Poor Folk II.

I’ve finished Poor Folk now (see this post), and although I got a bit impatient at times, it was enjoyable throughout and frequently moving. I was pleased to see that my prediction here that “the Pushkin story, about the mysterious fate of a young woman the narrator finds himself attracted to, is going to be relevant to the novel” was borne out (Devushkin loses the young woman who is his only joy in life to a sudden and unforeseen marriage, just as the stationmaster loses his daughter), and I enjoyed picking up on the influences from the novels he’d been reading (the insanely doting father of young Pokrovsky is a straight-up copy of le père Goriot) and recognizing his sly parodies of the genres popular at the time (the society tale, the historical romance) and of his main influence, Gogol. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that near the start Devushkin writes “в должность-то я пошел сегодня таким гоголем-щеголем” [I strutted to work today like a dandy-gogol (golden-eye duck)], and towards the end he writes “фрак-то на нем сидит гоголем” [his tailcoat sits on him like a gogol].) I also couldn’t help but notice an early instance of the “double” theme in “Я, Варенька, ничего, по правде, и не помню; помню только, что у него было очень много офицеров, или это двоилось у меня — бог знает” [Truly, Varenka, I don’t remember a thing; I remember only that there were a lot of officers at his place, or I was seeing double — God only knows].

But the novel achieves real emotional depth when Varvara reminisces about her youth in the countryside, living a carefree life in a house near a lake (“такое широкое, светлое, чистое, как хрусталь!” [so wide, light-filled, pure, like crystal!]); I won’t soon forget the image of a little girl sitting by the lakeside at dusk, gazing at the fishing boat on the lake and the fire the fisherman have lit on the shore (“и свет далеко-далеко по воде льется” [and the light streams far away over the water]), and listening to a frightened bird darting up or the reeds rustling in the wind or a fish splashing: “всё, бывало, слышно” [you could hear everything]. Later there’s a contrasting urban vision when Devushkin describes a walk he took along the Fontanka canal: “Барок такая бездна, что не понимаешь, где всё это могло поместиться. На мостах сидят бабы с мокрыми пряниками да с гнилыми яблоками, и всё такие грязные, мокрые бабы. Скучно по Фонтанке гулять!” [There are so many barges you can’t understand how they can all fit; on the bridges sit peasant women with wet spice-cakes and rotten apples, all those dirty, wet women. It’s depressing to walk along the Fontanka!] But then he turns from the Fontanka to walk along Gorokhovaya Street, and we are treated to a bout of moralizing about how rich people have so much and poor people have so little and how awful that is; this is, of course, what warmed the heart of Belinsky and his fellow seekers for socially conscious realism, but it cooled mine right down, and I fear it’s but a foretaste of what will become a flood of such moralizing as I move further into the century. And the epistolary framework gets sillier and sillier (why does she write to Devushkin asking him to tell the dressmaker this and that when she could just write the dressmaker?), and the plot is not provided with enough explanation to make it plausible (why exactly is the wealthy Bykov so insistent on marrying this thin, sickly, bedraggled, depressed woman?), but really, none of that matters. The characters are pure Dostoevsky, even if not as fully developed as they would be later on, and so is the scene when poor Devushkin, having messed up a rush job, is called into the boss’s office and instead of being fired is given a hundred rubles and a respectful handshake by the good-hearted man.

And remember that extract in the earlier post with the fourfold repetition of стало быть ‘therefore’? I was right to take note of it; at the end, in Devushkin’s final despairing outcry of a letter, we find:

Вот я от вас письмецо сейчас получил, всё слезами закапанное. Стало быть, вам не хочется ехать; стало быть, вас насильно увозят, стало быть, вам жаль меня, стало быть, вы меня любите!

And now I’ve gotten your little letter, all spotted with tears. Therefore, you don’t want to go; therefore, you’re being taken away by force, therefore you feel sorry for me, therefore you love me!

That’s what I call a payoff.

Addendum. I just noticed what looks to me like a possible reference to Schiller’s Don Carlos (in Michael Dostoevsky’s translation, which I’m reading now thanks to between4walls in this XIX век thread). In the play, the queen says to Carlos:

Глядят на вас и говорят и ропщут:
«Не в чреве ль матери он заслужил
Стать выше всех других своих собратий?»

look upon you and speak and murmur:
“Did he not in his mother’s womb deserve
to stand above all others of his fellows?”

And Dostoevsky’s Devushkin asks: “зачем одному еще во чреве матери прокаркнула счастье ворона-судьба, а другой из воспитательного дома па свет божий выходит?” [Why did the fate-crow caw forth happiness for one man in his mother’s womb, while another goes forth into God’s daylight from the foundling hospital?]


  1. Good find! It made me think, again, of the actual meaning of this expression, “стало быть”. It has an aura of obsolescence, and of guesswork and questioning rather than of the logical certainty of a cause-and-effect conclusion which I associate with the English “therefore”. N-gram shows that its usage in print has dropped two fold+ in the past century, but it is still in use, largely owing to the reprints of the XIX c. classics, primarily Dostoyevsky. It also shows that, just like I felt intuitively, “стало быть” is commonly used at the start of questions (“Стало быть, имя Азефа — постыдное имя, которым можно браниться?” – Trotsky) ~~ “Is it true?” / “Did I guess it right?”, and to mark a guess or a surprise discovery of something hitherto unseen (“Ба!Так,стало быть, и в кармане тоже должна быть кровь, потому что я еще мокрый кошелек тогда в карман сунул!” – Dostoyevsky again) ~~ “Wow! Then, it must be so!” / “How could I not see it before?”.

