The Gambler (1867) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Rushed to completion to meet gambling debts, “The Gambler” reads as a kind of Dostoyevsky-lite, about as short as a novel can be before becoming a novella, pacing through a lot of Dostoyevsky’s strengths (keen psychological insight, insight into the Russian character, issues of wealth and poverty) without the depth or creativity of some of his other works, but still to great effect.

The insight into the psyche of a problem gambler is interesting in being more pointedly autobiographical than just empathetic, the way the plights of other Dostoyevsky protagonists sometimes are. Alexei Ivanovich is combative, self-aggrandising, and delights in being needlessly provocative. He’s bitter, resentful, flighty, and obsessed with women, quick to absolve himself of his own impact upon relationships, and displace his responsibility onto what he’d describe as the whims of others.

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Roulette, gambling, isn’t just projection for him, but an opportunity to tap right into that inherent, base self-destructive desire for gratification and satisfaction of the ego. It’s imposing his will onto the chaos of the world. The way he describes not just the world and all its worries melting away when he gambles, but even his conscious mind itself, his awareness of the logical fallacies he’s committing slipping away in the rush of the game…Dostoyevsky communicates how intoxicating it is for him very well.

Not as ambitious or meaningful as his greater works, but still a powerful insight into addiction. Four ‘zeroes’, and everything on red.

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