“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...
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