Dostoevsky’s Weak Heart.

I’ve just finished Dostoevsky’s 1848 story “Слабое сердце” (“A Weak Heart,” translated by Constance Garnett as “A Faint Heart“), and it’s much better than I expected; in fact, I’d say it’s the best thing he wrote before being sent off to Siberia. It starts with a comic scene — Vasya Shumkov, a young clerk, comes home to tell his roommate and best friend Arkady he’s engaged to be married but can’t get a word out before Arkady throws him down on the bed and jokingly wrestles with him — but winds up in tragedy, and both the storytelling and the philosophizing are deeper and more convincing than ever. The parallel with (or parody of) Karamzin’s “Poor Liza” is clear (at one point Arkady even exclaims “Ах, бедная Лиза!” [Ah, poor Liza!], which made me laugh), and Joseph Frank (in Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849) compares it to Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” (it “exactly parallels the main theme of Pushkin’s poem”), but what struck me were the parallels with the life and works of Dostoevsky’s friend Yakov Butkov (see these LH posts: 1, 2, 3). The story could be seen as a sort of mashup of Butkov’s “Первое число” [First of the month] (two roommates, both clerks and both in love with the same woman), “Партикулярная пара” [A suit of clothes] (a poor clerk falls in love with a woman but is too abashed to attend her birthday party), and “Ленточка” [The ribbon] (a clerk hopes his ability to copy documents in a fair hand will help win the hand of the woman he loves, who gets engaged to another man), but the deepest parallel is with Butkov’s own situation: in his growing madness Shumkov is convinced he is going to be forced to become a soldier (nearly equivalent to a death sentence in those days), and this is the actual situation that confronted Butkov, who as a poor man from the lowest non-serf class had no exemption from the draft. He was rescued by the editor Kraevsky, who bought his exemption and gave him a place to stay but “overwhelmed him with crushingly hard, poorly paid work” (to quote Geir Kjetsaa, who also noticed the parallel); Kraevsky is clearly represented by Shumkov’s friendly but stern benefactor Yulian Mastakovich. I can’t help but wonder what Butkov thought when he read the story.


  1. Some kind of special love of clerks, in both Dostoevsky and Dickens. Why?

  2. And Melville and Čapek. I think it’s because there were lots of them in that era. They were the somewhat-educated lower middle class.

  3. La Horde Listener says

    Clerks, as depicted by authors, do easy tasks and then go home. Readers can picture the clerks whole work day instantly. There aren’t any big surprises associated with that vocation. No catastrophic messes (contrast hit men), baggage (often single males, minimal social commitments, no higher learning loans to repay), no complications that spill into their time off (clerko drops a pencil, oops, or gets caught picking his nose? Big deal, then it’s lunch time). Ol’ Dances With Filecabinets doesn’t do anything that is going to lead to grave, pistols at dawn standoffs or make waves while on the clock, or sun dial, hour glass… Clerking’s a tidy profession, so clerks work well as characters in fiction as employed non-bum entities who serve refreshingly blank slates for drama. Tools. The tofu of literature: neutral until seasoned with spicy situations.

  4. Oliver Neukum says

    I wonder about the word “Слабое”. It seems almost irresistible to presume a cognate in German “schlaff”. However, that requires a PIE “b”. What do you think?

  5. marie-lucie says

    Before the invention of typewriters, photocopiers, etc, administrations and large businesses in Western countries employed large numbers of clerks to copy and sometimes draft letters and other documents. Melville’s short story Bartleby the scrivener takes place in a lawyer’s office in which we witness four clerks simultaneously taking dictation in order to produce four textually identical copies of important documents. Qualifications for the job were literacy and “a fair hand”, neat and legible handwriting. Many well-known 19th C writers of relatively humble origins got their first paycheck working as clerks. The typewriter dealt a first blow to the male-dominated profession, as women were now preferred for the job since many of them “already played the piano”.

  6. David Marjanović says

    It seems almost irresistible to presume a cognate in German “schlaff”. However, that requires a PIE “b”. What do you think?

    German has both schlapp and schlaff – northern German, that is; neither form is current in the south, as far as I know. These two forms shouldn’t be cognates of each other, because schlaff points at short */p/, which would mean that schlapp should have received a long vowel during the lengthening of vowels in monosyllabic words. Perhaps, then, we’re looking at Kluge doublets from *-/bʰn/-.

    This can be tested: */b/ would have lengthened preceding vowels in Balto-Slavic (Winter’s law), while */bʰ/ would not have.

    From the Vasmer link: лтш. slãbt “обмякнуть, поникнуть”, лит. жем. slãbnas “слабый”, slambù, slàbti “слабнуть” – a short vowel in Lithuanian, and the *-/n/- shows up in two forms.

    That contradicts the Slavic /a/, which was once a long vowel. Different ablaut grade? :-/

  7. According to the Vasmer link, Machek called it “expressive lengthening” [Махек (ZfS, I, 1956, стр. 34) объясняет долготу гласного -а- в слав. слове, при краткости гласного, напр., в д.-в.-н. соответствии, экспрессивным удлинением]. I know, I know.

  8. All the infixed and suffixed nasals in Balto-Slavic would indeed point to Kluge variants in Germanic. The Slavic adjective could be a Vrddhi-formation?

  9. David Marjanović says

    Makes sense to me, but I know less about vrddhi formations in Slavic than Wikipedia does.

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