Monday, March 09, 2009

"Humiliated and Insulted" Dostoevsky


This was a sombre story, one of those sombre and tormenting stories which so frequently and imperceptibly, almost mysteriously unfold under the heavy Petersburg sky, in the dark, clandestine by-lanes of the vast city, amidst the flighty ebullition of life, dull-witted egoism, conficting interests, morose debauchery, hidden crimes- amidst all this utter hell of a nonsensical and abnormal life.

If it could come about that each of us were to describe his innermost secrets –secrets which one would hesitate to tell not only to people at large, but even to one’s closest friends, nay, to fear to admit even to one’s own self - the world would be filled with such a stench that each one of us would choke to death. That’s why, speaking in parenthesis, all our social conventions and niceties are so beneficial.

I’m sometimes possessed by an indomitable urge to poke my tongue out at someone in certain circumstances.


The plot is the most complex of Dostoevsky’s novels, and the most Dickensian. A young writer is dealing with a family tragedy involving a cast-off daughter, an idealistic, hopeless young lover, his evil manipulative father, litigation and ruin. At the same time, he rescues from a brothel a young girl and tries to nurse her back to psychological and physical health. The book is fast-paced and teems with characters: an old dying man and his dog, a brothel owner, a private detective and his wife, an old German doctor; and incident: a lot of running around from one location to another, and Dostoevsky’s trademark dramatic confrontations between characters. In the second half of the book, sequential narrative more or less breaks down, as the press of events in both plots causes the narrator some difficulty. Over all these events and characters, linking them all together, is the evil genius of Prince Valkovsky, who starts out as a peripheral character, but gradually, sinisterly, moves to the centre of the book.

This novel was written and published at the same time as The House of the Dead, and shares as its main theme the examination of appearance versus reality. Compare this from Humiliated and Insulted: Some suddenly remembered detail from the past –at the time hardly noticed and quickly forgotten- now assumes a totally distinct significance in my mind, resonant and revelatory, shedding light on much that I had hitherto been enable to comprehend, and this from The House of the Dead: Even though I looked at everything with keen and avid attention, I could not discern much of what lay under my very nose.

The main vehicle for this concern with appearance versus reality is the character of Prince Valkovsky who goes out of his way to create a mask in order to fool people, and then takes pleasure in ripping off his mask: there’s a trait in my character you’ve not spotted as yet – a hatred of all this banal, utterly pointless show of innocence and sentimentality. One of my sporting amusements is to pretend that I am that way myself…(and) string along some everlastingly juvenile Schiller only suddenly and unexpectedly give him the shock of his life- lift up my mask, pull a face and poke out my tongue at him… The Prince’s depravity, a kind of cynical realpolitik, is set against Schillerian romanticism, both in dialogue, and in incident. Against his cynical worldly manipulations are placed the rescue of Nelly, and the kindness of the writer and his friends in rescuing her. The heart of the book, then, is this dialectic between worldly cynicism and Schillerian idealism. The latter is complicated by the figure of Alyosha, the Prince’s son. This character is another in the line of saintly characters that extends from Rostanev to Myshkin and Alyosha Karamazov. He was pure of heart and upstanding, ready to surrender wholeheartedly to all that was fair and splendid…he could not think and argue for himself…he did not have a whit of personal willpower… could become attached only to one who could rule, not to say dominate him. His inability to choose between the two loves of his life may be read as a kind of egoism which threatens to ruin the lives of the people he loves. Against this na├»ve Schillerism (?) is set the practical machinations of the author, Katya and Natasha, which are directed at a good end, which Alyosha in his idealism cannot achieve on his own. A cynical knowledge of the world and how it works, and a certain idealism towards it are both required, the novel seems to be saying

The story is told by the young writer Ivan Petrovich, who participates in all its main events. One comes pretty soon to like the character of the author. He is gutsy, and has just the right blend of cynicism and idealism to control the narrative, and to help the people around him in whose stories he takes an active part. In his key scene with the prince he sticks to his guns, and is just as rude to the Prince, as the Prince is to him: You simply talk too much, I said looking at him with contempt. As well as a man of the word, he is also a man of the deed: he attacks the Prince in the climactic scene of the book, and is capable of bursting in to a brothel to rescue a waif. Although the writer shares several details of Dostoevsky’s biography – he has just published Poor Folk in the novel and his fame is rising- he is clearly not Dostoevsky in the same way that the narrator of The House of the Dead is. There are several digs at Belinsky, and the Petrashevsky circle is satirised in the figures of Lavenka and Borenka and their circle of ardent philanthropists.

Narrative provenance is foregrounded as an act of memory, from Ivan’s hospital bed, where he has succumbed to an illness and is soon to die: I want to record everything now and if I had not devised this occupation for myself, I think I’d have died of misery. However, narrative authenticity is constantly compromised by the subtle suggestion that the story is a figment of Ivan Petrovich’s imagination, that he has made it up, and that all these events did not really happen to him or those he knows at all: The plot of a whole novel flashed before my imagination: A poor woman dying in a coffin-maker’s basement: her orphaned daughter occasionally visiting her grandfather who had cursed her mother; a demented eccentric old man breathing his last in a coffee house after the death of his dog: this is precisely a synopsis of the Nelly plot. The prince tells Ivan Petrovich: You call yourself a writer! You could model one of your characters on me. The book ends in an epilogue, which is separated initially from the rest of the narrative by a switch to a different tense, the present simple, but which soon switches back into the past simple as the ends of the story are wrapped up.

The book is the first in Dostoevsky’s canon which offers realistic portraits of women. Natasha, Katya, the Countess, Anna Semyonova, are the first really rounded female characters Dostoevsky creates in his work. The central female character of Natasha is especially powerful and well drawn, but even the peripheral female characters are as three dimensional.

It is also the first in Dostoevsky’s canon in which epilepsy appears. Nelly has several fits throughout the book, including at the most climactic moments. Ivan Petrovich also describes a sense of mystical terror which comes over him just before her appearance in the novel: a most dreadful agonizing fear of something I cannot define, something unfathomable and non-existent in the normal course of events, but which may at any given moment materialize and confront me as an unquestionable, terrible, ghastly and implacable reality, making a mockery of all evidence of reason. This fear, totally confounding all rationalization, normally increases inexorably, so that in the end the mind -which oddly enough on such occasions can function with particular lucidity- nevertheless loses all capacity to counteract the senses. It becomes unresponsive and impotent, and the resulting dichotomy only heightens the fearful agony and suspense. It’s this mystical terror which overcame Dostoevsky just before his fits, and which he here for the first time transforms into a description of existential dread.

No matter that we are humiliated, no matter that we are insulted, but we are together again!.. we shall go hand in hand and I shall say to them, this is my daughter without sin whom you have humiliated and insulted, but whom I love and bless for ever and ever.

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