to read the other carefully but is, rather, subject to whims, moods and needs of the moment.19 Each responds powerfully to the other, even as they misread or neglect to respond to what seem to be important communications. Devushkin’s misreadings of Varvara are as substantial as his misreading of “The Stationmaster.”

31Devushkin, however, does not misread Akaky Akakevich in “The Overcoat.” Instead, his identification with him becomes so extreme that, as we have seen, he loses track of the fact that he is a reader – he and Akaky are one. Devushkin’s profound identification with Akaky and his ongoing search for style converge. He proposes an improved ending for the story that reflects a desire for his own happy ending. The need for Varvara’s critical approval is temporarily forgotten: “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” (1: 63; 68). His alternate ending suggests a happy resolution to Akaky’s predicament:

It would, however, have been much better not to have left him to die at all, the poor man, but to make his overcoat be found, to have that general find out more about his virtues, invite him into his office, raise him in rank and give him a good hike in salary, so that then, you see, vice would have been punished and virtue would have triumphed […]. That’s how I, for one, would have written it, but the way it is, what’s so special about it, what’s good about it? It’s just a trivial example of vile, everyday life […]. After reading such a book one feels like filing a complaint, Varenka, one feels like filing a formal complaint” (1: 63; 68).

32Belinsky believed that literature like “The Overcoat” could inspire readers to meaningful social action, whereas Dostoevsky, even at the outset of his career, knew that the power a great work could have upon a sensitive reader could also, through an unmediated shock of recognition, drive him to despair.

33Devushkin goes on a drunken binge after his reading and is not seen for four days. Varvara, in a moment of tender reflection, writes to him, “But why did you despair in this fashion and fall into the abyss into which you have fallen” (1: 63-64; 69)? Yet she has not responded at all to his previous letter of July 8 about his devastating experience of reading “The Overcoat.” Instead, she attributes his “fall” to their situation. “Unhappiness is an infectious disease. Poor and unhappy people ought to steer clear of one another, so as not to catch a greater degree of infection. I have brought you unhappiness such as you never experienced earlier in the modest and isolated existence you have led. All this is tormenting me and making me waste away with grief”(1: 64; 70). Ignoring the content of Devushkin’s last letter and neglecting to carefully read Devushkin himself between the lines, Varenka fails to realize that both of them are, at this moment, being mediated by “The Overcoat.” Akaky Akakevich is as much the cause of Devushkin’s drinking bout as is Varvara. Varvara, with her allusion to Devushkin’s previous quiet existence which she has disrupted, has unconsciously placed herself in the role of the overcoat.

34Devushkin’s despair mounts. He tells her, “I have lost all playfulness of feeling” (1: 67; 74). Still reeling under the experience of having read “The Overcoat,” he laments:

The poor man is a severe critic; he looks at God’s world from a different angle, he […] looks about him with a troubled gaze, and listens carefully to every word he overhears – are people talking about him? […] Everyone knows that a poor man is worth less than an old rag, and cannot hope for respect from anyone, whatever they may write, those scribblers, whatever they may write (1: 68; 75)!

35At this point Devushkin as reader has become the content of what he reads – the subject has decomposed into the object – “because, according to their lights, the poor man must be turned inside out; he must have no privacy, no dignity of any kind” (1: 68; 75).

36In contrast, as a writer Devushkin writes to preserve his dignity, to create a bearable narrative of his life, to express his notions of beauty and suffering in the world. He wishes to read for escape and pleasure but is instead undone by the kind of self-recognition great art can engender. This letter closes with a passionate, heartbroken outburst against literature which emerges, because of course Dostoevsky’s voice is orchestrating the whole here, as being perhaps more complex than the debates of the 1860s among Chernyshevsky, Turgenev and Dostoevsky about the relative worth of Shakespeare or a pair of boots: “You said you would send me a book […] Fie upon it, the book […]. What is a book? It is just a fable with faces! Novels are rubbish, too, written as rubbish, merely for idle people to read […] And if they come telling you about some Shakespeare or other […] then be aware that Shakespeare is rubbish, too, it’s all the purest rubbish, and all made simply for the purpose of lampoonery” (1: 70; 77)! When Devushkin laments that even Shakespeare is the “purest rubbish” and that it’s all “lampoonery,” Dostoevsky has created a tragic brand of lampoonery of his own. Devushkin sinks further, writing to Varvara, “My enemies […] what will they say if I go around with no overcoat on? After all, one wears an overcoat for the sake of other people, and the same is true of boots […] listen to me, and not to scribblers and scrawlers” (1: 76; 86).

