Poor Folk (1846) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A captivating tale of poverty, and the various ways those within it cope.

Structurally, it is an epistolary novel, composed entirely of letters exchanged between the two protagonists, the hard-done-by clerk Makar Devushkin, and the sickly Varvara Dobroselova. Initially I was unsure as to the point of this format, assuming it was either some sort of gimmick or just a particular style Dostoyevsky was interested in using, with no real thematic connection to the story itself. The ending shows that that was not the case, as its impact is entirely centred on the format, and how it disrupts it.

The characters themselves are sometimes hard to take, with their peculiarities feeling almost abrasive to the reader at points where they seem to be repeated endlessly, but their increasingly dire circumstances always come across as harrowing. I do not feel any satire at all here, as some do. This feels like a work deeply empathetic with the poor, with the exponential nature of poverty and how difficult it is to climb out of it when one has sunk in, but also with how curiously generous those with so little can be. It’s a fascinating, occasionally moving and stirring, portrayal of human nature, and how the titular “poor folk” cope with their lot in life.

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I give it four copecks, and a rouble.

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