Five Minutes too late . . .
Ludmila Koehler, University of Pittsburgh
Like some other tales of Dostoevsky, A Gentle Creature has been eclipsed by his more monumental works. It may nevertheless be one of his greatest. At least two such dissimilar authorities as Knut Hamsun and Saltykov-Shchedrin agree on that. Hamsun, himself a great writer (though not well known nowadays), wrote: "Da ist zum Beispiel die kleine Erzählung
Krotkaja. Ein ganz kleines Büchlein. Aber für uns alle ist es zu groß, zu unerreichbar groß." Saltykov-Shchedrin described the story as "a pearl, rare in all world literature." (1)
Dostoevsky used the subtitle "A Fantastic Story" and prefaced it by certain observations on the nature of the fantastic. No sooner has he described it as fantastic when he adds that he "considers it utterly realistic." This seeming contradiction is resolved by the fact that it is only the
form of the story that he considers fantastic.
The assumption of a stenographer (nowadays one would probably substitute a recording device) taking notes underlies Dostoevsky's notion of the fantastic in this story. After the introduction of this convention in the preface, the story is then developed in an utterly realistic manner. Rudolf Neuhäuser suggested that "Dostoevskij begründete die 'Phantastik' der Erzählung mit der besonderen stilistischen Form, die wir heute als
inneren Monolog bezeichnen würden." (2)
Viktor Vinogradov describes the style of the story as a kind of "psychological skaz." Or, as he puts it, "the writer uses not the language structure of skaz, but solely its atmosphere.' (3) Vinogradov bases this assumption on Dostoevsky's statement in the preface that he only "polished" a rough draft, preserving the "psychological sequence." The monologue is interspersed with slice-of-life sketches, and proves Dostoevsky to be an absolute master of mood and atmosphere. The narrator presents the interlacing, overlapping, but essentially separate worlds that form the individual human consciousnesses of the two characters involved.
According to Tsvetan Todorov's dichotomous definition of the fantastic, this specific literary genre branches out in two directions: "l'étrange" and "le merveilleux." Of the two, this story would seem to fit the first category. Todorov, in fact, refers to Dostoevsky's novels in this context: "Les romans de Dostoievsky, par example, peuvent être rangés dans le catégorie de l'étrange." (4)
The theme of a self-exiled, solitary hero (or perhaps anti-hero) is, of course one of Dostoevsky's cardinal themes. Thus,
the hapless hero of A Gentle Creature is closely related not only to the Underground Man, but also to all the moneylenders (or pawnbrokers) in Dostoevsky's fiction. In fact, this character type seems to dominate the writer's output from the sixties into the seventies, starting perhaps with the old pawnbroker in
Crime and Punishment. The genealogy of the hero of A Gentle Creature, a moneylender out of spite and vindictive-ness whose main idea is to rise above the despised crowd by means of accumulating wealth, culminates in the symbolic image of Rothschild, first brought up by Alesha in
The Insulted and Humiliated. (5) The figure of an alienated hero, embittered, dreaming of avenging himself on society by becoming a pawnbroker, appears repeatedly in Dostoevsky's fiction (including drafts and outlines) of this time. One of the first manifestations of the moneylender's mentality appears in
The Idiot. It is Gania Ivolgin's ambition to become the "King of the Jews," (i.e. Rothschild). His friend and brother-in-law, Ptitsyn, is a moneylender and usurer. Ippolit in the same novel does not feel any compassion for the poor. He asks: "Why isn't he [the poor man] a Rothschild? Whose fault is it that he hasn't a heap of gold imperials and napoleon-d'ors?" (6) The drafts for the novel include the figure of an officer and moneylender. Dostoevsky describes him as "proud, vain, suspicious"; elsewhere he is called a "hypochondriac," a "usurer, living a solitary life, but a usurer with a certain poetry in his nature." (7)
The image of the moneylender also appears in The Adolescent (via the unrealized
Life of a Great Sinner). In the notebooks for the novel (as well as in the novel itself) the "Rothschild motif" appears once more in the ambitious dream of Arkadii Dolgorukii: His chief ambition is to become rich. He confesses that he has decided to withdraw into his idea. This withdrawal is so complete that it is compared to withdrawing like a tortoise into a shell. The image of a tortoise and a shell was already used to portray Raskol'nikov in
Crime and Punishment, (8) Another image of retreat, "corner," used repeatedly by the Underground Man to describe his self-imposed isolation (he also speaks of a "burrow, shell, casing, cellar") reappears in
A Gentle Creature to symbolize the hero's retreat from the rest of mankind.
