Critical Context

The Double was Dostoevski’s second novel, appearing a year after Bednye lyudi (1846; Poor Folk, 1887). Following its publication, the leading Russian literary critic of the day, Vissarion Belinsky, mixed his praise of the book with censure for its fantastic elements, which, he said, have their place “only in madhouses, but not in literature.” Dostoevski himself, commenting on the reception of his novel, said that “everybody...found Golyadkin so boring and dull and so long-winded that it was impossible to read it.” This is a verdict with which the modern reader may agree, and Dostoevski admitted that “alongside brilliant pages there is trash and rubbish.” In spite of his own criticisms, however, the author believed that The Double was a significant work. He later claimed that although the story did not succeed, the idea with which it dealt was more serious than anything else he had contributed to literature. He was sufficiently convinced of the novel’s value to revise it in 1866, while he was finishing Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886). The revised version, simpler and shorter than the original, is the form in which the novel is generally known.

In writing The Double, Dostoevski was influenced by the work of the German writer, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and by Russian imitators of Hoffmann, such as Nikolai Gogol, although the influence of the latter is less apparent in the revised version of The Double. There are also some autobiographical elements: Golyadkin’s acute shyness, and his belief that he is being persecuted, have their origins in certain aspects of Dostoevski’s own personality.

Dostoevski was frequently to return to the theme of the double; Golyadkin is the forerunner of the many split personalities which appear in Dostoevski’s fiction, who are often confronted by their doubles or near doubles. Although there is much that the modern reader may find puzzling or repellent about The Double, the best portions of the novel present a subtle and horrifyingly compelling portrait of a man sinking into a dark psychic realm of his own creation. It serves as a prelude to the great novels of Dostoevski’s maturity.