37Yet he continues to write to her, to “cover sheets with writing, when I ought to be getting shaved.” He writes as if for life. On September 5, shortly before their correspondence is to end on September 30, Devushkin, seemingly without noticing it, describes an encounter with a child on Gorokhovaya Street which offers up a haunting prequel to Dostoevsky’s later story, in The Diary of a Writer, “A Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree” (January, 1876). (I am exploring this connection elsewhere in my work.) Devushkin’s wellcrafted account bristles with the searing impact of his other narratives – the ongoing one throughout the novel of the Gorshkov family or, on September 9, of the loss of his button – or of Varenka’s autobiographical narrative. Devushkin describes the suffering child who is begging by handing out letters:

And what does the poor boy learn from handing out these letters? His heart merely grows hardened; he goes around, runs up to people, begging […]. His child’s heart grows hardened, and the poor frightened boy shivers for nothing in the cold, like a little bird that has fallen out of a broken nest. His arms and legs are frozen; he gasps for breath. The next time you see him, he is coughing; it is not long before illness, like some unclean reptile, creeps into his breast, and when you look again, death is already standing over him in some stinking corner somewhere, and there is no way out, no help at hand […], it’s so agonizing to hear those words, ‘For the love of Christ,’ and to walk on, and give the boy nothing (1: 87; 101).

  • 20 Frank 1976: 146

38Devushkin’s wrenching account of the child continues, but then abruptly, with a disturbing intimacy, candor, and a sly “sideward glance” that seems even to surpass that of his author, Devushkin unexpectedly examines his motives for writing this vignette about the child: “I began describing all this to you partly in order to unburden my heart, but more particularly in order to provide you with an example of the good style of my literary compositions […] I think you will agree […] that my style has improved of late” (1: 88; 102). Engaged in a dialogue with himself, he then asks why he undercuts himself and “take [s] the wind out of his own sails.” His reply: “To use a comparison, perhaps this happens because, like that poor boy who begged me for alms, I myself am bullied and overworked” (1: 88; 102). Taking on the tones of a feuilletonist, he imagines an apartment building in which the residents – poor and rich – are all dreaming, albeit “in different aspects” about boots. “I am here implying […] we are all […] to a certain extent cobblers” (1: 89; 103). Are we in the realm of actual boots or meta-boots? What does it mean to assert that we are all cobblers? Is this analogous to the insight of Dostoevsky’s dreamer in White Nights in which he famously maintained that we are each “artists of our own life” or does this image suggest something else entirely? Devushkin concludes his description by asking Varvara if she imagines he has copied this idea from a book (as he claimed to have done in his first letter). “I didn’t copy this out of any book – so there” (1: 89; 103)! Ironically, in this very instance when Devushkin asserts his originality, Frank discerns the strong influence of the English and French social novels. “This passage about ‘boots’ clearly contains the central social theme of the book, which is Dostoevsky’s variant of the same plea one finds in the French social novel of the 1830s and in Dickens.”20 Nevertheless, this passage, merging the insights of dreamer and flaneur, stands as one of the most haunting and metaphoric in the novel.

