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Last Updated on February 1, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1362

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s second novel, The Double, begins as the protagonist, Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, a low-level bureaucrat living in St. Petersburg, awakens in his dreary, sparsely furnished room. Autumn light pierces the window, indicating the bleak mood pervading Golyadkin’s life and the lives of all those living in the grim city. Golyadkin springs from bed and begins a compulsive ritual, checking his appearance in a hand mirror and, once satisfied with his reflection, counting and recounting the money he keeps tucked away. He dons a new set of fine but old-fashioned livery and sets out for work in an expensive rented carriage, both terrified and excited by his extravagance. 

Golyadkin’s frantic anxiety alludes to his unhinged mental state, which is compounded by the unexpected visit he makes to his doctor, Christian Ivanovich Rutenspitz. Both men are uncomfortable with the imposition, so the ensuing conversation is strained and erratic. Golyadkin complains about his lack of eloquence and comfort in social situations; Christian Ivanovich recommends social interaction as the solution to Golyadkin’s isolation and anxiety. The addled man agrees briefly but quickly rejects the idea because he worries about the “enemies” pursuing him. Having spoken his delusions of persecution to Christian Ivanovich, Golyadkin takes his leave, embarrassed to have made such a personal confession. 

The next stop on the journey is a marketplace in which Golyadkin promises to spend immense sums on luxury items but, in effect, spends zero rubles and leaves almost empty-handed. He retires to a restaurant, where he encounters two clerks from work who laugh at his attire and appear befuddled by his monologues. Like the merchants in the marketplace, the restaurant patrons are startled by Golyadkin’s behavior, but no one seems more confused by his actions than himself. Next, he makes a misguided attempt to act on Christian Ivanovich’s advice, traveling to his boss, Olsufi Ivanovich's, home and attempting to invite himself to dinner. The night does not go according to plan, as he is turned away at the door and absconds from the premises. 

However, Golyadkin only worsens his circumstances when he attempts to sneak into a ball thrown for Clara Olsufyvena, the young daughter of a higher-up councilor. Golyadkin carries an unfortunate admiration for Clara, so he waits for two hours in the cold, waiting for an opportunity to slip unnoticed into the ball. As he paces impatiently, struggling to reconcile his fear of rejection with his burgeoning obsession with social interaction and Clara, Golyadkin reveals the anxious fervor that rules his actions. He plows into the party, weaving rapidly through partygoers, trodding on dancers’ feet, and knocking over old women in his haste to greet the birthday girl. Their interaction is painfully awkward, as Golyadkin asks Clara to dance and is forcibly removed from the party. Golyadkin is devastated by the disastrous evening and rushes home, visibly shaken by his ordeal. As he hurries home in the blistering cold, he encounters an eerily familiar form walking along the darkened St. Petersburg streets: himself. 

Even more anxious than before, Golyadkin rushes home. He awakens the next morning and recalls the previous night; in the morning's rational light, he decides that the double is not a big deal. At work, he feels humiliated by his actions at the ball, which many colleagues and superiors witnessed. His distress worsens when a new employee arrives, whom he realizes is his double. Despite his initial shock, Golyadkin adapts remarkably well, resolving to avoid his other self. The practice of avoidance fails when the double approaches him after work, begging him for the help that so many others have denied him....

(This entire section contains 1362 words.)

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The double tells him a tale of struggle and strife; Golyadkin pities this tragic version of himself, inviting him to dinner, offering him drinks, and in his drunken haze, divulging far too many details of his personal life to the double.

Golyadkin explains that his double is now like his brother and is excited at the prospect of the fraternal relationship forming between them. However, his excitement quickly drains away when he realizes that his double, now referred to as Golyadkin Jr., intends to ruin his name and usurp his good standing. In the office, Golyadkin Jr. steals Golyadkin Sr.'s work, snubs him in front of their coworkers, and relies on his charismatic mask to turn their coworkers against the awkward Golyadkin Sr. 

Over the following days, Golyadkin Jr. troubles Golyadkin Sr. immensely: he costs him money at restaurants, ruins his reputation, and pretends to be him. In an attempt to mend their relationship, Golyadkin Sr. writes his double a letter asking him to stop his smear campaign. However, the letter is waylaid and instead received by Secretary Nestor Ignatyevich Vakhrameyev, who replies to the letter, defends Golyadkin Jr.’s honor, accuses Golyadkin Sr. of acting uncouthly with a nobleman’s daughter, and severs professional ties with him. The letter marks the beginning of Golyadkin Sr.'s social and professional demise, as Golyadkin Jr. successfully claws his way into his life.

The following night, Golyadkin Sr. sleeps fitfully, haunted by dreams of his double’s actions. He watches as Golyadkin Jr. usurps his position, turning a charismatic mask upon their superiors but unveiling his devilish face when they are alone. Finally, the transformation ends, and Golyadkin Jr. takes over Golyadkin Sr.’s life. The original Golyadkin is overcome with emotion, and in the dream, he slips into a paranoid frenzy. Everyone is against him, and he cannot escape their condescending gaze. Moreover, Golyadkin seems to inexplicably accompany him wherever he goes, plaguing his every movement. The dream ends as innumerable copies spring from the earth, populating St. Petersburg with innumerable doubles. 

His dream proves prescient; the following day, Golyadkin Jr. shuns him at work and spreads gossip about his supposed promiscuity. When the office closes for the day, Golyadkin Sr. chases down his double and begs him to talk to him and explain why he treats him with derision. At Golyadkin Jr.’s suggestion, the pair adjourn to an empty coffee shop on a side street where no one will see them interact. The conversation goes poorly, with Golyadkin Jr. rushing out, leaving Golyadkin Sr. more confused and angry than before. However, the original Golyadkin collects himself, remembers an unopened letter he received earlier, and retires to a tavern to read it. 

The letter, which appears to be from Clara, declares the younger woman’s love for Golyadkin Sr. and begs him to spirit her away from her unhappy home. The older man is stunned; however, his state worsens with the arrival of yet another letter, which details his official firing. When he arrives home, he discovers that Petrushka, his manservant, plans to leave him for a more reputable master. In the span of an afternoon, his life has fallen apart, so he begins packing to start life anew in another city. Golyadkin Sr. ponders the advisability of meeting with Clara, realizing that her proposition is unlikely to pan out. However, he hails a cab anyway and once more journeys to Olsufi Ivanovich’s house. 

Upon arriving, the servants bar Golyadkin from the house; however, he muscles his way in but is soon after escorted out by Golyadkin Jr. Enraged by his double’s interference and the half-pitying, half-terrified looks his peers gave him, Golyadkin Sr. determines to hide behind a wood pile in Olsufi Ivanovich’s yard and watch, waiting for an opportunity to spirit Clara away. To his dismay, he is soon discovered; Golyadkin Jr. escorts him into the house, where Golyadkin Sr. is met with disapproving and fearful glances.

In a whirlwind of images, Golyadkin Sr. details the interior of Olsufi Ivanovich’s house and its occupants; as he describes the final moments of the disastrous evening, Golyadkin Jr. and his superiors escort him out of the front door and lead him into the custody of Christian Ivanovich, the psychiatrist he visits at the novel’s outset. Christian Ivanovich ushers Golyadkin Sr. into a waiting car and tells him he will be committed to a mental asylum. The double—whether supernaturally real or psychologically imagined—has prevailed, and Golyadkin Sr. is brought low.