Dostoevsky's Secrets: Reading Against the Grain

Dostoevsky's Secrets: Reading Against the Grain

by Carol Apollonio


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810139855
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 12/15/2018
Series: Studies in Russian Literature and Theory Series
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Carol Apollonio is an associate professor of the practice of Slavic language and literature at Duke University. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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Dostoevsky's Secrets

By Carol Apollonio


Copyright © 2009 Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2532-2

Chapter One

The Body and the Book: Poor Folk

"There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact." —Sherlock Holmes

DOSTOEVSKY ENJOYED one of the most remarkable debuts in literary history when Russia's foremost literary critic, Vissarion Belinsky, welcomed the unknown writer's Poor Folk (Bednye liudi, 1846) as the long-awaited first Russian "social novel." To this day, Poor Folk sustains reading as social criticism. Still, the most enduring feature of Dostoevsky's first novel is its "literariness." Poor Folk is saturated with influences from the Russian "natural school" and its western European predecessors, Pushkin's experiments with narrative fiction, the sentimental tradition in its native and foreign epistolary variants, and a more remote ancestor, the twelfth-century Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Through a complex, layered parody of these earlier works, Dostoevsky's novel calls into question basic assumptions about the ethical and moral implications of reading and writing. Though highly derivative, Poor Folk is at the same time strikingly original. Already in this first published work the author sows the seeds of the unique tragic vision that will ripen in the late, great novels.

It is appropriate that literariness should be so central to the novel, for Poor Folk tells the story of Dostoevsky's own path to authorship. In a meticulous analysis, I. D. Iakubovich establishes a direct and convincing association between the dates and contents of the fictional letters in Poor Folk and specific events and experiences in the author's life. Iakubovich concludes that the novel is in part a disguised diary tracing the transformation of the young military engineer into a writer. In this first novel, as in the later works, self-consciousness is bound up with an attraction to the printed word. While recognizing the autobiographical tensions, we should nevertheless avoid easy "indicative" readings. What the author creates is greater than what he is, "detached from the imperfect lie that produced it."

Apophatic reading presumes a mismatch between words and truth. What characters say and write about themselves, on the one hand, and what they are and do, on the other, differ. Dostoevsky's message emerges from the tensions in this gap between word and world on the many levels of the text—the words of the two correspondents, their actions (stated and implied), the reactions of those around them, and the complex echoes of literary tradition. These discrepancies betray the author's own ambivalence as to the message and function of artistic literature.

Let us, then, consider Makar Devushkin. A middle-aged, low-level civil servant, a bachelor, Makar befriends Varvara Dobroselova (Varenka), a young lady with a tainted reputation. Although many of the best studies of Poor Folk have focused on Makar Devushkin, the depths and full implications of his character remain unexplored. He is an extraordinarily complex figure, composed of ingredients from the sentimental lover of eighteenth-century epistolary fiction, the poor clerk of the Russian "natural school" (most notably, Gogol's Akaky Akakievich from "The Overcoat" [1841]), the self-sacrificing and deeply caring father figure of Pushkin's "Stationmaster" from Tales of Belkin (1830), Balzac's Le Père Goriot (1835), and others. But Makar Devushkin also has a dark side that prefigures the most complex and sinister figures of Dostoevsky's later fiction.

