Fyodor's first novel is about two impoverished first cousins, Makar Vevushkin, a government clerk, and Varvara Dobreselove, a seamtress, who, although they live very near each other, correspond in a series of letters that compose the narrative. Older, Vevushkin romanticizes life and attaches great meaning to the arts in his correspondence with Varvara, who becomes, at times, his muse. In one letter he writes,
(June 26) What a splendid thing is literature, Barbara—what a splendid thing! ....It strengthens and instructs the heart of man.... Literature is a sort of picture—a sort of picture or mirror. It connotes at once passion, expression, fine criticism, good learning, and a document....
But, later, Varvar loses her interest in literature when a rich widower, Mr. Bykov, who represents materialism and sexual power, enters her life and she sees a way out of her poverty. Because she chooses to marry Bykov, she rejects a young student named Pokrovski, who dies of consumption, but bequeaths his many books to Varvar. But, his father tosses them behind him in the mud during his son's funeral procession.
Distraught by his loss of Varvar, Devushkin feels the dark harshness of life in his aloneness. Nevertheless, he welcomes some suffering and feels it will help him atone for some of his sins, writing,"Although I suffer for you, I find even suffering for you is easy."
In a very naturalistic passage that demonstrates Dostovesky's characteristic style, polyphony, the life of the poor becomes a metaphor of nature,
Clouds overlaid the sky as with a shroud of mist, and everything looked sad, rainy, and threatening under a fine drizzle which was beating against the window-panes, and streaking their dull, dark surfaces with runlets of cold, dirty moisture. Only a scanty modicum of daylight entered to war with the trembling rays of the ikon lamp. The dying man threw me a wistful look, and nodded. The next moment he had passed away.
Certainly, then, the themes of Poor Folks is the struggle, sometimes naturalistic, of man to find meaning and to keep alive his soul in the midst of abject poverty. Themes of naturalism, poverty, the relationship of the victimized and the impoverished with the wealthy, and the resulting dreamworld of the poor who struggle to maintain their dignity.
As is characteristic of Dostovesky's works, his first novel displays some of his deep psychological examinations of the human condition, examinations that are often dark, yet somehow romantic--so like the Russian soul of its author.