Critical Evaluation

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“Honor and glory to the young poet whose Muse loves people in garrets and basements and tells the inhabitants of gilded palaces: ’look, they are also men, they are also your brethren.’” With these words, the great critic Vissarion Belinsky hailed the arrival of Fyodor Dostoevski on the Russian literary scene. Poor Folk, Dostoevski’s first published work, appeared serially in 1846 in a literary periodical, Recueil de Saint Petersbourg. In this work, Dostoevski established a theme, the miseries of Russia’s downtrodden masses, from which he never wandered far during his literary career. In the epistolary novel Poor Folk, however, one can detect a sly humor that never appeared again in his work. Indeed, the already somewhat morbid and sick artist could hardly have seen anything but black despair in life after his sojourn in Siberia, to which he was exiled in 1849 for revolutionary political activities.

Poor Folk is a remarkably perceptive account of the multifarious humiliations that torment the poor. In depicting the victimized and the eccentric, Dostoevski proved himself the equal of Charles Dickens, by whom he was much influenced. His portrayal of life in “garrets and basements” is entirely devoid of sentimentality; both the dignity and the wretchedness of Makar and Barbara come to light simultaneously.

Makar’s persistent generosity is what finally distinguishes him, while a poetic sensitivity to life ennobles Barbara. Both characters maintain these virtues in the face of impossible circumstances. To support Barbara, Makar must accept the chaos and stench of the three-to-a-room boardinghouse, where the walls are “so greasy that your hand sticks when you lean against them.” His increasing poverty turns the smallest economic reversal into disaster. The deterioration of his wardrobe is humiliating, yet it deepens his sympathy for those in similar straits. His aroused compassion for other victims induces him not only to give Gorshkov twenty kopecks but also to add sugar to the poor man’s tea. As her response to Pokrovski’s father shows, Barbara is also capable of great generosity, but more impressive are her lyrical descriptions of her childhood and her feeling for nature. Despite Makar’s literary pretensions, Barbara is by far the superior stylist, although she never boasts about her talent.

Dostoevski’s main characters, however, are far from perfect human beings. Makar’s love for Barbara is tainted by a desire to extract gratitude and praise from her. Barbara, in turn, reveals a shocking capacity for transforming Makar into her servant once she becomes engaged to the rich Bwikov. Both are too involved in their private dreamworlds and are excessively preoccupied with their reputations. Dostoevski suggests that these faults, however, must be seen partially as exaggerated attempts to maintain a modicum of dignity in an uncomprehending world. When one is absolutely vulnerable, one must create certain defenses; as Makar explains, “Poor people are touchy—that’s in the nature of things.”

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