Fyodor Dostoevski was every bit as erratic, volatile, irresponsible, and contradictory in his personal life as any of his fictional characters. He created most of his works in the face of extreme pressure and adversity that, more often than not, were the product of his own actions. The Gambler, a novel he probably never wanted to write, resulted from such a self-created pressure, a situation as pathetic and comic as the book itself.
In 1865, in severe financial difficulties (a frequent condition), Dostoevski signed a contract with Stellovsky, an unscrupulous publisher, in which he agreed to furnish a new novel by November 1, 1866, or else grant Stellovsky the right to publish all of his works royalty-free for nine years. As of October 1, Dostoevski had nothing on paper. In desperation he hired a stenography student and began to dictate. It was one of the most important decisions of his life. Prodded by the shy, awed, but firm and sensible young lady, Anna Grigorievna Snitkina, Dostoevski completed the novel in less than a month and salvaged his financial future. He also acquired, in Anna, a second wife who put an efficiency and order into his life that considerably eased his last years and freed him to concentrate on the writing of his greatest works.
The intense pressure under which The Gambler was composed is no doubt one reason why, except for Zapiski iz podpolya(1864; Notes from the Underground, 1913), it is the most directly personal, even autobiographical, of his works of fiction. The primary motifs in The Gambler are frustrated love and compulsive gambling, two conditions that dominated Dostoevski’s life in the years immediately preceding its writing. The book’s narrator, Alexey Ivanovitch, resembles the Dostoevski of that period in many ways, and Polina Alexandrovna is a thinly disguised re-creation of Polina Suslova (note the names), a student half his age, whom he met in 1862 while on his first European trip. It was on this same tour that he also began to gamble. Thus, Alexey’s experiences in Roulettenburg are loosely based on a confused and traumatic trip the novelist took with Polina Suslova in 1863. Consequently, the passions of love and gambling were inextricably bound in Dostoevski’s mind and, in The Gambler, he renders them in all of their complexity.
These motifs, however, do not actually become central until quite late in the book. The first two-thirds of the novel concentrates on the seriocomic machinations of the general’s party as they vie with one another and with old “Granny” Antonida Tarasevitcheva. Except for the narrator and Polina, the characters, even the colorful old lady, are one-dimensional, almost caricatures. The general is a sophisticated Russian quasi-aristocrat who, cut off from his native roots, is the easy, pathetic victim of all West European temptations. De Grieux is the stock French adventurer: stylish, cultivated, shallow, and corrupt. The Englishman, Astley, is likewise a national type: stolid, laconic, honest, and dull. Mlle Blanche is the French seductress: beautiful, coaxing, playful, free with sex and other people’s...
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