Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487
Poor Folk (1844–5) is Dostoevsky's first novel. It follows the relationship between Makar Dievushkin and Barbara Dobroselova. The former lives in a room in a boarding house and the two write letters to one another. They live across the street from one another, such that Makar can see Barbara's window from his. Their living conditions are terrible, and they frequently exchange letters discussing their shared circumstance. Makar buys Barbara small gifts, despite her protestations that she knows he cannot afford them.
The novel comprises a series of letters in which they discuss, in addition to their living conditions, their day-to-day affairs at work (Makar is a clerk and supports Barbara). Makar laments the current conditions he sees in the street, full of hungry children. He lives with the Gorshkov family, whose patriarch lost his job through a lawsuit whose details Makar doesn't know. Makar remarks that the Gorshkov children never make a sound, much less engage in the the playful activity that most children enjoy. He occasionally hears sobbing from their room, and he pities them even though he is himself poor. Barbara encourages him to live a quiet and simple life. Barbara's cousin, Sasha, lives nearby, and Barbara feels that Sasha is following her.
Barbara eventually reveals her history to Makar. Her father had been a steward in the province of Tula, but they moved to St. Petersburg after he lost his job. Their landlady, Anna Thedorovna, is a cruel and unpleasant woman who makes Barbara's existence difficult long after Barbara moves out. When Barbara is fourteen years old, her father dies, leaving Barbara and her mother indebted to Anna. Barbara falls in love with a tutor, Pokrovsky. She saves up her money to buy for him a the complete works of Pushkin for is birthday. When his birthday arrives, however, Barbara allows Pokrovy's father to present the gift to him, feeling no need of recognition for herself.
After they realize they are in love, Pokrovsky dies, and Barbara's mother dies soon after. Barbara moves in with a cook, Thedora. Makar falls in and out of relative misfortune owing to being publicly taunted and making errors at work. However, his boss gives him 100 rubes to buy new clothing.
Eventually, a certain wealthy man, Bwikov, whom Barbara knew form her childhood through Anna Thedorovna and Pokrovsky, returns and proposes marriage to her. He rejected her when they were younger because of Barbara's poverty, but he now seeks to makes amends. He plans to take her away to the country to improve her health. Barbara tells Makar that she must go, and he agrees.
Meanwhile, the Gorshkovs come into money when the patriarch wins the lawsuit in which he was involved. Though Gorshkov himself dies soon after, his family is wealthy.
Makar pretends to convince her to stay, but he know that a wealthy marriage is best for her. Makar plans to move into Barbara's room in her absence.