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Mar 1, 2013

Dostoevsky & Poor

Every culture has its own unique qualities. The culture of the United States is largely a blend of many different cultures since we are a nation of immigrants. With the exception of Brazil, most countries in South America were very heavily influence by Spanish culture.  Brazil was heavily influenced by Portuguese culture.  The nations of the former Soviet Union are strongly influenced by Orthodox culture and their connection to the Orthodox Church.  This is quite obvious in the novels of the classic Russian authors.  

While these various nations have their own uniqueness, the one thing that all of them have in common is that each nation has poor people.  The poor are often not even notice by those who have more money.  They are “invisible” people.  This was true in the late 19th century and is still true today.  

In 1845, Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881) wrote his first novel entitled Poor Folk.  This novel was written prior to his imprisonment. It was while he was in prison that he underwent a major conversion experience. He became a supporter of the czar and developed a great respect for the peasantry. This also seemed to be the beginning of his involvement in the Slavophile movement. 

The novel was originally published in A Petersburg Collection published. One anecdote states that the journal’s editor, Nikolai Nekrasov, declared “A new [Nikolai] Gogol has arisen!” Many literary critics, including Vissarion Belinsky, also gave this work much acclaim rocketing Fyodor Dostoevsky to literary fame.1 

It is put together in the form of a set of letters written between two people, Makar Devushkin and Varvara Dobroselova. Makar and Varvara are second cousins twice-removed and live across from each other on the same street in terrible apartments. Makar’s, for example, is merely a portioned-off section of the kitchen, and he lives with several other tenants, such as the Gorshkovs, whose son dies and who groans in agonizing hunger almost the entire story, gently crying at night. Makar and Varvara exchange letters back and forth attesting to their terrible living conditions and the former frequently squanders his money on gifts for the latter.

The reader progressively learns about their history throughout the story. Varvara used to live in the country until her father lost his job, and then she moved into St. Petersburg, which she hates. Her father was very violent after losing his job and her mother became severely depressed. He dies and they move in with Anna Fyodorovna, a landlady who was previously cruel to them but at least pretends to feel badly for their situation. There Varvara is tutored by a poor student named Pokrovsky, whose drunken father occasionally visits. She eventually falls in love with him. She struggles to save a measly amount of money to purchase Pokrovsky the complete works of Pushkin at the market for his birthday present, and then allows his father to give the books to him, claiming that just his receipt of the books will be enough for her happiness. Povrovsky falls ill soon after, and his last dying wish is to see the sun and the world outside, which Varvara obliges by opening the blinds to grey clouds and dirty rain. In response he only shakes his head and then passes away. His father runs after the coffin during the procession, with some of his son’s books falling in the mud as he goes along alone in the rain.

Varvara's mother dies soon after, and she is left in the care of Anna for a time, but eventually goes out on her own because of the abuse to live with Fedora across the street. Makar works as a lowly copyist, frequently belittled at his job and picked on. His clothing is worn and dirty, and his living conditions are perhaps worse than Varvara's. He considers himself a rat in society. As he and Varvara exchange letters (and occasional visits that are never detailed), they begin to exchange books. Makar becomes offended when she sends him a copy of The Overcoat, because he finds the main character to be living the life he now lives.

Varvara considers leaving to another part of the city where she can work as a governess, but in a spot of luck, when Makar is completely out of money and may possibly be thrown out by his landlady, he comes upon 100 rubles. It happens that he miscopies a document and is brought to the head at his office, who tells him he can still copy it again and after looking at his terrible condition gives him the money so he can buy himself new clothes. He pays off his debts and sends some to Varvara, who sends him 25 rubles back because she doesn’t need all of it, and the future looks bright for the both of them because he can now start to save up money and they can possibly move in together.

Suddenly, all of the rumors about Varvara marrying a drunk become meaningless in the face of money. Makar finds himself liked by even the writer Ratazyayev, who was using him as a figure in one of his stories because of his sad condition. Even the Gorhkovs come across money because the father’s case is won in court. With the considerable sum they seem perfectly happy, but he dies soon after anyway, leaving his family in shambles despite the money. Soon after this Varvara announces that a Mr. Bykov, who had dealings with Anna Fyodorovna and Pokrovsky’s father, has proposed to her. She decides to leave with him and the last few letters attest to her slowly becoming used to her new money.