But the adolescent's idea is more original than to simply amass wealth. He quotes approvingly lines from Pushkin's
Covetous Knight, he aspires to a "simple life" of independence and solitude after he reaches his goal. Then he will either avenge himself on society or become its benefactor. The philanthropic dream of the adolescent echoes a passage in the
Notes From the Underground, where the anti-hero dreams in a "paroxysm of fantastic love" for all mankind about how he will give away "countless millions" to the human race. (9)
One of the first entries concerning the future plot of A Gentle Creature is a draft (dated approximately September-October 1869) entitled "Killed after Reading the Bible" (Posle Biblii zarezal). Its hero is an "underground type" who "could
not cope with jealousy." The main points of the story are as follows: The "underground character" seeks out a young orphan in order to marry her. He is an embittered being who has suffered many blows in life. It is stressed that he is infinitely mistrustful and vain. Some episodes mentioned briefly in the fragment were later incorporated in
A Gentle Creature: Rare visits to the theater, the hero's education, and so on. Very important is the notation that "at one time the hero and his wife began to fall in love" (zateilas' u
nikh liubov')- But he "rends her heart"(nadorval ?? serdse).(10)
It is an interesting coincidence that Kierkegaard tells of a similar situation in his
Seducer: one of his acquaintances confided to him that he chose a very young girl to become engaged to and that "this was exactly the reason he had selected her, so that he might shape her according to his ideal which was ever floating before his mind." (11) Svidrigailov and Luzhin (as well as some other characters) share this idea fully.
After finishing The Idiot, Dostoevsky planned to write a short story based on the "underground" idea. He emphasized that the form of the story would be quite different, but that the essence (my usual essence" [moia vsegdashniaia sushchnost']) would be the same. He was convinced that he could write it in a very short time, since "every line, every word of it are clear to me." He also notes that a lot of it has been already put down (zapisano), although nothing has been written (napisano). (12)
About the same time Dostoevsky jotted down another plan, entitling it "Plan for the Story for
Zaria [the journal Dawn]." It focuses on another character, described as a "stingy, vindictive pawnbroker" with "wounded vanity." Dostoevsky calls him a "misanthrope" but "with an underground" (misantrop, no s podpol'em). His other important feature is the "need to trust which lurks under the hostile, insulting distrust-fulness." He tells his life's story to a girl, designated only as a "ward" (vospitannitsa). A love affair of sorts develops, and he puts her to a test by eavesdropping on her. She suffers, and in fact he "breaks her heart." (13)
Despite Dostoevsky's statement that "every line and every word of the story" was clear to him, it took several more years (seven to be exact) for it to assume its final form. A sudden jolt was needed to propel it to the "writing-down" stage. This shock was provided by the newspaper account in the first part of April, 1876, of the suicide of a poor seamstress, Maria Borisova, who threw herself out of a window, clutching an icon in her hands. Dostoevsky's reaction to this tragedy was a short comment in the October issue of
The Diary of a Writer. After describing the actual occurrence, he calls it a "meek suicide" (krotkoe samoubiistvo) that "keeps haunting you for a long time." Sparked by this suicide, the final version of the story germinated in an incredibly short time: Most of it was finished by November 19, 1876 and appeared in the November issue of
There is another feature that the Adolescent, the Underground Man, and the pawnbroker-narrator of
A Gentle Creature share. In the Adolescent's words, he used to "recreate life in a new and different way" (peresozdaval zhizn' na inoi lad). He describes this state as the "fiercest dreaminess." L.M. Rosenblium believes that in Dostoevsky the word "dreamer" means a man "deeply dissatisfied, one withdrawn from reality. He is disturbed by universal problems but is inactive, limited to a bookish perception of the world. Contrasting the 'dreamer' with Philistines, aspiring solely to personal comfort, Dostoevsky exposed them as 'Russian Europeans,' alienated from the soil." (14)
In A Gentle Creature, the narrator says of himself, "You see, the whole trouble is that I am a dreamer." (15) And as Arkadii Dolgorukii says that Versilov turned out to be his dream, that he, in fact, invented Versilov, so does the pawnbroker "invent" his wife: indeed, underground characters usually invent their lives.
