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Perhaps better than any other work of fiction, Dostoevsky’s novel The Gambler captures and analyzes the fatal attraction of gambling as a way to experience chaos and, so every gambler fantasizes, to ride its waves to safe harbor on a shore heaped with gold.
The narrator Aleksey Ivanovich relates how he was bitten by the gambling bug. The gambler is also a lover. Aleksey and others compete for Polina, who cannot make up her mind among them. He loves her, but can’t figure out whether she reciprocates; she seems both to need him and to need to torture him to test his fidelity. Each of them resents and resists attraction to the other. Given this duel of wills, it’s not surprising that the gambler in Aleksey trumps the lover in him. He imagines that money will make him a master, while he is a slave to love. After his great win at roulette and the spending frenzy that follows, his passion for Polina seems dead. Yet as he is ending his notes, it seems to be reviving, and we wonder whether he will ever be free of it. The Gambler is a page-turner that leaves readers amused, bemused, and baffled at Aleksey’s contradictory and self-destructive energy.
The author of The Gambler didn’t have to look far for an example of this Russian type; as we shall see, he himself fit the bill nicely, as gambler, lover, and, most obviously, writer. Unlike his character Aleksey, however, in this work as in others Dostoevsky was able to reign in his native enthusiasm and distance himself sufficiently from his own impulses to study human nature and create universal types. At age seventeen, he wrote his brother Mikhail that “Man is a mystery. It must be brought to light, and if one puzzles over it all one’s life, let it not be said that one is wasting one’s time: I am studying this mystery, for I wish to be a man.”
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, one of the world’s greatest novelists, was born in 1821, the second child and second son of eight siblings. His father, an army doctor, came from a family of Orthodox priests in the border regions of Southwest Russia. The Dostoevsky clan had long ago lost its original status as Lithuanian gentry, although Mikhail Dostoevsky rose high enough in the ranks of government service to regain it for himself and his descendants. As a very nervous individual and a parvenu, he had the wounded vanity that Dostoevsky portrays so well in his fiction. Dostoevsky’s mother Marya, from a well-to-do merchant family, was a cheerful practical woman who loved her moody husband, who for his part both adored her and yet was capable, at one point, of baselessly accusing her of infidelity. Both parents were very religious, and in this way as in others Dostoevsky’s upbringing differed from that of his more highborn contemporaries and rivals, Count Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev.
Dostoevsky started his writing career in the 1840s as a member of the literary school of Sentimental Naturalism, which took as its subject the urban poor. Having lived much of his childhood on the grounds of the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in Moscow where his father practiced, he had observed this world up close. He knew it inside as well as out, because his own family situation acquainted him with the tortured psyche of “the insulted and the injured” (the title of one of his early novels). Like his father he was himself difficult and touchy. Therefore he had the first-hand knowledge to let his downtrodden characters speak for themselves in first person narratives. His very first publication, Poor Folk (1846), a novel in letters between a lowly government clerk and the orphan seamstress whom he has befriended, was an enormous success that established him as a leading young author in Petersburg.
An extraordinary sensitivity to the sensibilities of others informed Dostoevsky’s writing from the beginning of his career. What he lacked at first was sufficient life experience, but that soon changed. In 1849 he was arrested for his participation in the so-called Petrashevsky Circle, a group fomenting revolution in words if not yet in deeds. He spent many months of solitary confinement in the gloomy Petro-Pavlovsky Fortress, and then, after lengthy interrogations, he was taken to Senate Square and what appeared to be death by firing squad. All the conspirators were pardoned, but, at the express orders of Tsar Nikolai I, the pardon did not come until the very last minute. Dostoevsky’s sentence was commuted to hard labor in Siberia, where he was first incarcerated in a prison camp and then spent years in exile. Scholars argue about the effect of all these events on him, but no one can doubt that they deepened and darkened his understanding of the “mystery” that is man.
Dostoevsky returned to Petersburg only in 1859 and started a journal, Time, with his brother Mikhail in 1860. Bad luck dogged him in the 1860s too. His first wife, Marya, whom he had married in Siberia, died in 1864, as did his beloved brother. The government mistakenly shut down his journal in 1863 and a second journal (Epoch), undertaken without Mikhail, failed. Dostoevsky married again in 1867, and almost immediately left Russia with his eighteen–year old bride to avoid debtor’s prison. During the four years that he spent in exile in Europe, his first child, a daughter, died at three months of pneumonia, and he gambled heavily. (Three more children were subsequently born to him, though one of them, a son, died of epilepsy that he had no doubt inherited from his father.) Only after his return to Russia did his life stabilize thanks in large part to the efficiency of his devoted wife. Despite bad health throughout his life, and despite all the calamities that beset him, his output as a writer was prodigious. He wrote steadily, producing five major novels in fifteen years—Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), The Demons (1871), The Adolescent (1875), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880) —and many other important shorter works. He was also a journalist throughout his career, and from1873 to 1881, with gaps, he published his own Diary of a Writer, which intersperses occasional fiction with journalism. He died in 1881 of a lung hemorrhage probably caused by emphysema. By this time he was generally recognized as one of Russia’s greatest writers, and his reputation since his death has continued to grow.
