Book Review: “A Gentle Spirit” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Translator: Constance Garnett

Original Language: Russian

Year of First Publication: 1876

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2014

Number of Pages: N/A

Publisher: The University of Adelaide

Genre: Fiction

Subjects: Greed, love, selfishness, suicide

Find the ebook here and the paperback here. (Disclosure: that last one is an affiliate link.)

So, remember a few months ago when I published a review of Dostoevsky’s novella “White Nights”? The one where I fawned over the hero and his unselfish concern for the woman he loved? “A Gentle Spirit”* is almost the exact opposite of that story.

It concerns a pawnbroker (unnamed throughout the story) who marries one of his more frequent customers. She (also unnamed) is sixteen years old, an orphan, and living in abject poverty with her two abusive aunts. He is forty-one, not rich but well-off, and the only person who has ever proposed marriage to her save for the drunken slob next door. The girl agrees to marry him and tries her best to be a good wife, but this pawnbroker is not satisfied to be merely loved by his wife. No, he wants to feel superior to her. He also believes that her love is not true unless it comes unmerited: unless she continues to love him even when he’s given her no reason for doing so. He begins a regime of strict rules—about their money, their house, everything—and harangues his wife when she can’t meet his exacting standards. He is cold and distant with her, not wanting to get too attached until she has proven herself. Once he’s convinced that his wife really does care for him, the pawnbroker begins to treat her kindly again, professing his love and promising her that things will be better in the future. It’s shortly after this that his wife jumps out of the window of their second-story bedroom to her death. The story, then, is narrated by the pawnbroker as he tries to make sense of all that happened.

Portrait of Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872.

At this point, my knowledge of Dostoevsky is still fairly limited: two novellas, parts of novels, and a handful of short stories. Even so, I think Dostoevsky is the keenest observer of human nature that I’ve ever read, with the possible exception of William Shakespeare. Not only do his characters feel spectacularly real (despite whatever bizarre things they might say or do), they also reveal things in the reader that he/she may have chosen to overlook up until now. Even in a character as strange and outlandish as the pawnbroker, there are times where he seems, in an odd way, almost relatable: not in his actions, of course, but in his attitude toward them, and toward the people around him. His conclusions are ridiculous, but the self-centered, pride-centered reasoning by which he reaches those conclusions sounds uncomfortably familiar. Dostoevsky is one of those writers—similar, I find, to Flannery O’Connor—who is merciless in his portrayal of human evil, and not just on a large scale: in these stories, the petty grudges, the unreasonable anger, the idolatrous self-consciousness, and the insipid arrogance to which most of us give way practically every day are presented as the deeply destructive forces they really are.

To elaborate on that, I find it interesting that, despite all of the deprivations that the pawnbroker’s wife suffered before marrying—losing her parents, being beaten and starved by her aunts, etc.—she didn’t kill herself until she was living in a physically safe, relatively comfortable home. I also find it interesting that she killed herself not while her husband was abusing her, but when he began to be kind to her again. This tells me two thing: first, that withholding love does more damage to the soul than any physical deprivation can do to the body, and second, that without a firm grounding in that love, life is impossible. True, she lived without love under her aunts’ roof as well, but what she suffered with the pawnbroker was, in a way, even worse because the denial of love was compounded by uncertainty: she never knew where she stood with her husband or whether his newly-proclaimed love would last. And as a result, she threw herself out of a window, clutching the last of her parents’ belongings—a cheap icon of the Madonna and Child—to her chest. Is it always the case in real life that selfishness and pride produce such a dramatic result? No, but it does make you think about the effect that one’s pride has on the people around him/her and how it destroys the potential for love.

As for the writing itself, fans of unusual or unreliable narrators will likely be intrigued by the pawnbroker’s erratic storytelling. In the original preface to the story (sadly, not included in that ebook I linked above), Dostoevsky explains that the subtitle “A Fantastic Story” is not meant to refer to the story’s events, but instead to the way in which the story is told: Dostoevsky imagines the story as coming from the notepad of a stenographer who is recording the pawnbroker while he speaks to the policemen investigating his wife’s death. I like this framing for the story because it highlights the pawnbroker’s eccentricities even further. At times, he seems to be trying to save face with the officers, trying diligently to avoid saying anything that might implicate him, while at other times, he pours his heart out, telling the officers everything about his late wife and how he felt about her. He’s obviously an ill man: repeating himself, contradicting himself, even telling the officers directly that he’s mad (only to backtrack later and say that he’s not mad anymore). This story is sometimes pointed to as an early example of stream-of-consciousness writing, and it does have a certain disjointed, free-associating feel to it. Taken all together, both the story and its form give a penetrating portrait of a man driven insane by his own self-obsession.

* This story generally has a slightly different title depending on who’s translating it. Constance Garnett chose to render the original title (“Кроткая”) as “A Gentle Spirit,” but elsewhere it’s called “A Gentle Creature” or “The Meek One.”

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