The draft of A Gentle Creature contains a reference to the narrator's buying a translation of Goethe's
Faust with the three silver rubles sent to him from home. In the final version he only quotes from the poem (imprecisely): "Ia—ia esm' chast' toi sily tselogo, kotoraia khochet delat' zlo, a tvorit dobro ..." (p. 215) .
At about the time Dostoevsky was working on the story (November 1876) , he wrote down a plan for a novel called
The Dreamer, in many details similar to A Gentle Creature. The character of the protagonist, however, underwent a transformation: "He is a dreamer but not an idealist, rather full of scepticism." Dostoevsky notes as a possible ending: "But he kills himself (solely from mal du siècle)." (16)
A.S. Dolinin is probably right in pointing to a real-life prototype for the character of the youthful Rothschilds. He suggests that the novelist may have used the psychological portrait of the poet Nekrasov as his model. According to Dolinin, Dostoevsky considered Nekrasov a controversial figure and was at pains to divine his mystery. (17) It is true, that Dostoevsky, referring to an early poem of Nekrasov ("Ogni zazhigalis' vechernie" [Evening lights went on]), describes the poet's arrival in St. Petersburg by quoting the concluding line: "V karmane moem million" (A million in my pocket) and adds: "A million — this was Nekrasov's demon!" This evil spirit is the "most gloomy and base demon" (samyi mrachnyi i unizitel'nyi bes); it is the demon of pride, the craving for material security, the need to "erect a barrier," to separate oneself from others, to construct a wall. Dostoevsky believes that this demon started sucking at the poet's heart (prisosalsia k serdtsu) when he was a mere boy, perhaps from the age of fifteen, and that Nekrasov paid dearly by untold sufferings for the adherence to this dream. (18)
Like Dostoevsky's Underground Man, the narrator of A Gentle Creature is inclined to self-analysis. He also shares the Underground Man's polemical streak, as they both seem to constantly address listeners or some imaginary opponent (or
a judge, as Dostoevsky remarks in the preface to A Gentle Creature). And as the
Notes from the Underground are the first of many "confessions," so is this whole story. In the process of confessing both heroes reveal a deeply troubled psyche and a warped personality. In both cases it is an uninterrupted soliloquy resulting in a confession-apologia.
Although the moneylender-narrator of A Gentle Creature is neurotically self-centered, the accent shifts when he attempts to penetrate his wife's soul. This attempt — half-hearted in the beginning — leads finally to the grasping of his wife's tragedy. Unfortunately for the narrator, he is completely incapable of sustaining a normal relationship, but his self-justification notwithstanding, the final shock makes him dimly aware that it was his tyrannical treatment, his desire to make her suffer for his former humiliations that drove her to suicide. He meant to experiment with her but ended as a victim of his own experiment. His wife had adjusted to the loveless marriage, and when he overwhelmed her with the revelation of his love, it was a shock she was unable to survive. He constantly misread her reactions — in the duel episode, for example, he imagined himself the victor: "In my eyes she was thoroughly subdued ... thoroughly crushed.... What pleased me was the idea of our inequality" (p. 238). But was she really subdued?
