Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Fyodor Dostoevski is primarily interested in presenting a man who must come to terms with his weaknesses and illusions—a difficult realization for anyone. General Pralinski, fond of idealism, professes the need to be humane to others, bearing in mind that his inferiors also are human beings. Pralinski believes that his humaneness will lead others to love and trust him. This in turn will lead them to believe in reform and to “settle everything fundamentally in a friendly spirit.” To Pralinski’s regret, one of his colleagues responds, “We shan’t live up to it.”

During his drunken visit to Pseldonymov’s wedding party, Pralinski mentally rehearses various speeches about what he is attempting to achieve by his presence: “I must leave in such a way that they will all understand why I came. I must reveal my moral aim.” The other guests, however, realize none of his idealism; instead, they understand that he is drunk and getting increasingly more drunk. Finally, after waking in the morning in the bridal bed, Pralinski himself realizes his inability to control his own appetites and desires. He does not love Pseldonymov and his shrewish bride as he thinks he ought; instead, he realizes that he detests them. Perhaps Pralinski may even have gained an insight into his own vanity and self-centeredness. He has accomplished quite the reverse of what he intended by his visit. He has forced Pseldonymov to transfer to a different department, and in his own eyes Pralinski has shamed himself before his department even down to the next generation. The story indeed ends with Pralinski’s statement of his moral failure.

“A Nasty Story” is also about the evils of poverty. As in his novel Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886), Dostoevski vividly portrays the great sufferings that the poor must endure. Pseldonymov and his kindly mother have no choice left to them but to marry into the evil Mlekopitayev family. The reader might hesitate to think of the wretched life that awaits them.