Dostoevsky was something of a specialist in disastrous marriages. There are the doomed, poverty-striken, abusive marriages of tubercular women to alcoholic men — not only Marmeladov and Katerina Ivanovna in Crime and Punishment (English translation here), but also Efimov and his wife in Netochka Nezvanova. Some are just abusive and doomed without any help from illness or addiction, as in A Gentle Spirit (English translation here). There are frankly sickening marriages between elderly men and very young girls, as in A Christmas Tree and a Wedding (never let it be said that Dostoevsky was only preoccupied with dubious themes in his later years). On a lighter note (?!), there’s the homoerotic attraction of a widower to his late wife’s former lover in The Eternal Husband, while infidelity receives a distinctly farcical treatment in Another Man’s Wife and a Husband Under the Bed (sometimes given the feeble title The Jealous Husband). Potential marriages often seem even worse than those that have actually taken place. One could say that the plot of The Idiot is almost entirely constructed around prospective unions – Totskii and Aleksandra Epanchina, Nastasia Filippovna and Gania, Gania and Aglaia, Rogozhin and Nastasia Filippovna, Myshkin and Nastasia Filippovna, Myshkin and Aglaia, Aglaia and Evgenii Pavlovich – most of which look pretty awful when you think about them. And Aglaia’s marriage in the epilogue is so comically bad – not just to a fake count, but a Pole and a Catholic to boot – that even if you don’t like her (and I don’t), you wonder quite what she did to deserve what is in Dostoevsky’s eyes a fate worse than death.
Amidst all this less than joyful celebration of the institution of marriage, A Nasty Story deserves special mention, for here all the disasters that may attend the marriage are heaped upon the wedding itself. Ivan Ilych Pralinskii, a newly-promoted acting state councillor, is walking home from a colleague’s housewarming when he stumbles across the wedding feast of one of his minions, Pseldonimov – a registrar, i.e. holding one of the bottom two ranks in the civil service, and therefore the very definition of a ‘poor clerk’, albeit for a new era (the story was written in 1862). Slightly tipsy and full of progressive thoughts about the reforms, his own humanitarian instincts and love for mankind, Pralinskii decides to gatecrash, thinking, ‘Of course, I, as a gentleman, will be on an equal footing with them, and in no way will demand any special treatment… But morally, morally it’s a different matter: they will understand and value… My actions will awaken every noble instinct in them…’
Predictably, it doesn’t quite work out like that. Pseldonimov is horrified but, desperate not to offend his boss in any way, even manages to arrange for champagne to be brought to the unwelcome guest, who for his part completely fails to realize that an employee on 10 rubles a month can in no way afford such luxuries. Pralinskii proceeds to get horribly drunk and makes a scene as his liberal views fall away and he begins to hate the subordinates he has imposed himself upon. Of course, this is not primarily about weddings at all, but about the disconnect between the elite and the people, how the reforms would (or would not) change Russia, and themes of hierarchies, self-esteem and deference (there’s also an interesting theme that may well be worth further exploration of language and literary production, with a contributor to a satirical journal appearing as a minor character and a Gogolian subtext – see Richard Peace on the latter aspect and its connections to the question of Russia’s reforms). But the wedding isn’t just a setting, and Pralinskii’s intervention only emphasizes that the marriage will be a disaster. The bride is more interested in the handsome young officer who kneels before her in the presence of the groom, while her father – a drunk and a miser – is evidently looking forward to tyrannizing poor Pseldonimov, so the whole thing begins to look more and more like a sham. When Pralinskii keels over unconscious, they have no choice other than to put him in the bridal bed – where he has an unfortunate attack of diarrhoea (leading to a surprisingly tender moment, when Pseldonimov’s mother takes care of him). The ‘happy’ couple ends up sleeping on chairs, which collapse, and the bride is taken away by the women of the house.
This is Dostoevsky at his most vicious. I know he’s a writer of extremes, but when I read it I find it hard to believe that he also had a capacity for sentimentality. I wonder whether the story was the product of a particularly low point in his first marriage. Whether that’s true or not, it seems like a good antidote for today.
R. A. Peace, ‘Dostoevskii as Prophet: the case of ‘Skvernyi anekdot’ and ‘Krokodil’, Slavonic and East European Review, 71.2 (1993), 257-65