The real-life story that served as the starting point was radically reworked by Dostoevsky, or rather, the whole account preceding the suicide was invented by him. There are only two main characters in the story (both unnamed), and Dostoevsky focuses on the narrator (and so did the critics, for the most part). We see the narrator's bride mainly through the distorted mirror of his notion of her. It is probably her "gentleness" that keeps her from pressing the trigger in the "duel" scene. But it is also obvious that she is not at all the submissive young girl he imagines her to be.
In the chapter "Dream of Pride" the narrator reflects on his need for a friend; he had, of course, assumed that she will become his friend after their marriage. But he adds: "But a friend has to be taken in hand, licked into shape, and — yes — even mastered" (p. 237). Is this the way to win a friend? If so, it is only the typical Underground Man's idea of friendship. The story of just such a friendship is told by the Underground Man: He confides that he grew to hate his school friend as soon as "he was completely in my power." He adds: "I ... drove him from me, as though I only wanted him for the sake of gaining a victory over him, for the sake of exacting his complete submission." (19)
However, in A Gentle Creature the narrator's intention misfires: He does not put her in "due condition." Her outward submissiveness is not a sign of her loss of independence. In fact, their estrangement suits her because it ensures her spiritual freedom. This is why his sudden rush of passionate
feelings, his declaration of submission, embarrasses her: It upsets the equilibrium and poses a threat to her independence. She understands well that for him love means "either domination or submission" and she does not want either. Thus, even an uneasy truce is preferable.
She is young, inexperienced, in dire straights, but in contrast to him she is a normal human being, not a subterranean creature. The one important insight into her character is gained from her spirited and deft handling of the Efimovich affair, which impresses even this rake. But the narrator manages to misinterpret even this by using sophistry; thus, even Efimovich shows more sensitivity in reacting to the episode.
Does Dostoevsky approve (or at any rate justify) her taking her own life? Despite his advocacy of "living life" (in
The Adolescent and elsewhere), he apparently exonerates her. At least this seems to be implied by his comments (in the October 1876 issue of the
Diary of a Writer) on the suicide of Herzen's seventeen-year-old daughter, who used chloroform to kill herself, leaving a rather flippant note in French.
After noting that Herzen's daughter was born and raised abroad, Dostoevsky analyses her "nasty" note and finds in it "challenge, indignation, and spite." Very perceptively, her remarks that her "soul ...suffocated ... there was not enough air." Here he breaks off his comments in order to focus on the second suicide (of the poor seamstress), but the implications of his analysis are clear: Herzen's daughter was divorced from the "soil" and was deprived of religious upbringing. Commenting on the second suicide, Dostoevsky stresses the strained circumstances of the poor girl. He then adds that in this case there was no element of rebellion or defiance: It simply became impossible for her to go on living. "It wasn't God's will and she died after having prayed." (2O) What deeply impressed the writer and excited his imagination was the icon in the hands of the second suicide. He considered the two suicides to be of completely different nature, as if from different planets.
Another suicide is discussed in the same chapter of the Diary of a Writer (in the section entitled
The Verdict). Here the writer presents the viewpoint of a suicide who has a lot in common with Herzen's daughter. He is described as a materialist; he objects to having been born and endowed with consciousness. He brings up the "harmony of the whole from which human consciousness derived religion" and refuses to accept this harmony (which he does not understand), to "accept life and to agree to live." His reasoning has, of course, a lot in common with Ivan Karamazov's reflections on universal harmony, immorality, and God.
