Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Reading Dostoyevsky Short Stories

I have a lot of literary classics on my shelves. Too often, however, I get caught up in reading the latest and greatest in modern literature to take a step back and enjoy something timeless. So it was with great interest that I dove into two collections of Fyodor Dostoyevsky short stories. These two books contained a few of the same stories, but were not completely similar. There were 13 short stories in total, but three were in both, leaving 10 unique short stories from one of the greatest names in Russian literature.
Dostoyevsky is a difficult read. Not because it is overly dense or dry – although one of the stories was incredibly dry, individual breakdown later – but because Dostoyevsky’s work comes from a period where male figures were the end-all, be-all of the story. Only in a rare case in these stories are women treated decently. Not well, just decently. Throughout the selection, women are bullied, beaten, mentally tortured, and overly doted upon. To put in modern parlance, there are serious incel themes in Dostoyevsky’s short stories. Enough for me to have to research what other writers have already written about Dostoyevsky’s possible issues with women. Granted, I only read 10 short stories of his incredibly prolific selection but there was a too many occurrences to discount. 

Let’s look individually at a few of the 10 stories I read: 

White Nights – This was the only story I had read before. Years ago, I remember enjoying this story but upon a second read, the main character definitely has social problems. In this story, a male loner meets a sad young girl along one of his nightly walks. Despite her telling him she has a love interest, he claims to fall in love with her over the course of a week. While her current beau is out of town, our loner protagonist keeps her company and they do get to know each other. When she claims she doesn’t know if her interest will be returning, the main character suggests she write him a letter. There is a delay in the love interest’s reply, disappointing the young lady and making the main character think he has an opening in the life of the one woman he has ever talked to ever. After the delay, the love interest returns and the main character resigns himself to the lonely existence he had before with no interest in finding anyone new. 

Did 19th century St Petersburg have that bad of a social scene or was the main character that anti-social that he, in his 20s, could not imagine finding anyone else? He only knew this girl for a week and he was convinced she was the girl of his dreams and that there would be no other opportunities for a relationship. Dostoyevsky captures incel thinking here generations before the term became popular. 

The Christmas Tree and a Wedding – This story was disturbing for a modern reader. It was short in the book I have, at barely 12 pages. But its content made me feel somewhat dirty and incredibly annoyed. This story begins with a socialite attending an end-of-year party for the pre-teen daughter of a prominent gentleman. While there he notices another socialite, this one with a sour-temper and poor demeanor. This second character attempts to make good with the prominent gentleman and tries talking to the young girl. The narrator thinks it odd, but continues his own socializing. Five years later, he walks past a wedding. When he looks inside, he recognizes the bride as the same young girl, now 16, and her husband as the poor demeanor, sour-tempered man from the previous party. The narrator describes the young bride as disinterested, teary-eyed, and looking for mercy. 

I guess this was commonplace in 19th century Russia but reading about a teenage girl who was courted then married to an evil man by the age of 16 is creepy. I realized Dostoyevsky writes about the downtrodden and the mistreated often, but the acceptance of the situation by the narrator made me do a double take. I had to re-read the final page where the narrator notices the couple, sees the young girl’s plight, but still walks out of the church and goes about his business. The young girl has no agency, rather she is a pawn between the rich father and the opportunistic antagonist. 

Notes from the Underground – I really did not like this story. The first half was the rambling of an anti-social man with severe social anxiety. The second half was his description of events leading up to him being completely anti-social. It reminded me of the movie Taxi Driver and there are others who make that connection. Perhaps I should appreciate Dostoyevsky for creating the genre of disgruntled, frustrated men who look negatively at the world’s progress. Maybe if I was more like that, I would appreciate it more, but that’s not me. 

While the comparisons to Taxi Driver are apt in the first half of the story – which really could have been cut or switched with the second half – the second half of the story is even closer to Scorsese’s film. After 50 pages or so of his anti-social screed, the narrator tells a story of how his life with severe social anxiety. He has few, if any, friends, he over-analyzes every interaction, and tries far too hard to impress people. When they either react or fail to react, he completely misreads their opinions of him. After completely fumbling an attempt to socialize with past classmates, he gets drunk in their company and desires to fight the leader of the group. When he gets to their watering hole ready to fight, he finds no one but a prostitute. He sleeps with her, then goes on a rant, insulting and degrading her. He then offers to help her and get her out of her lifestyle. 

Following those events, the prostitute does find him and looks to better herself. But instead of being the hero, his social anxiety again flares and he breaks down in front of her. After she realizes he is social imbalanced and only talks a good game, she leaves. He returns to his over-analyzing and anti-socialness. 

