Patrick Maxwell

Dostoevsky and Poor Folk

Wilfred Owen captured the national spirit best when he wrote of the ‘drawing-down of blinds’, surely the most succinct depiction of English melancholia. The English spirit – distinct from Britishness, though also a part of it – is one of deep decline under the shadow of a former empire. It is the spirit of T. S. Eliot’s line ‘winter’s afternoon | In a secluded chapel’ in ‘Little Gidding’; of the quiet introit sung by an evensong choir, backing away into the cathedrals’ dingy corners: a quixotic country, where nostalgia mingles with dwindling of former hopes and glories. That Edward Gibbon and later Evelyn Waugh should write on the theme of decline and fall is unsurprising. The idea of twilight, of Owen’s gradual closing of the blinds, has captured the English imagination, and remains ever-present in British culture.

Russian literature, on the other hand, is much more dramatic. Characters do not fall from grace so much as destroy their own self-respect in circular fashion. The inert backwardness in Russian society has created the most pitiable figures: Dickensian in their squalor yet Biblical in their idealism. Russian authors write longer stories and their characters are investigated in every way possible; they treat them individually as a social experiment from which the narrative evolves. Realism is the true Russian genre, a combination of philosophy and criticism, often overshadowed by an unerring faith in a divine creator. Every situation and trait is described in minute detail. While Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens introduced the social novel to a growing educated European readership, Russian writers were instead intent on pursuing an agenda, though at a length unseen in most literature before the turn of the nineteenth century.

Coupled with his desire for intense character investigation, Fyodor Dostoevsky treated the characters of his stories with a contempt superseding that of most authors. There is a distinct lack of empathy for the Underground Man from Notes from Underground, let alone for the murdered Fyodor Pavlovich in The Brothers Karamazov (the latter introduced as ‘wicked and sentimental’ by the author before the narrative has really begun). Even his much shorter works, from the earlier stages of his writing career, treat his pitiable figures with little sympathy as they toil through the white nights of St Petersburg. There is, in his first works, however, a definite humanistic trend – a hope for recovery often lacking in his later, more epic novels.

Dostoevsky’s first literary success was his novella Poor Folk (1846), an epistolary novel about a poor civil servant, Makar Devushkin, and his seamstress lover, Varvara Dobroselova, both of whom suffer financial hardship. Devushkin sends indulgent presents to Dobroselova and fills the pages of his letters with loquacious pleas and expressions of adulation. During their correspondence, Dobroselova gives a lengthy account of her destitute childhood and her tragic relationship with Pokrovsky, an intelligent but impoverished student, whose untimely death is greeted by the most pitiful scene: Pokrovsky’s father runs behind his coffin as it is towed away, ‘his wailing shaken and punctuated by his running.’ The image of the broken student haunted Dostoevsky throughout his life; Raskolnikov, despite his brilliant mind, is held back from pursuing his education and drawn towards extremes remedies by his financial problems.

Dostoevsky was no stranger to personal tragedy either. Having lost both of his parents in his teenage years (his father, a rather brutal landowner, was murdered by his own serfs in 1839, according to legend). Having had a short-lived career as a soldier before trying to enter the literary world of St Petersburg, initially as a translator, Dostoevsky completed an edition of Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet (1843), but he gained little financial security from it and was giving way to an infatuation with gambling (later to be fictionalised in The Gambler, 1866). He started writing Poor Folk in 1844 purely for financial reasons and completed it in a matter of months, telling his brother that he was pleased with his work. When first released in January 1846, the novel was a sensation in St Petersburg.

Later, in his Diary of a Writer (1873-81), Dostoevsky recounted the events that started his literary career. In 1845 his companion Dmitry Grigorovich passed on his work to influential poet Nikolay Nekrasov, who in turn approached the most important man of early nineteenth-century Russian letters: Vissarion Belinsky. Belinsky was a determined Westerniser who exerted an influence over many and determined the Russian literary scene of the time. After he had read the manuscript for the first time, Nekrasov told him that Dostoevsky was the new Nikolai Gogol, to which Belinsky retorted that ‘With you, Gogols grow like mushrooms!’