The story of how Dostoevsky came to write The Gambler is as melodramatic as the work itself. He began to gamble in 1862. When Time was closed in 1863, and his wife and brother died in 1864, and Epoch, launched in 1865, failed in the midst of an economic downturn, he started gambling heavily and losing. Always impecunious and overly generous with money, he also took on debt for family reasons. In desperate need of funds, he signed a contract in 1865 with one Fyodor Stellovsky, who paid him the bargain basement sum of three thousand rubles for the right to publish a three-volume edition of his works. Dostoevsky also agreed that unless he produced a new novel by November 1 of the following year, for the next nine years Stellovsky could publish free of charge anything he wrote or had written. Dostoevsky was working on Crime and Punishment at the time, and when he returned from a trip abroad at the end of September 1866 he had not finished it. With the help of a stenographer from an agency, he wrote The Gambler in twenty-six days and brought it to Stellovsky’s office on October 30. A few days later, getting down to finishing Crime and Punishment, he proposed to the stenographer, Anna Snitkina, who accepted.
Most of the action of The Gambler takes place in the make-believe German city of Roulettenburg, where nationalities mix in a frenzied competition for money and status. Dostoevsky visited such places as Wiesbaden and Baden-Baden himself, and knew the gambling scene in Europe well. One other element of his turbulent life went into the novel. In 1862, he began an affair with a twenty-two-year-old student named Apollonaria Suslova (1839–1918). His marriage with his first wife was unhappy, and at this point she was already very ill. Dostoevsky was passionately in love, but the beautiful Polina, who admired his writings, seems to have found him unsatisfying as a sexual partner. He spent time with her in Europe in 1863, where, among other humiliations, he had to endure her consultations with him about another, younger lover. Suslova became the model for Polina in The Gambler, the idea for which Dostoevsky first conceived in 1863 during that trip to Europe; and all his later proud, unhappy, passionate heroines are indebted to her. In 1880, incidentally, she married another Russian writer, Vasilii Rozanov, who at twenty-four was sixteen years her junior, and left him, like Dostoevsky still in love with her, after six miserable years.
This trip to Europe with Suslova was not Dostoevsky’s first. He had already been there the year before, in the summer of 1862. When he returned, he wrote a long essay entitled “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions,” which is less an account of his travels than his reflections on European society. The ideas in this essay are illustrated and extended in The Gambler. In particular, the essay is one long condemnation of the European bourgeoisie, especially as exemplified by the French. They love to play at nobility, and they are good at it, but behind their glorious banner proclaiming “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” there swarms a society of moneygrubbers like De Grieux and Mademoiselle Blanche in The Gambler. Freedom among the French is possible only for those with cash, who do what they like to those without it. There is no real equality in France under law, and brotherhood, the great progressive force that binds society together, is impossible. Unlike the French, the English are not hypocrites. They do not hide the fact that their society is based on individualism. In chapter 5 of “Winter Notes,” Dostoevsky describes the horrible brutality of life in London’s Haymarket, where the age-old battle of all against all rages in plain sight. Given their national culture, the British must figure out how to live together peacefully without descending into cannibalism, even if this means adopting a model of unthinking adherence to the rules of modern society that Dostoevsky calls the anthill. Russians too are individualists, but ones who have learned the secret to individual happiness and social cohesion. They acquire true freedom and therefore happiness by un–self consciously sacrificing themselves for others. In The Gambler, the Russian grandmother displays this un–self conscious generosity as she tosses money left and right on her first triumphant return from the casino. Aleksey proves himself worthy of Polina’s love with the very same self-sacrifice; he wins two hundred thousand francs not for himself, but for her. When she refuses to accept his gift, he hands over the money the next day without regrets to Mademoiselle Blanche. He then charms even her with his utter disregard for wealth (and for propriety), but that does not stop her from using his cash to build her own bourgeois “capital.”
While “Winter Notes” helps explain the French characters in the novel, the Englishman Mr. Astley seems to be more than just an illustration of British individualism as described in the essay. He passes muster with the ultra-Russian grandmother, and he is also a friend, rival, and confidant of the narrator. This last fact is one clue to his function in the novel. Mr. Astley represents an alternative, and peculiarly English version of a narrator—omniscient and seemingly disinterested—to Aleksei’s peculiarly Russian one. Although he is a force for good rather than evil, Mr. Astley snoops. He hides in corridors and, mostly out of curiosity, it seems, he somehow keeps tabs on everything that is going on. He pulls strings, using money to do it; Polina especially, whom he may love, finds his backstage hovering creepy. In chapter 8, Aleksey confesses his entire love story to Mr. Astley; other characters, especially Polina, may have confessed to him too. They can do this, not because they feel close to him, but because they trust his objectivity and sense of honor. He will not take advantage of them even if he knows their secrets or even, in the case of Polina, if he may want her for himself.