On the surface this assertion seems outrageous, given the generally accepted and indeed well-founded views of Makar Devushkin as the mouthpiece of an oppressed social class, a righteous defender of a wronged maiden, a man prevented by poverty from acting on benevolent and charitable motives. Long ago, however, Dostoevsky's contemporary Valerian Maikov laid the foundations for a more critical approach. In an early review, Maikov suggested that Varenka felt Makar's love as a burden: "Makar Alekseevich's love could only arouse disgust in Varvara Alekseevna, a disgust that she constantly took great care to conceal, perhaps even from herself." Unsurprisingly, Maikov's skeptical opinion was generally ignored by contemporaries, and by later Russian critics, who needed to identify the novel as a plea for the socially downtrodden and oppressed, not as a subtle psychological study. A newer generation of readers, though, has laid the groundwork for a more critical view. Joseph Frank and W. J. Leatherbarrow, for example, point out the underlying dualism of Makar Devushkin's character. Joe Andrew suggests that the power relations inherent in Devushkin's dual role as protector and potential lover associate him with the two "villains" of the story, Bykov and Anna Fedorovna. Others, equally perceptive, recognize the ambiguities inherent in Varenka's plight. In particular, Victor Terras's study and Rebecca Epstein Matveyev's analysis of intertextuality in Poor Folk suggest that Varenka's marriage to Bykov is a form of escape rather than an unmitigated tragedy for her: by marrying, she leaves behind Makar Devushkin's liminal realm of poverty, fear, and danger. In the process, she regains her honor and secures a comfortable material existence.

Taking my cue from these new, skeptical lines of thought, I will explore the implications of a "dark" reading of Devushkin—focusing on him as would-be seducer—in the context of Dostoevsky's artistic vision. Varenka is indeed besieged by both predatory males, as Andrew suggests, but Bykov and Devushkin represent fundamentally different, and mutually exclusive, values. The climax of the plot—Varenka's decision to marry Bykov—represents a renunciation of the dangers and temptations of literature personified in Devushkin. Dostoevsky conveys this message through a parody of sentimental novels, in the process endowing his heroine with a hidden power of her own. My analysis will radically readjust the hierarchies of moral virtue that have been accepted in nearly all critical readings of the novel.

Devushkin's first letter reporting his move into a corner of the kitchen betrays conflicting motives:

I live in the kitchen [...]. It's a large kitchen, with three windows, and I have a partition running along the transverse wall, so that there's a sort of extra, supernumerary room; it's all spacious and convenient, and there's a window, and everything—in a word, everything is convenient. Well, now, don't you go thinking, Mama, that there's something else going on here, some secret meaning; so it's a kitchen, now, is it!—I mean, so maybe I do live in this very room behind a partition, but that's all right; I live separate from everyone, all quiet and modest. [...] True, there are better apartments, maybe ones that are a lot better, but convenience is the main thing; the whole point is convenience, and don't you think that it's for some other reason. Your window is opposite, across the courtyard, and the courtyard is narrow, I can catch a glimpse of you passing, and it makes me happier, miserable as I am, and it's cheaper too. [...] No, it was convenience that made me do it, convenience alone tempted [soblaznilo] me. (1:16–17)

When warned so explicitly not to seek "secret meaning," how can againstthegrain readers avoid the temptation? Devushkin protests too much. Mikhail Bakhtin has analyzed this passage as an example of Dostoevsky's distinctively polemical "orientation of one person to another person's discourse and consciousness." Every word anticipates the reaction of the interlocutor and refutes it in advance. Yet this orientation to the other is most remarkable for its confirmation of the other's absence. Devushkin is, after all, alone; if he were with Varenka he would not be writing to her. Furthermore, the field of potential interlocutors, as Bakhtin knew very well, includes not only the named characters, but also characters in literary history whom Dostoevsky parodies with his double-voiced language, not to mention his contemporary and future readers. We might say that Makar Devushkin is alone in a crowd. In the great novels to come, the defensive, polemical speech style will be particularly characteristic of isolated protagonists, such as the Underground Man, in whom this endless dialogue precludes real, meaningful contact with others. It betrays their fundamental lack of trust and faith in the good will and, in fact, in the very existence of the other. In our analysis, the circle of interlocutors scanned by Devushkin's "sideward glance" includes the reader. By protesting too much, Devushkin teases us to look below the surface. Why, indeed, does he have to justify his choices so vehemently? Our antennae catch the potent word soblaznilo ("tempted," or, alternatively, "seduced"), which suggests guilty desire. The convenience of what would seem to be an inconvenient lodging place is linked explicitly to proximity to Varenka (the window, the narrowness of the courtyard). Devushkin has moved into this place not only for reasons of economy, but also to keep an eye on her. His seemingly selfless and tender desire to watch over a girl in distress can equally convincingly be interpreted as guilty voyeurism. Devushkin's words thus betray his conflicting motives.

