Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Poor Folk is the debut novel of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. The title interestingly hints at the background of why Dostoevsky decided to write the novel, as well as to write novels in general. Before undertaking the project, Dostoevsky had translated foreign novels into Russian, particularly the works of Honoré de Balzac. However, Dostoevsky's gambling addiction and free-spending ways pressured him into writing a novel of his own. At the time, Dostoevsky was sharing an apartment with a friend and had financial difficulties. In a sense, Poor Folk is a literary painting of his own environment and current circumstance.
The format of the novel is written as a letter correspondence between two cousins, both of whom are poor. The content of the correspondence depict the perspective of poor people in Russia during that era. The novel also vividly portrays the daily lives of the lower-class, which Dostoevsky, despite some literary success as a translator, was a part of. Dostoevsky employed realism to explore the psychology of his characters and to depict the actual socioeconomic mechanisms that cause poverty.
The novel also examines the dynamics between poor people and those who are part of the powerful upper-class. Oligarchies were a major issue during Dostoevsky's time period, as it is today in contemporary Russia. Oligarchies and their inherent corrupt practices contribute to the widening of the economic gaps in Russia. Dostoevsky subtly explores these complex issues without being preachy or too political. Despite the subtlety of the political rhetoric in Poor Folk, the novel is hailed as a socialist masterpiece in literature.
Dostoevsky's debut novel would hint at future works with similar themes, such as Crime and Punishment, which also depicted members of the lower-class. The writer's firsthand experiences with poverty allowed him to write realistic and intimate portraits of the poor—as well as sharp insights into the corruption of the powerful few that controls the economic system—whether it be his first novel or his more famous ones.