Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1294

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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 money but essentially selfish and shrewd (it is she who finally ends up with Granny’s money). Even Antonida is a stereotype: the headstrong, obstinate, outspoken, outrageous old woman.

If individually the characters are little more than clichés, however, collectively they provoke a colorful sequence of comic situations that make the first two-thirds of the novella exciting and amusing. Then, as Dostoevski comes to focus the book more intensely on Alexey and Polina, the other characters retreat into the background but continue to provide a grotesque comic counterpoint to the more serious antics of the principals.

The association of Alexey’s love for Polina with his addiction to gambling is made early in the novel when she asks him to play roulette for her. Thus, from the beginning, Polina shows a dependence on Alexey, but, at that point in the novel, there is little he can do to help her. One of the most important, if subtle, movements in the book is the manner in which Alexey gradually ascends from the position of a disdained inferior to that of a sought-after superior who gains powers over the others—the general, de Grieux, and finally Polina—and then rapidly loses it all.

Ostensibly, Alexey’s power derives initially from his role as the old woman’s “adviser” and then from the fortune he wins gambling, but the real source of it probably lies in his lack of identity and commitment. Because he has little interest in appearances and social postures, he has a great advantage over the others. As they strive to protect and enhance their social, financial, and romantic positions in the group, Alexey moves around freely and unobtrusively, capitalizing on his associates’ failures and weaknesses. He becomes progressively absorbed by his two passions, Polina and gambling; however, he cannot translate his advantages into permanent victory but must ultimately destroy himself pursuing these addictions.

Polina is a fascinating mixture of femme fatale and passionate victim. She loves Alexey yet feels a need to demean him. When he seriously expresses a willingness to kill himself for her, she reduces it to the comic by suggesting that he insult a German baron. She mocks his vow to “kill himself for her” but is excited by it. She fears being in his power but comes to him in her hour of need. In the novel’s enigmatic climax, when she offers herself to him, her behavior is erratic, volatile, almost hysterical; she rapidly alternates between abjectly demeaning herself, stridently justifying her behavior, belittling and berating Alexey, and proclaiming her lasting love for him. Then, after spending the night with him, she flings the money into his face and flees.

Alexey is perhaps even more puzzling. He both loves and hates Polina. He abjectly submits to her every whim, yet he also wants dominance, perhaps both at the same time. His feelings for her are inevitably bound up with his gambling compulsions. At the point when she offers herself to him, he feels the need to rush out to the gaming table. As he feverishly plays, he forgets about her. After he wins, he hurries back and empties his pockets before her almost as an integral part of the lovemaking ritual. When she leaves him, he casually enters into an unexpected affair with Mlle Blanche and gives her free rein to dissipate his modest fortune, which she quickly does. Many critics have seen this sudden shift in his character as unlikely and, after considering the pressures on the author, have dismissed it as a quick and easy resolution to the story.

However, in the light of Dostoevski’s association of Alexey’s compulsive gambling with his love for Polina, the ending makes definite psychological sense. Rationally, the hero’s love for Polina has as its object the consummation of the affair; the gambling is a way of quickly procuring the money necessary to support the romance. Alexey, however, is not essentially a rational creature but one driven by needs and emotions that he does not fully comprehend. It is the intensity of the experience of pursuing Polina, not the physical actuality of the woman, that really enraptures Alexey, and, likewise, it is the excitement and danger of gambling, and not the monetary outcome, that captivate him. It is even possible that, given his taste for self-humiliation, Alexey gambles to lose rather than to win. Having “won” Polina, he casts money at her to provoke her rejection of him; having won the fortune, he subconsciously wants it taken from him. Thus, in The Gambler, Dostoevski not only explores frustrated love and compulsive gambling but also analyzes the dynamics of psychological self-destruction, creating in Alexey a character type that was to become central in his most powerful novels.