Devushkin's mistaken assumption that the accidentally hitched-up curtain communicates a message from Varenka undoubtedly relates to another curtain with erotic overtones—the theater curtain that veiled from his view the actress whom he adored in his youth: "All I could see was the edge of the curtain, but I heard everything" (1:61). In the literary tradition the word "actress" suggests a woman of loose reputation. The characterization of the actress's voice as resembling a nightingale's recalls the novel's pervasive "bird" motif and taints the ostensibly innocent association, made in the novel's all-important first letter, between Varenka and a carefree bird in springtime: "I compared you with a bird of the heavens, created to comfort people and adorn nature. Right then I thought, Varenka, that we, too, we people who live in care and trepidation, also ought to envy the carefree and innocent happiness of the birds of the heavens" (1:14).

Twice in his first letter Devushkin's figurative language betrays conflicting motives. The protector is a bird of prey, deflecting his desire for power into metaphoric expression: "I got up this morning all bright and bushy-tailed" (iasnym sokolom, "like a fine falcon"); "Why am I not a bird, a predatory bird?" (1:14). For socially minded critics, the metaphor of the bird of prey—taken from a poem by the Ukrainian poet M. P. Petrenko—represents Devushkin's incipient impulse toward rebellion against a repressive political system—a system that tolerates poverty. Yet at the same time it expresses a predatory urge against defenseless Varenka. Devushkin's letter to his "little dove" (golubchik) of August 4 reinforces this impression: "If I don't help you, it'll be the death of me, Varenka, my death, pure and simple, but if I do, then you will fly away from me, like a little bird from the nest that these owls, these predatory birds, are about to peck to pieces" (1:73). Devushkin expresses his desire to save Varenka, but the fact is, his love for her, bound up as it is in this correspondence, depends on her remaining in danger. Although Devushkin is powerless to act because he sublimates his impulses into literary expression, he represents both protective and predatory urges. The urge to protect is inseparable from the desire to ravish, and both are linked to the urge to rebel against the existing order.

As it establishes the premise for the correspondence between Varenka and Devushkin, this first letter introduces an erotic tension that will be sustained throughout the novel. The act of writing exposes guilty secrets—illicit sexual desire, thoughts of rebellion. The relevance of the concept of privacy—and the attendant need to guard secrets—in the rise of the Western novel, is well established in the critical tradition. Much of Western literature after Rousseau's Confessions builds on the tension between the felt need to keep secrets and a contrasting desire to tell the truth. The novel, particularly the epistolary genre as it develops in the eighteenth century, "invad[es] the private sphere by opening it up to the irrevocable publicity of writing." Inevitably, literature will turn its attention to the secrets of sexual life, with the narrators serving as voyeurs. Dostoevsky foregrounds these factors in his choice of epigraph from Odoevsky, with its ironic condemnation of the truth-telling pretenses of narrative fiction: "Oh these storytellers! Instead of writing something useful, pleasant, and palatable, they have to dig up all the earth's secrets [vsiu podnogotnuiu]! I'd forbid them to write, I would!" (1:13) The word podnogotnia, which Susanne Fusso reminds us refers to the dirt under one's fingernails, covers many forms of naturalism, but signifies in particular the revelation of sexual secrets. It is a hazardous form of exhibitionism, one that is explicitly literary, rooted in print culture, and inextricable from its time and place. If anything, the anxiety about the human encounter with printed literature is stronger in Russia, where an entirely new literary language was being created on the basis of Western models, than in western Europe. The dangers are particularly acute for innocent girls, who are corrupted by reading books that offer secret knowledge and stir the senses. The most explicit literary expression of the theme came ten years after the publication of Poor Folk, in Turgenev's (also epistolary) novella Faust (1856), which chronicles the ruin and death of a virtuous young wife through exposure to Goethe's masterpiece. Devushkin is aware of the danger of toying with taboos: "Poetry is nonsense! Boys are whipped in school these days for poetry!" (1:20), but he writes in spite of it. On the other hand, Varenka's alleged seducer and later fiancé Bykov, a practical man, avoids the world of letters. Varenka reports his warnings not to trust in Devushkin's ostensible altruism: "[He says] that it's all nonsense, that all that is novels [romany, "romances"], that I'm still young and read poetry, that novels ruin young girls, that books only spoil your morality and that he can't stand any kind of books" (1:100). It is fundamental to this interpretation of the novel to note that Bykov stands outside the territory of literary expression and that he is quoted here as a defender of morality. We readers, protected from the truth by layers of narration, never meet him; a physical being, he cannot enter the book. The opposition in the novel is clear: Devushkin stands for literature, Bykov opposes it, and Varenka is caught between them. Poor Folk is about the body's encounter with the book.