39Four days later, on September 9, the incident with the button occurs. When Devushkin, expecting to be fired for his copying error, instead is pitied by his superior and given by him the huge sum of one hundred rubles, it seems that a miracle, a happy ending, like the kind Devushkin would have affixed to “The Overcoat” has occurred. (Gorshkov, too, seems miraculously to be granted a happy ending: a victorious settlement of his lengthy, nearly hopeless lawsuit. Yet on September 18, the very day of his triumph, he dies. The good news has killed him.) As Devushkin heads to bed at the end of this momentous day, he writes to Varvara, “I feel peaceful, very peaceful. Only there is a crack in my soul, and I can hear it trembling, quivering, stirring deep inside me” (1: 94; 110). His soul does indeed crack. Devushkin starts telling strangers about “what His Excellency had done […] I told it all out loud” (1: 95; 112). That is, he makes himself ridiculous. By narrating to others this act of kindness to himself, he inadvertently brings more shame upon himself. Devushkin, Dostoevsky’s first “ridiculous man,” is crushed. Nor is he rescued by God, despite his entreaties to Him.

  • 21 Although Frank reads this final letter of Varvara’s as “a touching expression of to her friend and (...)

40The last several letters of Poor People begin to take the novel in surprising new directions. On September 29, Devushkin tells Varvara that he could spend every minute of the day “just writing to her.” He asks if he could keep her copy of Tales of Belkin, although he is not much interested in reading now. The desire to write has transcended his desire to read. He describes his visit to her now empty apartment, which he hopes to rent. He examines her lace frame and her sewing only to discover that she had begun to wind her thread “around one of [his] miserable letters” (105; 126). This detail evokes Belkin’s housekeeper and seems to indicate that Varvara had already begun to devalue and discard both the actual and the virtual Devushkin sometime earlier than we might expect. In addition he finds an unfinished letter from her which begins, “Makar Alekseevich, Sir, I am in a hurry” – nothing more. Her reply to him the next day, her final letter, is tender yet ambiguous. “I am leaving you the book, my lace-frame, the letter I began, did not write” (106; 126). She suggests that he now continue their correspondence in his imagination. Her unfinished letter, consisting only of that single hurried line, is now to offer a template for his own future writing: “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” (106; 126-127)! She informs him that his letters to her are in the top drawer of the bureau – she has left those behind too. The letter is signed, simply, “V.”21

  • 22 In The Brothers Karamazov (1880), for example, Dmitri imagines several possible courses of action t (...)

41Suddenly the reader of the novel is perhaps presented with a question about the narrative. Have we been reading an actual correspondence between two characters or could Devushkin, in the role of Dostoevsky’s very first dreamer, have created the entire correspondence, filling in the blanks, not just in her final unfinished letter, but everywhere? The evidence of course is weighted toward the former, but the latter possibility, however remote and fantastic, has been introduced.22 Dostoevsky’s fantastic realism has thus appeared, albeit in muted fashion, in his first work.

  • 23 Belknap argues convincingly that we misread Dostoevsky when we look to find suffering is ennobling. (...)

42Devushkin’s final letter to Varvara also raises new questions for the reader. Is it even a letter or is it written to himself? He does not know her address, nor does he sign the letter. He imagines her fate, but is his tone one of tragic sympathy or does he express a certain pleasure in imagining her future suffering and pain?23 “Your little heart will be so sad, so sick and cold […]. Anguish will suck it dry; sadness will split it in two. You will die there, they will put you to rest in the damp earth; there will be no one to shed a tear for you there. Mr. Bykov will be off coursing hares all the time” (107; 127). (His words foreshadow the sadistic vignette the underground man describes to Liza as he imagines what will happen to her if she remains a prostitute, whereas luckily Varenka never reads this final letter.) He then turns his attention upon himself: “To whom am I going to write my letters? […] I have worked, copied documents, walked, strolled, and conveyed to you my observations in the form of friendly letters” (107; 128). What terrifies him most is not her actual absence or the lack of her letters to him, but that if she does not write to him, “this will be my last letter [emphasis added].” It remains inconceivable to him that cessation of their correspondence could come about “so suddenly” (108; 129).