Again, Dostoyevsky gets credit for popularizing and breaking ground with the anti-social anti-hero, but I finished this story thinking this character seriously needs help. 

A Gentle Creature – Another horrible main character and another tragic woman. Again, our narrator is a male with serious social problems. This story starts with a man sitting next to the body of his deceased wife, who has recently committed suicide. That might be a sympathetic premise if not for the fact that he mentally tortured her. For some reason – perhaps it was the culture at the time – our narrator has a complex about owning a pawnshop. He is also battling guilt for not being as aggressive during his time in the service as those in his unit. He takes both of these guilts out on his wife. 

Of course, just as in The Christmas Tree and the Wedding, the main character of A Gentle Creature is a creepy man, this time in his 40s, with an obsession with a younger bride, again 16. I struggle to think how these two could have interacted as husband and wife. He chides her for her immaturity and passion, not realizing that she is not an adult, at least by modern standards. He often mentions that he has to break her of her old ways of thinking. His methodologies include lying to her, ignoring her, and not telling her any of his faults until it is too late. While he does this, he also holds over her head the broken family and poor circumstances she came from. 

There is a scene in this story that is reminiscent of a scene in another Scorsese film, Good Fellas. Struggling with her abusive husband, the young girl takes a gun and points it to the main character’s head in an attempt to kill him and end their marriage. Whereas Henry Hill grabs the gun from his wife, the main character in A Gentle Creature lays silent, calling her bluff. When she fails to pull the trigger, he congratulates himself for breaking her down again. 

The torture eventually gets to the young girl and she throws herself out of an upper floor window, plummeting to her death. After she is gone, the main character remains clueless, not realizing the amount of stress he put on her. 

I am so curious as to Dostoyevsky’s inspiration for this story. Another story in which I ended up despising the main character. 

Akulka’s Husband – This story was very short, only 10 pages, so I will keep the review short. But it is just as disturbing. The main character is a young man in prison who tells the tale of why he is incarcerated. In his younger years he associated with the local bully. Being from a poor family, he thought this was the best way to gain prestige. After the bully claimed to have slept with a local rich man’s daughter, the main character joined the bully in belittling the girl, calling her unpure and a whore. Their torments caught on throughout the town, making her undesired by any other man. The main character’s mother, knowing the girl’s reputation, tells her son to marry the girl so they can be part of a richer family. When he does, he faces the wrath and ridicule of his friend, the local bully. 

During the course of their marriage, the main character finds out that the bully never did sleep with his now wife. When he accuses the bully of lying, the bully flips the narrative and tells the husband that he was drunk during the ceremony so there is no way he was in his right mind during the vows or the consummation of the marriage. The main character agrees with the bully, claiming again that the bully is his best friend. The idea that he might have been tricked into wedding the girl infuriates him and he repeatedly beats her until bringing her in a field and slitting her throat. 

When the authorities find the wife, they arrest the husband, and put him in prison. 

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man – Lastly, here is the only story in the entire collection I actually liked. In this story, a sullen man is taken on a trip to an alternative Earth after meeting a young, unfortunate girl. This story was vastly different than the previous stories as instead of trying to save her, the negative main character blows her off and goes home to ponder suicide. Thinking the world is worthless and he equally has no place in it, he stares at his pistol until he falls asleep. 

He dreams that he shoots himself in the heart and his spirit flies through space and lands on an alternate Earth where there is no science, no religion, no power, no money, and most importantly, no struggling. There are only people joyously celebrating being alive on this Earth. Unfortunately, his pessimistic attitude about life sullies the society and eventually they fight, create divisions, and suffer. For his sins, he wants nothing more than for them to kill him. But they do not. 

When he awakens, he realizes that the joyous Earth was better than the Earth he came from. Although his friends and neighbors think his story of another Earth is ridiculous, he changes his entire perspective on life and attempts to make the world a better place, to include finding the young girl and helping her. 

This had sort of A Christmas Story plot, although instead of three ghosts, our main character is taken to another planet. I will have to see when Dickens wrote A Christmas Story compared to when Dostoyevsky wrote The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. I also need to look up the science fiction influence. I did not expect to read the idea of flying through space in a 19th century Russian short story. 

Overall, I wasn’t very impressed with Dostoyevsky’s short stories. If you were keeping track, there were five stories about men whose interactions with women ranged from lovelorn to abusive to murderous. Only in The Dream of a Ridiculous Man did the man do the right thing after being inspired by a female interaction. Ironically, it was the interaction that was the shortest and the one that was rejected by the man that created the most enlightened character. 

Of the two books of Dostoyevsky short stories I own, I will probably only keep the one with A Dream of a Ridiculous Man. The other book will probably be traded or donated. The less incel lit I have, the better.