This suicide actually envies the unconscious existence of animals, of cows, for instance (and it is true that animals don't get alienated). He questions the morality, scientific basis, and sensibleness of the arrangement of the world. He rejects happiness because of the impending inevitable anni-
hilation and blames the "eternal laws of nature" because, according to him, they are full of profound contempt for mankind. In other words, he rejects even the Utopian socialistic interpretation of the future. Thus, he arrives logically at the conclusion that as the only way out, "since I cannot exterminate nature, I, out of boredom... annihilate myself." (21)
Dostoevsky believes that at the root of the evil (alienation, underground mentality, and so on) is the historical divorce of the Russian upper classes from the people, from the "soil". In a very sarcastic aside, commenting on the "moans and groans" caused by toothache, the hero fo the
Notes from the Underground claims that he groans "not at all like some coarse peasant but like a man of culture and European civilization," like a man who "has divorced himself from the soil, and from the people's principles." (22) Ultimately, though, the root of the tragedy must be diagnosed not only as alienation from the people and the soil, but also from God. Eliseo Vidas traces the deplorable situation of modern man in Dostoevsky to its very source: "Man's plight his unhappiness, his divided soul, his need for self-laceration, his viciousness, his pride, and his shame, his ills, in short, flow from the same fountain-head, his unbelief. His unbelief is lack of love, which in turn is hell. (23) "'man, love one another,' — who said that? Whose commandment is that?" the narrator asks at the very end (p. 251). He seems not to know the source of this behest, he only remembers the words. St. John of Kronstadt had this to say on love: "The purer the heart becomes, the larger it becomes; consequently it is able to find room for more and more loved ones; the more sinful it is, the more it contracts, consequently it is able to find room for fewer and fewer loved ones — it is limited by a false love, self-love." (24)
The narrator's "system" with his wife amounted to silence, and he dampened her enthusiasm with his coldness. But why was he afraid to show his real feelings for her (except in the very last days, when he overwhelmed her and precipitated the tragic outcome)? Metropolitan Antonii suggests that Dostoevsky was the first to attach great significance to "errors of the human heart." He blames this on "European culture," which sets great store by power, willfulness, pride (and consequently the custom of duels) and the loss of humility (smirenomudrie). He points specifically to the hero of
A Gentle Creature in this connection, who "is devoid of Christian humility and who drives his wife to suicide." (25)
The "only five minutes" by which the narrator thinks he missed his wife's suicide (which he believes he could have prevented) are actually a much longer time. It is true that he is ultimately on the verge of breaking out of his largely self-made exile. He dreams about the future when he will shower his wife with love and create a paradise for her (actually, imprison her in this paradise). But he is only dreaming, putting off his future imaginary happiness without paying
attention to her condition.
The outward sign of a change in his psychological state, precipitated by the tragedy that overcomes him, is reflected in a change in his style and tone. Dostoevsky notes in the "Preface" that when his hero arrives at the truth, "Toward the end even the tone of the story changes as compared with the general untidiness of its beginning" (p.. 209-210). This is born out by the final paragraphs of the story. At one point a thought flashes through his mind, "not to let them take her away" (echoes of Rogozhin's reaction to a similar predicament in
The Idiot). But he immediately realizes that this is impossible and adds: "I am not mad. I am not raving. As a matter of fact, I don't think I've ever been as clearheaded as I am now" (p. 250). And right he is -- despite the shock, he is reasoning in a logical way and his sentences are now short, precise, and to the point. In Bakhtin's words, he regains "his own genuine voice." (26)
Dostoevsky only hints at the possibility of a sudden spiritual rebirth of his hero: The story remains a tragic tale and Dostoevsky shuns an "idyllic" ending. In the notes to
The Adolescent we find the following observation: "Bolkonsky is reformed on seeing Anatole's leg cut off, and we all cried over this reforming, but a genuine Underground Man would not have reformed." (27) Does this impossibility of reform apply to the hero of
A Gentle Creature as well? It remains a moot point. Dostoevsky does not tell us which of the complex drives of his hapless hero will ultimately triumph. In
Two Suicides he speaks of the impossibility to penetrate a phenomenon in its entirety, to find its end and its beginnings - this for the moment is for man still something fantastic." (28)
As one of the reasons for the appearance of the "underground mentality" Dostoevsky indicated the rejection of God: "The reason for the underground is the destruction of our belief in certain general rules. Nothing is sacred." This fragment is followed by the following abrupt entry: "Incomplete people (nedokonchennye liudi), like the engineer in
The Possessed."(29) In other words, Dostoevsky considered Kirillov a variant of the underground character. Dostoevsky also bitterly complained about censorship which removed his conclusion to
The Notes From the Underground; this conclusion was to indicate the need for "faith in Christ." (30)
The suicide of his wife is conceived by the narrator as a cosmic catastrophe. Symbolically this is expressed by the oxymoronic image of the "dead sun," And yet only a few days . before he was raving about "Spring! Boulogne! There was the sun there! There was our new sun there!" (p. 245).
