Dostoevsky’s Gentle Creature.

I’m almost halfway through Dostoevsky’s Дневник писателя [A Writer’s Diary], and I’ve gotten to the onslaught of mad apocalyptic prophecy I was dreading in this post — I have to skim whole chapters as he rants repetitiously on about wicked Westerners and Jews and the salvation the great Russian people will bring the world under the holy leadership of the tsar. It’s bizarre, a real Jekyll-and-Hyde thing, as Gary Saul Morson points out in his brilliant introduction to the first volume of the English translation: his original concept for the diary was imaginative and original, a mix of genres circling around a common theme (childhood, trials, etc.) for each monthly issue, and as long as he stuck to it the diary makes fascinating reading, but once the Balkan crisis erupts he forgets everything he knows about the vital importance of individual cases, the prosaic nature of life, the importance of the family, etc., and falls right into the cesspit of bloodthirsty patriotism (he actually celebrates a man who leaves his home village to fight the Turks, taking his little daughter with him and saying he’s sure he’ll find a good Christian family to look after her while he’s killing or being killed!).

But then comes the November 1876 issue, which is wholly given over to a novella, Кроткая, translated as A Gentle Creature (and I see it was made into a movie by Bresson, which I’ll have to watch someday). It’s a wonderful piece of writing; of course it’s got the melodramatic features Dostoevsky loved so much — eavesdropping on assignations, hidden revolvers brought out at dramatic moments, weeping, kissing the beloved’s feet, hysterical fits, etc. — but either I’ve gotten used to them or they’re used appropriately for the story, because I didn’t find myself wincing. It’s in the form of a confession/self-analysis by the husband of a suicide (suicide was much on Dostoevsky’s mind, and he had noted several recent examples from the news in earlier issues), and it’s done with penetrating psychological analysis. I recommend it unreservedly.

Here’s the thing, though. As good as it is, it’s basically turning a woman’s story into a man’s. He started from a news report of a young woman made desperate by poverty and inability to find work who threw herself out of a high window clutching an icon to her chest, which understandably haunted him… but instead of imagining himself into her head, he imagined himself into that of a man who married her (essentially the Underground Man, except that instead of staying in his basement he became a pawnbroker) and slowly drove her to desperation. I kept thinking of the failed promise of Netochka Nezvanova (see this post) — he was clearly capable of creating an individualized woman seen for her own sake rather than as an accessory to a man, but after his arrest and exile he seems to have lost interest in doing so. Almost all his later women are either pathetic young victims (as here) or elderly relatives. I’m glad about what he gave us, but I can’t help wishing for more; Russian literature had too many Tatyanas, Natashas, and gentle creatures, and it desperately needed more Netochkas.

[N.b.: I changed “All” to “Almost all” in the penultimate sentence because of D.O.’s correction of my overstatement in the first comment.]

Comments

  1. All his later women are either pathetic young victims (as here) or elderly relatives.

    Reference for “here” is lost, but even without looking at it, two obvious counterexamples spring to mind — Nastasya Filippovna from Idiot (and Aglaya too) and Grushenka from Brothers K.

  2. Yes, good point, I exaggerated as usual.

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