Last Updated on February 1, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 713
The Double was the second novel of Fyodor Dostoevsky, a nineteenth-century Russian author best known for his later works, such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. The 1846 novel is one of Dostoevsky’s early works and precedes the political activism and consequent incarceration that inform his later writing; as such, both contemporary and current critics have deemed The Double juvenile and half-formed, arguing that it lacked the precision of Dostoevsky’s mature work. Indeed, nineteenth-century critics received the novel with “a mixture of positive hostility and profound indifference.” Despite its relative obscurity, the novel contains several crystalline themes that have inspired other works.
The novel’s psychological aspects—the subjectivity of reality, mental illness, and the loss of rationality—influenced many subsequent works, as did the focus on mundane characters (the tragic protagonist, Mr. Golyadkin, is a low-level clerk) and the bleak realism of their lives. But no part of the novel has had greater longevity than the titular aspect: the doppelganger. The idea of a malevolent but identical copy determined to bring about the destruction of the hapless original was as novel as it was fascinating and was immediately co-opted by other creatives. In The Double and subsequent creative efforts, the doppelganger acts as a site for the artist to explore the nature of reality and the self.
Interestingly, the novel unfolds not from the ever-worsening interiority of the increasingly manic Golyadkin but from the perspective of an unexplained authority tasked with detailing the circumstances leading to the protagonist’s involuntary commitment to an asylum. Although the narrator writes a distanced third-person perspective, he has omniscient insight into Golyadkin’s mental state. He explains the unabating anxiety constantly at the fore of Golyadkin’s consciousness and describes the depths of sorrow and desperation—often to the point of suicidal ideation—that the man experiences at various points.
The narrator is remarkably sensitive to Golyadkin’s emotional state, deftly weaving a portrait of the protagonist’s deluded arrogance and entitlement as it is slowly invaded by self-doubt and anxiety. Throughout the novel, the narrator refers to Golyadkin as “our hero,” a phrase that is at once comical and tragic. It is as if the narrator is in cahoots with the reader; while he sympathizes with Golyadkin’s plight and strives to indicate the perverse emotional logic guiding his absurd actions, he also laughs alongside readers who are stunned into giggles by Golyadkin’s awkward encounters and bizarre choices.
At its heart, The Double is a character study of what Dostoevsky calls the “real man of the Russian majority” whose “tragedy lies in the consciousness of his own deformity.” In short, the novel intends to explore the unique lives of a particular class of Russian men who, like Golyadkin, are at odds with themselves. These men are grimly aware of their failings and shortcomings, poignantly certain of the self at their core that leads them away from their dreams and desires. His is a vision of man “turned in upon himself,” caught up in his internal rhythms and how they fail to align with the metered beats of society. Men such as these, whom Dostoevsky contrives Golyadkin to represent, are deeply sensitive to themselves but also to “slights”; they are hyper-aware of themselves and also the world around them.
In elucidating this tropified version of the contemporary man, Dostoevsky lays bare the social ails affecting the troubled common man. He is subjected and excluded due to innate traits he cannot disavow; he is worked mercilessly to the bone with little to show for his efforts; he is brow-beaten with little end in sight; yet his sight is clouded, and his persecution...
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may, perhaps, be little more than a projection of self-aware faults. This prototypical model of the “Russian majority” is complex and sympathetic, yet it heavily questions the lived reality of those who, like Golyadkin, are driven mad by their self-aware knowledge of themselves and the world. How accurate is this sense of “deformity”? How much does this “deformity” bleed into their external lives?The Double is an exploration of reality and insanity that asks a laundry list of relevant questions concerning the state of modern men living in exponentially modern worlds, wondering how long man might bear the burden of progress