    So in the common speech, it isn’t really the formal logic sense of “A is true therefore B is true” (which is how “Стало быть” is used in math or philosophy books), but more like “Was I, like, totally blind before?” / “Now I see it”.

  2. Trond Engen says


  3. Yeah, “so” is a reasonable translation in the semantic sense; the problem is that it is entirely colorless and unremarkable, whereas “стало быть” is pretty strongly marked and quite memorable (as shown by the fact that I noticed and remembered it). I realize “therefore” is in some ways not a great translation, but it captures the marked/memorable aspect: if you see four of them in a row, you notice it.

  4. Стало быть, meaning therefore, thus, used to be popular to the point of being as colourless as ‘so.’ It’s hardly used today in written or oral language.
    I remember, years ago, perhaps in 1970s, how struck I was with the frequent occurrence of stal-byt’, when reading Russian prose of 1920-30s.
    It’s just that phraseology has the habit of coming into fashion, then falling out of fashion, and then coming back into fashion again because of its force that may be attributed to its rarity.
    Has anyone noticed how widely spread is the similar conjunction ‘whereby’ in British English today?

  5. It was more popular, sure, but never colorless; I’m reading tons of nineteenth-century prose and I can assure you it’s not all that common. In the Dostoevsky novel, for instance, those eight occurrences are the only ones: four near the start and four at the end.

  6. hm, I’ve always thought of it as a very ordinary figure of colloquial speech, slightly archaic today, like третьего дня (the day before yesterday) instead of the current позавчера.
    Every other story by Chekhov has stalo byt, Alexander Ostrovsky uses it a lot, and, I just had a quick look, Chernyshevsky’s What is to Be Done? has it 25 times.

  7. Yeah, I’m not saying it was rare, it was definitely more common then than now, but I don’t think it was ever colorless (like, say, итак). I could, of course, be wrong.

  8. Just to get a snapshot of historic usage, I compared таким образом, итак, это значит, стало быть (all in the “thus” / “so” cluster of meanings) on N-gram. It appeared that “стало быть” sharply dominated in the Imperial times, and quickly lost prominence after the revolution

  9. Very interesting! Thanks for checking that. It would be great to be able to ask someone who grew up before the Revolution about it.

  10. oops oops! Ngram is faithful to either old or new orthography of course – whenever a change seems to have happened in 1917, the first thing to do is to check your hard signs

  11. таким(ъ) образом(ъ) is so much more common than any of the others that it flattens their graphs, so let’s leave it out and just look at итак(ъ), это значит(ъ), and стало быть. I note the following:

    The orthographic transition starts around 1905 and isn’t really complete until 1940. That’s much longer than I had believed.

    итак(ъ) is and always has been far and away the most common of the three. No surprise there: as Hat says, it’s the simplest and most colorless way to say ‘so’.

    это значит(ъ) doubles in frequency between 1918 and 1936, making it slightly more common than стало быть (which has no orthographic transition) rather than substantially less common, and so it remains today. What could account for that?

  12. oh, John, but there dozens other, synonymous, words and phrases – получается, выходит, таким образом, так что, по сути [дела]. I’d attribute the stalo byt falling out of fashion with the reform of Russian in 1918. Ancien régime words and phrases with есть (is), суть (are) were very steadily replaced by more energetic or simply different forms.

  13. Ancien régime words and phrases with есть (is), суть (are) were very steadily replaced by more energetic or simply different forms

    I don’t think it is an absolute rule: “то есть” (literally “That’s”) underwent a slow but dramatic, nearly an order of magnitude revival after the revolution. Although a “to be”-based constrict, it may have been different in that it didn’t have the social aura of Church vocabulary or German-influenced bureaucratic vocabulary (a lot of multi-layered verb constructs such as a monstrous “имеет место быть” seem to be calques from German?). On the contrary, “то есть” seemed to belong to common-folk usage in XIX c.: “То есть, то есть, такъ, сударь — доложи, то есть, Такушкинъ-молъ привелъ живописца и архитектура” (1842), “То есть вот как, поверите ли, братцы, — подхватил он, оборачиваясь к сидевшим за другими столами и с живостью размахивая руками, — то есть отродясь не видал такого старика: плечи — вот! ” (1853) … moreover, historical examples include uneducated, mangled forms which demonstrates that the “есть” part of the expression was no longer understood as a form of a verb “to be” as early as in the first half of XIX c. : “Я вотъ разскажу тебѣ, Антипъ Савельичъ, насчетъ того, тоись, примѣрно, воли-то Господней.” (1831)’ “Нужновато бы намъ больно писаря-то повидать (кланяется). Не можно ли… тоись… эфтакимъ образомъ? ” (1844)

  14. I’d attribute the stalo byt falling out of fashion with the reform of Russian in 1918.

    But that’s just it, it remains fairly constant in frequency while “eto znachit'” moves up. No post-Imperial disappearance.

  15. I like your translation of скучно in “Скучно по Фонтанке гулять!” as “it’s depressing.” I don’t remember seeing that before, and I think it’s just right in this context.

  16. Thanks! I considered several options, and was pleased with that one.

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