Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Dostoevsky wrote Poor Folk when he himself was impoverished. By age 23, his extravagant lifestyle and gambling addiction left him burdened with debts. Poor Folk represents Dostoevsky's attempt to earn financial stability. Written between 1844 and 1845, Poor Folk was published in 1846, at which point the publisher called Dostoevsky "the new Gogol."
Given this context, it is unsurprising that the most prominent themes should include money and literature.
The two main characters, Barbara Dobroselova and Makar Dievushkin, have an unlikely friendship given their age and backgrounds (Barbara is younger, and, as the reader eventually learns, was born to a relatively wealthy family). The two are united in their shared poverty. They live in boarding houses across the street from one another in miserable conditions. Barbara makes a small about of money from sewing but is otherwise supported by Makar, who is a lowly clerk. Barbara persistently refuses Makar's small gifts of books and treats, protesting that she knows that he cannot afford it. Makar is injected with new enthusiasm when his boss, taking pity on Makar's wretched appearance, gives him money to buy new clothing. With this money, he pays off debts and gives some to Barbara (who returns it). Barbara is saved when a former admirer, Bwikov, returns to propose marriage to her. She suspects that he feels guilty for having abandoned her during their younger years because of her poverty. Once engaged, Barbara remarks that Bwikov is very reasonable and frugal, despite his wealth. She quickly adjusts to her new lifestyle. Overall, the novel suggests that wealth is relatively arbitrary. Makar works very hard despite his poverty and is generous when he does come into money, demonstrating his high moral character. Poor Folk demands that its readers recognize how quickly one can fall in and out of fortune.
Another shared interest between Barbara and Makar is their love of literature. Makar is friends with a writer, Rataziaev, who invites Makar to his literary parties. Rataziaev is a former official who now earns a tidy sum of money writing. Rataziaev gives Makar books to read, which Makar in turn shares with Barbara. The enthusiasm that Makar shows at the prospect of reading and discussing literature leaves the reader with the understanding that he loves literature more than money.