By contrast to Mr. Astley, the narrator Aleksey is all impulsive subjectivity. No one is willing to confide in such a blabbermouth, and Aleksey stresses over and over again how little he knows about what others are doing or thinking. Since the novel is told from his point of view, readers are in the dark as much as he is, and this generates the suspense that is one of the hallmarks of Dostoevsky’s style. We agree with Aleksey that if we could only know what is going on, and why, then we might understand the jumble of events that are unfolding.
The key to ultimate understanding in the novel is psychology, and here Mr. Astley falters somewhat, especially in his analysis of the Russian characters. As an Englishman, he expects people to act in their own self-interest and at the same time, if they are decent, according to certain moral standards that he regards as inviolable. He tries to keep Aleksey from discussing Polina and De Grieux because their love affair is scandalous, and he wants to protect Polina’s reputation. He also expects consistency in behavior, and here the Russian characters fail, and, as a result, intrigue him. He literally follows Grandmother around studying her unorthodox behavior. He understands impulses of passion: when he learns from Aleksey how much the latter has won at roulette, he predicts, correctly, that the narrator will be off to Paris, because, as he says, all Russians with money in their pockets go there. The narrator indignantly denies that he would desert Polina to do this—and heads for Paris the next morning. Mr. Astley also understands cads like De Grieux, who only pretend to live by rules of honor that Mr. Astley tries to enforce. What he can’t grasp, because it is not logical, is the so-called breadth of the Russian character. Yes, Aleksey cannot resist the blandishments of Blanche, but that does not mean that he has ceased to love Polina. Furthermore—and this galls Mr. Astley—it is Polina who sends him to Hamburg to check on Aleksey, and, as Aleksey triumphantly observes, this means that she still loves him. The Russian narrator, for all his faults, is better equipped than the English observer to grasp the subtleties of human behavior, even Mr. Astley’s own. In Hamburg, Aleksey remarks that Mr. Astley is dissatisfied with him for not being sufficiently disheartened about the failures of the last twenty months. Mr. Astley does not find it easy to understand Aleksey’s comment, but when he does, he approves, saying that he recognizes in it the combination of enthusiasm and cynicism of which only Russians are capable. Aleksey, who has not internalized rules that limit Mr. Astley’s behavior and self-understanding, lives in a flow of impressions and impulses, good, bad, and, mostly, in between; at the same time, he has the ability—what Mr. Astley calls the “cynicism”—to stand back and evaluate these impulses. Mr. Astley now formulates the “cynical” truth that Aleksey’s insight about him reveals: that people love it when their best friends stand humiliated before them. So the Russian Aleksey teaches Mr. Astley something about himself, and Mr. Astley, true to his English good character, is charmed and grateful.
The structure of The Gambler reflects the peculiarities of the Russian narrator’s psyche. There is no tidy, linear plotline. The narrator’s “notes” open in the middle of a story that readers spend almost the entire novel figuring out. As the action heats up, the narrator breaks off the narration three times, each time for longer periods (for two days in chapter 6, a month in chapter 13, and twenty months in chapter 17). After the second break, when he both sleeps with Polina and succumbs to acute gambling fever, he explains that he is continuing his notes to regain some control over his life, to stop spinning, as he puts it. At the same time, he is reading the contemporary pulp fiction of sex and violence by Paul de Kock (1793–1871), and he is treasuring his memories of his own “formless dream.” The novel ends artificially, with the narrator’s certainly unrealizable hope that the next day, “all will be over,” and he will restore his human dignity in his own eyes and those of Polina.
The adjective translated as “formless” (bezobraznyi) can also mean ugly. Aleksey rejects the stuffy or hypocritical forms of bourgeois Europe and embraces “formlessness” as free and authentic, if not necessarily beautiful. The Dionysian reality of The Gambler has appealed to readers down to the present time. It inspired many stage adaptations and a famous early opera (1916) by the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. Readers get to spin with Aleksey in the safety of their armchairs or theatre seats; and like Mr. Astley, they come away from their acquaintance with this Russian classic with more self-understanding. “Westerners” of whom Dostoevsky was so suspicious may plan to stay away from the gaming tables after reading The Gambler, but the type of the gambler whom Dostoevsky perfected in his little novel has enduring appeal.
Donna Orwin teaches Russian literature at the University of Toronto. Her latest book is Consequences of Consciousness: Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy (Stanford, 2007).
 August 16, 1839. Quoted in Jacques Catteau, Error! Main Document Only. Dostoevsky and the Process of Literary Creation, p. 11.