Here we are reminded of the prototypical epistolary romance, the letters of the medieval philosopher Abelard (1079–1142) and Heloise, which are viewed by some as the first modern love story. A former itinerant logician (a profession possible in the twelfth century), Abelard settles down in Paris, where he lectures in philosophy. There he meets the beautiful, intellectually gifted Heloise, over twenty years his junior, whose uncle rashly entrusts him with her education. In his autobiography, the teacher expresses his surprise that "he put his niece entirely under my control ... I was astonished at his simplicity in this matter and would have been no more astounded if he had been giving over a tender lamb to a ravenous wolf." Lessons in philosophy lead to lessons in love. A chain of events—seduction, the birth of a child, an ambiguous marriage, and a power tussle rooted in pride, shame, and family honor—leads Heloise ultimately to a convent, and the newly castrated Abelard to a renewed devotion to the life of the mind. It is at this point that the letters begin. Absence and abstinence precipitate the embodiment of love in literary form.

Devushkin's very position in the material world is marginal: he represents a psychological abstraction. Appropriately, he has sought out a place for himself that is maximally open and exposed, and minimally protected physically: an unenclosed corner in the most heavily used room in the house. Throughout the novel Devushkin hints at the tenuous nature of his grounding in the material world: "Well what am I next to him [Ratiaziaev], what? Nothing!" (1:51); "I hide, I carefully hide everything from everyone, and I myself hide from everyone" (1:75); "before you, my angel, I was alone and it was as though I was sleeping, not living, on earth" (1:82); "I always behaved as though I didn't exist in the world" (1:92). Dostoevsky metonymically reinforces the impression of Devushkin's nonphysicality through repeated references to the ragged state of his hero's clothing. Devushkin does not seem concerned about physical vulnerability before the elements—a real fear to ordinary inhabitants of cold and rainy St. Petersburg. Rather, his clothes serve one function: to protect his honor, or rather, to conceal his shame. He makes this clear when he likens the "poor man's" need to conceal his private life to Varenka's need to maintain her modesty. Devushkin's shame is as much due to his secret desire as it is to his poverty. His money troubles only partly reflect an oppressive social system. Devushkin has a stable position and an adequate—if not lavish—salary; the threadbare state of his clothes is in fact the result of his reckless spending on gifts for Varenka. The gradual erosion of his clothes in the course of the plot serves as a constant reminder of his guilty desire.


Excerpted from Dostoevsky's Secrets by Carol Apollonio Copyright © 2009 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Table of contents:



Chapter I          Poor Folk: The Body and the Book                                          

Chapter II        The Spirit of St. Petersburg: White Nights                                 

Chapter III       Purging Bad Money: The Gambler                                          

Chapter IV       Crime and Punishment: Secrets, Sacraments, and Sex           

Chapter V        The Idiot’s “Vertical Temple”: The Holbein Christ and Ippolit’s Confession                         

Chapter VI       The Demon of Doubt and the Revenge of the Neglected Son: Demons              
Chapter VII     On Slander, Idolatry, and Imposters: Demons                  

Chapter VIII    The Mothers Karamazov                                                      

Chapter IX       Conclusion      

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