Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In 1864, Dostoevski and his brother Mikhail began publishing the journal Epokha, in which “The Crocodile” appeared in February, 1865. With the death of his brother and mounting financial problems, Dostoevski was forced to cease publication of Epokha in March, 1865. The Russian subtitle of the story can be translated as “Or, Mauled in the Mall.” It should be clear from the use of such a grotesque yet playful subtitle that the story that follows will have a strong satirical edge to it. As in Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 story “The Nose,” in which “a most extraordinary thing happened in St. Petersburg,” Dostoevski presents a bizarre event in a matter-of-fact manner. In Gogol’s story, a Russian barber discovers a human nose in a loaf of bread. In “The Crocodile,” a Russian bureaucrat is not only swallowed by a crocodile but he lives through the experience, and the belly of the animal becomes his new residence. Both stories savage Russia’s government bureaucracy. Dostoevski parodies the radical theorists of the 1860’s not only through the swallowed bureaucrat Matveitch but especially through the elderly and venerated bureaucrat Timofey Semyonitch—a buffoon who pontificates about foreign investment in Russia. As wild and absurd as the situation is for Matveitch, it is only the narrator who is concerned with his friend’s safety. The “principles of economics” must rule the day. Dostoevski also includes parodies of newspaper articles about the event at the end of the story. Their various slants and exaggerations add to the uneasy feeling with which the reader is left.

Dostoevski left documents that make it clear that he hoped to resolve “The Crocodile.” Although he left the story incomplete, it stands as an important precursor of what was to follow creatively for the author.