Poor Folk and Other Stories (1846-1848) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A good collection of some of Dostoyevsky’s earliest works. The titular novel, “Poor Folk”, takes up around half of the actual book, the novella “The Landlady” most of the other half, then the short stories “Mr. Prokharchin” and “Polzunkov” take up comparatively fewer pages near the end.

“Poor Folk”, “My. Prokharchin”, and “Polzunkov” all have consistent thematic elements, focusing on poverty and social mobility (or the lack thereof), but “The Landlady” completely lacks this. It’s not a big deal, the collection isn’t called “Stories about Poor Folk”, but still, it might have made for a neater collection if “The Landlady” was replaced with a novella more connected to the themes in the other three works present.

My individual reviews for each of the stories are below, but as for the collection itself, I give it three roubles, and a hard mattress.

poorfolkandotherstories

POOR FOLK

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.

I give it four copecks, and a rouble.

THE LANDLADY

A fascinating, evocative short story written by Dostoyevsky early in his career. I really liked the more Gothic and supernatural elements; perhaps it’s because I recently finished “The Idiot” that I felt I could do with a story less painfully real and true-to-life! I lack the cultural background to understand the ways Dostoeyevsky drew on Russian folklore with this story, but I very much enjoyed that folkloric atmosphere the story had anyway.

The characters are more thinly sketched than they’d have been in an actual novel, but the main three (Ordynov, Katerina, Murin) make a strong impression. The story itself felt inconsistent to me. I liked the premise and the more atmospheric set-up of the first half or so, but felt the ending too abstract and inconclusive to really satisfy me. I greatly enjoyed the sort of delirious dream sequences (if that’s indeed what they were), but the ending felt sort of thematically neutered to me. I’m unsure what to really take away from the story, if indeed there was any didactic lesson or thematic exploration to draw from, anything like that.

While it lacks a lot of what I particularly like about Dostoyevsky, “The Landlady” is still an enjoyable, strange little story. I give it three mysterious texts, and a new lodger.

MR. PROKHARCHIN

This short story apparently draws from the life of an actual name. Perhaps that faithfulness to reality is what makes the story feel somewhat aimless and narratively lacking. I almost feel the story would work better as an anecdote rather than a short story in its own right.

The ending of the story is interesting, and all the preceding pages seem to exist only to justify it and make the ending have some sort of impact on the reader. But then the story just stops. Where’s the psychological insight? Dostoeyevsky is lauded for his incredible psychological insight, but rather than developing and exploring what would drive the titular character to do what’s revealed in the surprising ending, the story just concludes. I assume this is because the story draws from an actual real-life happening, but that doesn’t exactly endear the story to me, it still remains a comparatively weak Dostoevsky story because it doesn’t play to any of his strengths. All it seems to do is frame a short story around an interesting anecdote.

I give it two hard mattresses, and some vittles.

POLZUNKOV

This story felt almost like a proto-”The Idiot” at times, examining a character perhaps too good-natured and honourable to do well in modern (at the time) society. Unfortunately, unlike “The Idiot”, I didn’t find “Polzunkov” to be a particularly impressive or moving work.

As a small character study, or just an April Fools’ Day tale, it works well enough, but it’s just so slight and unassuming that it failed to make much of a landing for me. The story itself is too much like the protagonist in that regard!

Is the story meant to be amusing, tragic, or didactic? I can’t really tell. If the latter, I’m very glad Dostoyevsky strayed away from such clunky didacticism as he matured as a writer.

I give the story two roubles, and an April Fools’ Day prank.

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