43He returns to what had been his preoccupation from the beginning of their correspondence: to his style. “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 am writing. I’ve absolutely no idea, I know nothing of it, I read none of it over. I never correct my style; I write only in order to write, only in order to write as much as possible to you” (108; 129). Dostoevsky’s subsequent dreamers, solipsists all, were disconnected and isolated enough not to maintain that they needed an actual reader for their writing. Yet Devushkin, the first, most passionate and poorest of Dostoevsky’s dreamers, could not find his voice or his narrative without his reader. In that sense he is the most dialogic of Dostoevsky’s dreamers.

44Is Poor People an account of the relationship between a meek character or a would-be petty tyrant and a helpless young woman or a resourceful, pragmatic one? Or is the basic unit of personality fundamentally a protean one? Dostoevsky’s first published work sets the standard for the dialogic portrayal of character that endures throughout his entire career. Poor People provokes fundamental questions and contradictory responses in its readers in the same way as do Dostoevsky’s other important works. Dostoevsky has long been recognized as a master of doubling, whether through narrative devices, plot motifs or through representation of character. Those that occur in Poor People put forth a unique quartet of doublings and interactions between the virtual and the real that, far from seeming outdated as they did several decades ago, now seem unusually fresh and relevant. Devushkin and Varvara exist as actual characters in their fictional world, they exist as readers of each other – one reading the other’s carefully presented self; they exist as a set of fifty two letters, yet what they each are in essence remains unfixed, with the virtual endlessly colliding with and responding to the actual and vice versa.

45We deduce and construct our images of the actual Makar Alekseevich Devushkin and Varvara Alekseevna Dobroselova through their epistolary self-representations, just as they do. Each, despite mutually bleak circumstances, is more concerned with self-presentation than with straightforward communication. Which of their selves is the most authentic? How does their shared propensity for literary self-representation dovetail with Dostoevsky’s own later writings on the importance of general literacy? What is the significance of their forays into literary criticism, whether of actual texts or imaginary ones? Increasingly we shape ourselves through reading the selves and correspondences we have chosen to create online. Devushkin and Varvara, much like Stepan Trofimovich and Varvara Petrovna several decades later in The Possessed (1872) in their ridiculous but tragic correspondence across the garden or even within the same house, do the same. It is the reader’s job to unravel the plot and to discern, in however kaleidoscopic a fashion, the authentic.

  • 24 Dostoevskii 1972-1990, vol. 15: 193; Dostoevsky 1976: 731.

46Finally, Poor People seems to have had a special connection to Dostoevsky in his role as reader of his own work (an activity which we know he tended to avoid, although he frequently reworked repeatedly certain motifs and episodes in his works). In the excerpts from The Diary of a Writer with which this essay began, Dostoevsky was recalling his own cherished and touched-up memory of his discovery by Nekrasov and Belinsky. Moreover, in The Diary, fragments of Poor People seem to have reconstituted themselves abundantly in “The Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree” (January, 1876), “The Peasant Marei” (February, 1876), “A Gentle Creature” (November, 1876), and “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (March, 1877). Most compellingly, one of the parts of the novel that Nekrasov and Belinsky had been most moved by – Petenka’s funeral at which old Pokrovsky runs after the hearse scattering books, losing his hat as he runs, and awakening the genuine pity of passersby – is reworked by Dostoevsky, shortly before his death, in the final chapter of his last work of fiction: the scene of Iliusha’s funeral in The Brothers Karamazov. Scattered books are replaced by flowers and breadcrumbs, but the scenes are otherwise similar. A pathetic father’s grief over a dead son fills the world. “Snegiryov ran fussing and distracted after the coffin, in his short old summer overcoat, with his head bare and his soft, old, widebrimmed hat in his hand.” Later someone “calls to him to put on his hat as it was cold. But he flung the hat in the snow as though he were angry and kept repeating, ‘I won’t have the hat, I won’t have the hat.’ Smurov picked it up and carried it after him. All the boys were crying.”24 From the beginning until the end of his literary career, even as Dostoevsky grappled with the big questions, he embedded his arguments and brought them to life through everyday details such as boots, breadcrumbs, buttons, hats, and other concrete minutiae of daily life.

