Notes on Dostoevsky 4
Narrative provenance may defined as the answer to three questions: Who is the narrator? How does the narrator come to be in possession of the narrative? How does the narrator mediate the narrative to the reader?
In the early work of Dostoevsky, there are two kinds of narrative provenance. The first kind is an unselfconscious omniscient narration. The second is a self-conscious omniscience, one whose provenance is registered in two ways.
1. Unselfconscious omniscient narration is when questions of narrative provenance are evaded or suppressed, or ignored. It occurs in the following works: The Honest Thief, Polzunkov, The Landlady, The Double and Mr Prokharchin. The first two of these have a first person narrator who simply and unselfconsciously tells the story. We don’t know who the narrator is, the events are presented uncomplicatedly as falling within the experience of the narrator as it happens to him/her, and we take this on assumption. The Landlady, The Double and Mr Prokharchin have third person narrators, whose omniscience is also taken for granted. This is the most traditional, uncomplicated kind of narrative, one which demands an unsophisticated (or extremely sophisticated) suspension of disbelief in the reader, a momentary putting aside of questions of narrative provenance. We take the narrator as given, see through him to the events he describes.
2. Self-conscious omniscience in Dostoevsky is present in two ways. In the first way, the narrator foregrounds the fact that the events fell within his experience or have been related to him/her by someone else. In White Nights, the narrator tells us: this is how it happened […] Suddenly I became involved in a most unexpected adventure. In The Christmas Tree and the Wedding the narrator says: The other day I saw a wedding. But no, I better tell you about the Christmas tree, in a radical disruption of narrative smoothness. In Netochka Nezvanova, the same disruption and foregrounding occurs: In order to make my story more comprehensible, I must first give an account of [my stpefather’s] life, the details of which I only learnt later….In The Village of Stepanchikovo, the events are also foregrounded as having happened a long time ago to the narrator: …this I can only begin to explain to the reader by giving some preliminary account of the character of Foma Fomich Opiskin as I later came to understand it. All of the above works are self-consciously presented as acts of memory or story telling, a presentation which goes at least some way to providing answers to the questions about narrative provenance.
3. The second way narrative provenance is self-consciously foregrounded is present in three works only: Notes from The House of the Dead, Notes from Underground, and Poor Folk. This last is a very special case, so we will return to it later. In the first two however, narrative provenance is foregrounded by an editorial framing device. Notes from the House of the Dead is presented to us as a manuscript discovered in papers left behind after the death of one Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, a former convict and murderer. Notes from Underground begins with a footnote signed by one Fydor Dostoevsky who asserts that: Both the author of the notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictional… in the subsequent fragment will come this person’s “actual” notes about certain events in his life. These two are the only works in early Dostoevsky in which questions of narrative provenance are raised and partially answered by a framing device, and which are presented as acts of writing. I think it is significant that both these works are the most personal of Dostoevsky’s oevre, the ones which have a mood of lived experience about them, rather than a mood of invention. They are also the ones in which Dostoevsky radically breaks with previous literary traditions and offers something controversially new and original.
Poor Folk appears to answer questions of narrative provenance by virtue of its conspicuous lack of any editorial framing of the letters: these are presented simply as the letters of Makar Devushkin and Varvara Dobroselova. The letters themselves answer questions about their provenance as acts of writing: All your letters are at Fedora’s in the top drawer of the chest-of-drawers Varvara writes in her last letter. However, as Leatherbarrow points out, the mysterious presence of an epigraph complicates questions of narrative provenance.