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Dostoevsky: not so grim?

Ivan Nikolaev, The murder scene from Crime and Punishment

The recent stories about the murals at the new Dostoevsky metro station in Moscow, which have led to concerns that it could become a favourite spot for suicides, have made me think about why Dostoevsky is considered such a depressing writer. Is it because he depicts so much poverty and misery? I doubt it, because you see far more of that in Dickens, for instance, and in any case, the ‘insulted and injured’ cease to be the main focus of Dostoevsky’s work after Crime and Punishment (Russian text here).

You can’t deny that his major works feature a large number of violent deaths, some of them described in grisly detail, but I don’t think these are responsible for his reputation for gloom — if anything, quite the opposite. Dostoevsky’s books are made readable, despite scenes of deprivation and the philosophical discussions that are so central, by his racy plots that derive in large part from melodrama and gothic fiction. Nobody else has ever managed to fuse high- and low-brow literary genres so successfully.

But it’s not just the sensationalism that prevents the atmosphere from slipping into depression, because Dostoevsky is actually a very funny writer (though you may dispute my fitness to judge on matters of humour, after the appalling anecdote I inflicted on you in my post on Soviet jokes). You see this particular in his short stories, with the black humour of Bobok (Russian text here), the comedy of embarrassment of A Nasty Story (Russian text here), and the wit of The Crocodile (Russian text here).

But in the major novels as well, however serious the over-riding plot, there are always humorous elements. Frequently these come from the narrator, whose ironic attitude to some of the characters results in some brilliant comic moments. I’m currently re-reading Crime and Punishment (for the nth time) and have just reached the part where the comedy is really ramped up. First the scorn poured on Lebeziatnikov, the young radical (part 5 chapter 1) becomes doubly ironic because it’s presented through the eyes of Luzhin, who’s even worse. Then in the following chapter, the funeral meal for Marmeladov is a horrible exemplar of Dostoevskian impropriety — it’s painfully funny, and I feel really ashamed for laughing.

The high point of comic narration comes in Demons (Russian text here), where the chronicler’s tone just makes me giggle from beginning to end, despite some of the horrendous events in that novel — it’s almost as though the more shocking and grim his works are, the funnier they become.

Then there are the intrinsically comic characters — the other thing that makes Demons so funny is Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky. He’s a masterpiece of vanity and self-delusion, and this, coupled with the narrator’s irony about his so-called liberal credentials, makes him a superbly frothy centre of the heart of darkness. The humour with which Stepan Trofimovich is presented creates an ambiguity in his role as father to the violence and mayhem wrought by Pyotr Verkhovensky and Stavrogin.

But this is what Dostoevsky’s all about — everything’s more complex than it seems, and the comic plays a significant part in undermining any possibility of a facile message. At the same time, he is able to make the tragic and grim aspects of his work (which are undoubtedly present) even more extreme by counter-balancing them with the comic elements. Dostoevsky’s image as the world’s gloomiest writer may derive from the fact that a lot of people read him at an age when they’re mainly interested in existential angst — so that’s precisely what they see. I don’t think I really realized how funny Demons was the first few times I read it. The artist who created the murals, Ivan Nikolaev, clearly sees Dostoevsky’s works as tragic (‘What did you want?’ he asked, ‘Scenes of dancing?’), but perhaps in the end it’s just more viable to represent the dramatic and tragic aspects of his plots than the black comedy that often surrounds them.

The tragic may be the best known side of Dostoevsky’s writing, but memorials like the murals — and to an even greater extent the decoration at the Dostoevsky metro station in St Petersburg, which I’ve seen described as ‘austere’, but which actually resembles a prison cell — end up perpetuating a rather limiting view of him. But you can’t consider Raskolnikov’s delirium, and his agonizing about why he committed the crime and whether he’s going to be arrested outside the context of the savagely funny scenes at the Marmeladovs’, or assume that Porfiry Petrovich’s humorous demeanour isn’t in some way relevant to his gradual wearing-down of Raskolnikov. Dostoevsky does seem to invite one-sided views, not only from ‘ordinary’ readers, but also from some critics, but he only really makes sense if you consider everything together, and how the different elements impact on each other.

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  1. jack

     /  May 17, 2012

    In Crime & Punishment I found these lines humorous:

    “I think it was because she was always ill. If she had been lame or hunchback, I believe I should have liked her better still…”

    ”Arkady Ivanovitch seemed particularly impatient, and insisted on seeing his betrothed at once, though he had been informed, to begin with, that she had already gone to bed. The girl of course appeared.”

    At last when she began to feel sure of his death — he walked into the room.

    Any additions?

  2. Indeed – the first one’s particularly good!

  3. D

     /  July 28, 2012

    i found the whole of ‘why is such a man alive!’ in BK to be very laugh out loud funny.

  4. Very true – I think parts of BK lack the wit of Dostoevskii’s other novels, but that scene is a scream.

  5. Patricia WILTSHIRE

     /  October 27, 2014

    I have just found this website and was delighted to read your comments about the humour to be found in Dostoevsky. I have spent the morning laughing uproariously at sections from ‘Notes from Underground’ which is part of a book I have on ‘Great Russian Literature’. How much he has influenced other writers – especially by his ‘insect’ images! And how interesting is his love of Charles Dickens and his influence! It seems to me that many writers and playwrights in recent times owe more than just a little to Dostoevsky, Dickens and Tolstoy.

  6. bud

     /  August 5, 2016

    And of course, Gogol’, who is so very Dickensian and funny too. ‘The double’, too

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