47Poor People, brimming with readings and misreadings, offers us collection – a grab bag – of the ways in which literate characters, even those in dire poverty, inhabit a world shaped as much by words as by material necessity. The words these characters create and read infect, confuse, inspire, sustain and define them.

Bibliographie

Belknap R. L., 1982, “The Didactic Plot: The Lesson about Suffering in Poor Folk,” in Actualité de Dostoevskij, a cura dell’Istituto di Slavistica, Istituto Universitario di Bergamo, ed. Nina Kauchtschischwili, Genova, La Quercia Edizioni: 65–79.

—, 1997, “Survey of Russian journals, 1840–1880,” in Literary Journals in Imperial Russia, ed. D. A. Martinsen, Cambridge Studies in Russian Literature, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 91–116.

Berman A., 2012, “Raskolnikov’s Brother: The Major Role of Minor Siblings in Crime and Punishment,” (paper delivered in November, 2012 at the ASEEES meeting in New Orleans).

Dickens C., 1981, David Copperfield, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Dostoevskii F. M., 1972–1990, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh, Leningrad, Nauka.

—, 1976, The Brothers Karamazov, ed. Ralph E. Matlaw, New York, Norton Critical Edition.

—, 1977, Dostoevsky’s Occasional Writings, Trans. and ed. David Magarshack, Evanston, Northwestern University Press.

—, 1988a, Complete Letters: Volume One 1832–1859, Edited and translated by David Lowe and Ronald Meyer, Ann Arbor, Ardis.

—, 1988b, Poor Folk and Other Stories, Translated and with an introduction by David McDuff, London, Penguin Books.

—, 1994, A Writer’s Diary, trans. and annotated by Kenneth Lantz, 2 vols., Evanston, Northwestern University Press.

Frank J., 1976, Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt: 1821–1849, I, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Freud S., 1962, “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” (1927) reprinted in Dostoevsky: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. R. Wellek, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice Hall: 98–111.

Frye N., 1957, Fearful Symmetry, Princeton, Princeton Univ. Press.

Maikov V. N., 1891, Kriticheskie opyty, Sankt-Peterburg.

Miller, Feuer R., 2007, Dostoevsky’s Unfinished Journey, New Haven, Yale University Press.

Mironov B. N., 1999, Sotsial’naia istoriia Rossii perioda imperii (XVIII-nachalo XX v.), Sankt-Peterburg, Izd. Dmitrii Bulanin.

Todd W. M., III, 1997, “Periodicals in literary life of the early nineteenth century,” in Literary Journals in Imperial Russia, ed. D. A. Martinsen, Cambridge Studies in Russian Literature, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 37–63.

Notes

1 Despite the datedness of the epistolary form, Joseph Frank has pointed out that “nothing is more impressive in Poor Folk than the deftness with which Dostoevsky uses the epistolary form to reveal the hidden, unspoken thoughts of his characters; what one reads between the lines of their letters is more important than what appears on the surface – or rather, it is the tension between the spoken and unspoken that gives us the true access to their consciousness” (Frank 1976: 137).

2 Todd 1997: 37-39. Todd writes about the “widespread obsession with literature as a activity” in the first half of the nineteenth century. In another essay in the same volume Robert L. Belknap writes how in the period from 1840-1880, “the journals were a center around which writers would structure their social and literary identity. Groups of like-minded authors and editors […] would read the same books, attend the same lectures and great public occasions, and learn from their colleagues the substance of books they had not read.” (Belknap 1997: 92). Poor People is on the cusp of both these traditions.