In his very last words the narrator rails against the laws
of nature (not unlike the suicide in The Verdict). He exclaims:
"Insensibility [kosnost']. Oh, nature! People are alone in
the world. That's what is so dreadful... Everything is dead. Dead men are everywhere. There are only people in the world, and all around them is silence — that's what the earth is!" (251) "Kosnost'" is variously translates as "insensibility," "stagnation," "inertia," and so on. In addition to different translations, various scholars give the word different interpretation. Thus, D.V. Grishin seems to identify it with loneliness. (31) L.M. Rosenblium, on the other hand, identifies "kosnost'" with indifference in the existence of society and even the universe. In this connection Rosenblium remarks: "It is difficult to overcome kosnost' in the surrounding world, but it is even more difficult to overcome it in oneself." (32)
In the absence of a complete concordance to Dostoevsky's works, one can find only a few chance instances where this word is used. A similar expression appears in the article on the suicide of Herzens' daughter in the phrase "tiraniia kosnoi prichiny" (tyranny of the insensitive cause) with which one cannot become reconciled. (33) The same word is used in
The Adolescent when the hero addresses some young radicals: "Nothing is clear in your society, gentlemen. You are denying God, you deny heroic deeds; what deaf, blind, dull
kosnost' could compel me to act in this way if it is more advantageous to me to act in another?" The Adolescent then rejects the "code" of the young radicals, rationality (just like the Underground Man), society, the world, linking him with the narrator of
A Gentle Creature. But in Arkadii Dolgorukii's rejection he casts implicit blame on the socialist ideal, declaring that he does not care what happens in the future if he is "not to get either love, nor future life, nor recognition of my feat." He is frustrated by the idea of a future that offers "barracks and phalansteries" instead of love and immortality and, like the Underground Man, he rejects this future. (33)
Very similar are some passages in Ippolit's confession in The Idiot, although the word
kosnost' does not appear. Ippolit rebels against the "dark and dumb fate" which was to "crush me like a fly." In his. moment of crisis he speaks of his impending death as a "death sentence" and rails against the inexorable laws of nature. The realization of the irrevocability of these laws hits him with special force as he contemplates Holbein's "Christ in the Tomb" in Rogozhin's gloomy dwelling. Ippolit begins to doubt the possibility of resurrection: If "death is so horrible and the laws of nature so powerful, how can they be overcome?" Nature appears to him in the guise of a "monstrous, implacable, dumb beast" and then as "an enormous machine of the newest construction which insensibly took hold of, crushed, and swallowed dumb and insensible, a great and priceless Being." (34) Thus, Ippolit's vocabulary is very close to that of both the hero of
A Gentle Creature and the two suicides (Herzen's daughter and the hero of
Reflecting on the death of his first wife, Dostoevsky arrives at the idea of immortality. Concluding this fragment he says: "The teaching of materialists - universal
kosnost' and the mechanism of matter - means death." He contrasts this with the
teaching of "true philosophy" which is the "destruction
of stagnation [kosnost'], that is: Thought, that is ... God
and eternal life." (35)
In all these instances, but particularly in A Gentle Creature, Dostoevsky explores "extreme situations" of metaphysical isolation and its implications and of rebellion against "nature" and its laws. Mostly he uses the word kosnost' to describe the laws of nature. As used by Dostoevsky, it conveys a unique concept quite different from the meaning given in dictionaries: "stagnation, inertness, sluggishness." The concept of
kosnost' appears in certain situations and is mostly linked with the "implacable laws of nature," i.e. annihilation and death. In our time this concept could be perhaps described as entropy, the unavailable energy.