Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The title of Fyodor Dostoevski’s story appears to represent a moral impossibility. The purpose of the narrative is to examine this apparently self-contradictory idea by dramatizing some of the opposing motivations that can exist within a single human spirit. Emelyan is that honest thief, a man who steals, yet whose repentance is deeply sincere. Throughout the story, Emelyan is a thoroughly pathetic figure. He extracts the bare means of livelihood as well as free drinks by means of his meek yet stubbornly parasitic behavior. His theft of the breeches takes place at a time when he has become greatly weakened by drink, both mentally and physically. Moreover, it appears to be an impulsive, rather than a planned or malicious act. The description of Emelyan’s remorse is dramatic and heart-rending. Astafy tells how Emelyan stays drunk for a fortnight, then sits wordlessly “as though grief was gnawing at his heart, or as though he wanted to do for himself completely.” Emelyan’s departure to the freezing streets is an act of self-punishment that further expresses his guilt. When he finally confesses to the theft just before dying, the reader feels that this character has a genuine desire to live virtuously, despite his failure to have done so.

Astafy also exhibits contradictory impulses throughout the story. Like Emelyan, Astafy is constantly torn between base and noble desires. He despises Emelyan’s weakness and sloth, yet compassion and a desire to...

(The entire section is 442 words.)