3 See Dostoevskii 1972-1990, vol. 25: 28-29 and Dostoevsky 1994, vol. 2: 840. Subsequent references will appear in the text, with the Russian volume and page number preceding the English translation. Frank points out that though this account is well-known, Dostoevsky also “considerably exaggerates and sentimentalizes his own innocence and naiveté.” (Frank 1976: 137). Nevertheless Frank still credits this anecdote’s seminal importance to literary history and points out how it is buttressed by P. V. Annenkov’s less well-known but “graphic account of Belinsky’s enthusiasm”: “I saw him from the courtyard of his house standing at his parlor window and holding a large copybook in his hand, his face showing all the signs of excitement […] ‘Come up quickly, I have something new to tell you about. […] I haven’t been able to tear myself away from it for almost two days now […] Just think of it – it’s the first attempt at a social novel we’ve had, and done, moreover, in the way artists usually do their work; I mean, without themselves suspecting what will come out of it.” (Frank 1976: 137-138).

4 B. N. Mironov reports that the literacy rate in Russia for 1850 was 19% for men and 10% for women. Compare this to rates in the United States respectively of 81% and 76%. See Mironov 1999, vol. 2: 386.

5 Dickens 1981: 53. At a low point in his childhood, the abused and neglected David Copperfield begins to read, as the adult David narrator reports, “as if for life.”

6 See Dostoevskii 1972-1990, vol. 18: 70-104, and “Mr. – bov and the Question of Art,” Dostoevsky 1977: 86-138.

7 For a fuller discussion of this subject see my chapter, “Conversion, Message, Medium, Transformation: Dostoevsky and the Peasants,” in Miller 2007: 1-22.

8 Freud 1962: 98.

9 In a paper delivered in November, 2012 at the ASEEES meeting in New Orleans, Berman designated the term “secondary characters” to describe characters who appear fictions within fictions. Extrapolating from her line of thought, Ratazyayev’s novels and stories are “secondary novels.” See Berman 2012: 3.

10 Dostoevskii 1972-1990, vol. 28/1: 106; and Dostoevsky 1988a: 106-107 (Letter to Mikhail Dostoevsky, 24 March, 1845).

11 Dostoevskii 1972-1990, vol. 1: 13; and Dostoevsky 1988b: 3. This epigraph comes from V. F. Odoevsky’s story, “The Living Corpse” (1839). Subsequent references to Poor People will appear in the main body of the text with the Russian reference to Dostoevskii 1972-1990 preceding McDuff’s translation.

12 For further discussion of the subtleties of this epigraph and how it contributes to polyphony of Dostoevsky’s narrative, see Belknap 1982: 67-69.

13 McDuff points out that The Picture of Man, an Edifying Treatise on Aspects of for All the Educated Classes, Drawn by A. Galich, was produced by a psychologist and philosopher who was one of Pushkin’s teachers at the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum. Dostoevsky may have heard extracts from this book as a child. The Little Bell-Ringer was a novel by the sentimental French writer, F. G. Ducray-Duminil. “The Cranes of Ibicus” was a well-known poem by Schiller, translated into Russian by V. A. Zhukovsky in 1813 (Dostoevsky 1988b: 268).

14 Recall Northrop Frye’s observation: “It has been said of Boehme that his books are like a picnic to which the author brings the words and the reader the meaning. The remark may have been intended as a sneer at Boehme, but it is an exact description of all works of literary art without exception” (Frye 1957: 427).

15 Todd describes the controversy over the “commercialization” of writing. Shevyrev “led the charge against The Library for Reading. Much of his attack borders on hysterical accusations that payment by the signature makes writers long-winded; hyperbolic accounts of the fortunes to be made […], fears that commerce would destroy all taste, thought, morality, learning, and honest criticism.” Gogol and Belinsky, on the contrary, “embraced the professionalization of literary life” and so did not attack “commerce per se.” See Todd 1997: 56.

16 Dostoevsky describes how “memories arose in my mind of themselves […]. They begin from a certain point, some little thing […] and then bit by bit they would grow into a finished picture […]. I would analyze these impressions, adding new touches” (Dostoevskii 1972-1990, vol. 22: 46; Dostoevsky 1994, vol. 1: 352). For a fuller discussion of the ramifications of this passage see Miller 2007: 75-78.