She has Makar find linen for her and begins to talk about various luxuries, leaving him alone in the end despite the fact that he was coming on to better times. The story ends with a final letter from him written in a desperate plea for her to come back to him or at least write from her new life. 2

Poor Folk is an epistolary novel -- that is, a tale told as a series of letters between the characters. And oh, what characters these are Makar Dievushkin Alexievitch is a copy writer, barely squeaking by; Barbara Dobroselova Alexievna works as a seamstress, and both face the sort of everyday humiliation society puts upon the poor. These are people respected by no one, not even by themselves. These are folks too poor, in their circumstances, to marry; the love between them is a chaste and proper thing, a love that brings some readers to tears. But it isn't maudlin, either; Fyodor Dostoevsky has something profound to say about these people and this circumstance. And he says it very well. When the book was first published a leading Russian literary critic of the day -- Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1848) -- prophesied that Dostoevsky would become a literary giant. It isn't hard to see how he came to that conclusion, and in hindsight, he was surely was correct.  

The male protagonist is the first in a long line of Dostoevskyian anti-heroes, undergound men, figures of such extreme marginality that even they are not sure whether they exist: He’s a man with a reputation what am I? Compared to him, I simply don’t exist…, an ontological uncertainty which Dostoevsky picked up from his reading of Hoffman, and which he was to develop more fully in the later taleThe Double. Makar Devushkin lives behind a screen in the kitchen and works as a copyist: he has no space or original contribution of his own. His character comes to life only in and through his letters; he writes himself, creates himself through writing, and exists only in the dialogue with Varvara: when I got to know you, I began for a start to know myself better…before you came along, I was as good as asleep, I wasn’t really living in the world at all… when you came my way, you lit up the whole of my dark life so that my mind and soul were illuminated …When she leaves Petersburg to marry Bykov, the dialogue stops, Devushkin disappears, and the book ends.

He also displays the irrational behavior which was Dostoevsky’s contribution to the philosophical picture of man. When he retrieves his button from under the feet of his boss, to his own horror, he acts against his own best interest: had I not been such a fool I would have stood to attention and kept still. But oh, no: I began pressing the button against the torn off threads, as though that would make it stay on and what’s more, I smiled and smiled again. The drunken episodes, the getting into debt for Varvara’s sake are also forms of irrational behaviour. His Dostoevskyan irascibility; however, is mediated by a tenderness towards Varvara and towards the world, a tenderness which is not present in the later loners of the Dostoevsky canon.

The novel is as much about literature as about the urban poor. Much of the plot revolves around the acquisition of books, there are constant references to other literature: grammars, style manuals, Pushkin, excerpts from the (terrible) writings of Devushkin’s friend and hero, Mr Ratazyayev. The whole tale can be read as Dostoevsky’s dialogue with the overwhelming power of Gogol. The characters lend each other books and comment on them. Devushkin lives in fear of being lampooned in a feuilleton (Dostoevsky himself lampoons another one of his marginal folk in the darkly hilarious tale Mr. Prokharchin, where even the narrator calls the eponymous hero a fool). Although Devushkin knows he is a marginal being, he nonetheless has a fully developed sense of amour propre and is quick to take umbrage. The epistolary nature of this novel is a kind of tact on Dostoevsky’s part, in allowing these marginal characters to speak for themselves with their own voices, without the presence of a narrator to describe them, to falsify them or to mock them.

Devushkin is struck by a quote from a style manual which is a kind of manifesto for the group around Ratazyayev: 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. This may also stand as a manifesto, not only for the method and subject of Poor Folk, but indeed for Dostoevsky’s entire career: the Christian didacticism of his later novels, the expressionism of his confessional stance, his picture of underground and marginal types, his criticisms of society, nihilism and other forms of philosophy, and the mirror he holds up to the modern soul. 

The characters which Dostoevsky introduces us to are not unique and can be placed in almost any culture; however, how the individuals deal with their situation is directly related to their culture.  These people are Russian and are quite familiar with daily sufferings.  Their connection to the Orthodox Church helps many Russians, both ancient and modern, to find hope in their suffering and united these sufferings to those of Jesus Christ.

In my article “The Beauty of the Russian Soul”5 I spoke about the influence of Orthodox culture has on the Russian soul.  The Russian soul is not simply limited to those who live in Russia, but to people from Ukraine, Belarus, and various other nations where Orthodox Christianity is the predominant religion. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s genius can be found in all of his novels. On a personal level, he felt very connected to the poor even though his father was a medical doctor.  He spent much of his life impoverished, which is not uncommon among most artists, so he understood the experiences of the poor.  

End Notes
1) “Fyodor Dostoevsky: A Biography” (accessed 5/12/12)
2) “Poor Folk” (accessed 5/12/12)
3) “Poor Folk” 5/12/12)
4) “Poor Folk: Dostoevsky” (accessed 5/13/12)

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