Belinsky read the story through the night and was captivated, fulfilling Nekrasov’s sentiment, and declared the author Russia’s first social novelist. ‘Do you, yourself, fully realise what you have written?’ he asked an ecstatic Dostoevsky in the early hours of the morning. Dostoevsky’s name rang out through the city, with high society proclaiming him a genius. He was hailed as a new spokesman for the growing and increasingly radical intelligentsia that Dostoevsky would later come to despise. The novel touchingly expressed sympathy for the downtrodden of St Petersburg, empathising with those on the fringes of society, who Dostoevsky so often visited in his psychological critiques.

In 2000 the critic James Wood coined the phrase ‘hysterical realism’ to describe a subgenre in which exhausted literary tropes conventional to realism absurdly (mis)represent their deep social contexts. Dostoevsky may have ‘hysterical’ characters in his stories – those which suit the author’s own agenda and motives and conform to Wood’s description – but his novelistic philosophy is not hysterical, and most certainly not a plain depiction of ‘stock caricatures’, as Wood suggests. His figures are of the time: they represent the deep social ills Dostoevsky he himself saw and are not taken from the proverbial shelf of historical literature. Nor are his novels hysterical in themselves, Poor Folk especially. His characters’ anguish centres upon their actions and their words within the narrative, rather than through a simple standard basis for objective judgement. His figures are slowly picked apart, demoralised, traumatised, belittled and in some cases saved. They are always scrutinised to the closest degree, and drawn towards the most immoral of situations, exposed to the most pernicious of mindsets and ideas.

In Poor Folk, the slow degeneration of Devushkin’s wealth and character is treated as an inexorable outcome and feels destined to be from the start, from his obsequious tone towards Dobroselova. His love for Dobroselova is wholesome, and his financial salvation (vividly imagined in a scene where he kisses the hand of His Excellency, the head of the department he works in). This contrasts his emotional morass, as Dobroselova goes out of the city to marry a harsh but wealthy landowner named Bykov. Dostoevsky is asking a simple question: What is better for humanity, to be poor and happy, or unhappy and rich? It is for us to assume that he thought the Russian spirit better suited to the former and that it was always suited to it.

It comes as no surprise that Poor Folk was declared as a true successor to the Gogolian, socially aware style of writing. The recurrent themes of deprivation and love are idealistic, although it would be unfair to call Dostoevsky naïve in creating the book’s bitter-sweet ending. Little ground was broken in his first work, but the foundations of his latter theistic worldview were being firmly laid, despite his attachments to the radical Petrashevsky Circle that would lead to his arrest and mock execution in 1849. Despite his early praise, Belinsky fell out with Dostoevsky, with the latter’s growing religiosity creating a sharp dividing line in their political and literary values. Belinsky criticised The Double, which exposed more penetrating psychological features in Dostoevsky’s writing, and was even darker in tone. The critic would continue to lambast his new adversary until his untimely death in 1848.

Poor Folk is not a magnificent novel. It represents Dostoevsky’s first published novel and gives modern readers a backdrop to the later glories after his Siberian exile. Had he been executed as expected, the name of F. M. Dostoevsky would not take a large place in the grand swathe of Russian literature. Nevertheless, his work is a precise product of its time: it responds to the literary desire for representation of the masses, political desire for empowerment and emancipation, and fulfills a modern desire for the historical novel written as contemporary polemic.

The characters in Poor Folk are perhaps not worthy of the ‘tears’ that Nekrasov and Grigorovich shed when they first read it. And yet the book displays the first inklings of Dostoevsky’s genius, literary prowess, and even terror of his later novels that would impress the spirit of the age; not only for a contemporary audience – the ambitions and beliefs Russian readers – but of any who seek his morosely resonant prose.

Words by Patrick Maxwell.


Patrick Maxwell is an English writer on politics, literature and music, based near Oxford. He is the editor of Gerrymander, and a writer for many other publications, such as Comment Central and Backbench.

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