17 Varvara’s insights on memory throughout her embedded autobiography are keen and worth analyzing in the light of Dostoevsky’s own mediations on this subject. For example, “memories,” she writes, “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” (1: 39; 36).

18 Consider Belinsky’s remark about another painful moment in the novel – Pokrovsky the funeral of his son. Frank writes, “Belinsky remarked that it was impossible not to laugh at old Pokrovsky; ‘but if,’ he told his readers, ‘he does not touch you deeply at the same time you are laughing... do not speak of this to anyone, so that some Pokrovsky, a buffoon and a drunkard, will not have to blush for you as a human being” (Frank 1976: 142-143). This is the familiar notion of “laughter through tears” with a moral punch at the end.

19 Varvara’s inserted autobiography rivals other rich inserted narratives in Dostoevsky’work. It is of particular interest because it is the narrative of a woman, although it contains ideas and vignettes that Dostoevsky was to use later. One can argue that she is the true center of this novel.

20 Frank 1976: 146

21 Although Frank reads this final letter of Varvara’s as “a touching expression of to her friend and benefactor,” he also cites a darker reading by Valerian Maikov, a close friend of Dostoevsky at the time. He suspects that this comment is all the more interesting because it may have come from Maikov’s conversations with Dostoevsky at the time. “It is clear that Makar Alekseevich’s love could only arouse repulsion in Varvara Alekseevna, though she stubbornly and constantly conceals this even perhaps from herself. And is there anything more burdensome on earth than concealing a dislike for a person to whom we are indebted for something, and who – God forbid! – is in love with us besides? Whoever jogs his memory a bit will surely recall that he felt the greatest antipathy, not towards enemies, but to those whom, devoted to him to the point of self-sacrifice, he could not repay with an equal depth of feeling. [She] […] was much more weighed down by the devotion of Makar than by her crushing poverty, and she was not able – she found it impossible – to deprive herself of the right to torture him a little by treating him as a lackey […] A sentimental soul, who finds the comprehension of such facts difficult to bear, can be consoled all the same because, before her voyage to the steppe […] [she] wrote a note in which she called him friend and darling.” Frank suspects the influence of Dostoevsky’s own explication du texte here. See Frank 1976: 141. He quotes from Maikov 1891: 326.

22 In The Brothers Karamazov (1880), for example, Dmitri imagines several possible courses of action that he might have taken when Katerina Ivanovna came to borrow money from him. He only follows one path, but the shimmer of these other possible scenarios lingers on in the reader’s mind and deepens Dmitri’s characterization. Likewise, although it is most likely that there was an actual (albeit fictional) correspondence between Devushkin and Varvara, at the end of the novel the possibility that Makar had created it himself gains a precarious foothold that serves to make our understanding of him even more fragile than it already is.

23 Belknap argues convincingly that we misread Dostoevsky when we look to find suffering is ennobling. He finds very few cases in Dostoevsky’s canon in which suffering redeems a character. Of Poor People he writes, “[not] one of these characters is evil, but the more one has suffered, the worse one is” (Belknap 1982: 76).

24 Dostoevskii 1972-1990, vol. 15: 193; Dostoevsky 1976: 731.

Auteur

She is Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities at Brandeis University and a Guggenheim Fellow, 2013-14. Her books include Dostoevsky and The Idiot: Author, Narrator and Reader (Harvard University Press, 1981), The Brothers Karamazov: Worlds of the Novel (G.K. Hall, 1992; Yale University Press, 2008), Dostoevsky’s Unfinished Journey (Yale University Press, 2007), and numerous edited and co-edited volumes including Kathryn B. Feuer’s, Tolstoy and the Genesis of War and Peace (Cornell University Press, 1996). She is currently working on a book entitled Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and the Small of This World and as well as another project tentatively entitled Kazuko’s Letters from Japan. Her primary scholarly work has focused on various nineteenth-century writers. Her favourite readings are: J. Austen, Pride and Prejudice; L.N. Tolstoy, War and Peace; and D. Lodges, Changing Places.

Acheter

Volume papier

Chargement

Unavailable