Monday, September 13, 2010

'The Adolescent' Dostoevsky

I took a soul that was sinless yet already tainted by the awful possibility of vice, by a premature hatred for its own insignificance and ‘accidental;’ nature…
Diary of a Writer January 1876

Here in Russia an idea falls on a person like a huge boulder and half crushes him.
Diary of a Writer May 1876

Events came pressing like the wind, and thoughts whirled in my mind like dry leaves in autumn.

This man’s appearance in my life produced that fatal shock which set my consciousness in motion.


The last full length novel before the final masterpiece of Karamazov, The Adolescent has been unfairly overlooked and even maligned by some Dostoevskyans. While it is true that it lacks the powerful focus and hallucinatory strength of some of the other novels, it is an essential work for understanding (the development of) Dostoevsky’s ideas concerning the nature of consciousness and of the self. It also represents his most fully worked out attempt at a bildungsroman, that quintessentially 19th century, Romantic genre.

In which are sketchily set forth some of the problems of the bildungsroman.

In a bildungsroman, the narrator of the story knows the end before the beginning, and must withhold this information from the reader, both on the level of plot and incident, and on the level of self knowledge. At the same time, the illusion of developing awareness, of evolving consciousness must be self-consciously created.

The first person narrative limits the omniscience and interest of the narrative voice. Other characters’ motivations cannot be examined, other scenes in which the narrator is not present cannot be described, without the risk of breaking the illusion of a central viewpoint. The risk of boring the reader without a breath of fresh air provided by a change of scene or character is very great.

At the same time a first person narrative raises all sorts of questions about narrative provenance: is the story being told to the reader, or written down and ‘discovered’ by the reader? What is the gap in time between the events described and the writing/telling?

The genre is therefore fraught with great technical difficulties. Examples of high points in the genre include Dickens’s David Copperfield, and Great Expectations, Goethe’s Willhelm Meister and The Sorrows of Young Werther, all revered by Dostoevsky.

He had tried his hand at the genre before, especially in his early works, and most notably in Crime and Punishment, which the writer had begun as a first person narrative, and then changed into a third person narrative when he realised the technical difficulties would get in the way of his other artistic intentions for the work. Here, Dostoevsky used the technical challenges of the genre to explore and voice his mature reflections on the nature of consciousness, and of the self and its relationship to the social world.

The Plot(s), In Which Much Is Omitted in the Interests of Brevity

Old Prince Sokolsky is nearing the end of his life, and already his family and hangers on are vying with each other to become the heirs to his immense fortune. Chief among them are his daughter, Katerina Nikolaevna, and his friend and companion of his final years, Anna Andreevna, who has managed to persuade the old man to marry her and legitimise their relationship. These two women compete for the old man’s affections with a bitterness and hatred their frosty politeness and protestations of undying love for each other only just manage to mask.

Andrei Petrovich Versilov is a gentleman of the superfluous generation of the 1840s. Widowed at an early age, he has spent his life alternately living with the paramour of his youth, one of his serfs, Sofya, and running away from her to live abroad in Europe. He has four children, two of them with his serf ‘wife’, and two of them from his late legal wife, one of whom is Anna Andreevna. Although Versilov loves and admires his serf mistress and his two children by her, he is obsessively in love with Prince Sokolsky’s daughter Katerina Nikolaevna.

To avoid the scandal of her youthful seduction by Versilov, Sofya had been given away in marriage to another serf from Versilov’s estate, a much older peasant, Makar Dolguruky, who has conveniently been absent as a Holy Wanderer all over Russia for much of his life, but who has now come to Petersburg to die in the home of his nominal wife. Once he dies, Versilov will be able to marry Soya and legitimise their life long union and their children. This causes a crisis in his relationship to Katerina Nikolaevna.

These plot strands are woven together and presented to the reader through the memoirs of Versilov’s illegitimate son, the adolescent of the title, Arkady Makarovich. He has been brought up away from his family, first in the home of a kindly couple in Moscow, and then in a Dickensian school (the arc of Arkady’s early life has striking similarities to David Copperfield’s). He has come into possession of certain documents which, if revealed, could bring the struggle for Prince Sokolsky’s inheritance as well as his natural father’s position, to a nasty head.

Arkady, through a series of misadventures, falls in with a gang of blackmailers, headed by a former schoolmate, who learns of the existence of Arkady’s documents, and unbeknownst to him, steals them, replacing them with empty pieces of paper. The gang attempt to blackmail both Anna Andreevna, and Katerina Nikolaevna. Each women attempts to use Arkady, again, without his knowledge, to protect herself.

The Narrator. How our Hero Uses the Conventions of the Bildungsroman in a Rather Self Consciously Modern Way

Like most adolescents, Arkady is hugely obsessed with himself, his growing awareness of himself as an adult with his new born sense of rights and responsibilities clashing with adolescent demands, his plans and dreams for his own future, his fertile inner life. He is blind to the reality of most of what is going on around him, either due to his own preoccupations, or because he has been purposefully kept in the dark as the baby of the family. The complex action of the novel is complicated by this sideways presentation, and the reader has to work hard to follow what is going on.

Arkady is writing his narrative one year after the events he describes, out of an inner need, not for the sake of the reader’s praises. He stresses that he is not a literary man, does not want to be a literary man, and would consider it base and indecent to drag the insides of my soul and a beautiful description of my feelings to their literary marketplace.
His mature self occasionally is forced to blush at his adolescent self (is this not true of all of us?), nonetheless he perseveres: I’ll probably have a reader only in some ten years when everything else is already so apparent, past and proven, that there will no longer be any point in blushing. And in a passing aside, out of which a whole poetics of Dostoevsky’s (post) (modern) narrative strategies might be made, he mentions his implied reader: And therefore, if I sometimes address the reader in my notes, it’s merely a device. My reader is a fantastic creature.

The narrative is punctuated by expressions of the difficulty of the task Arkady has set himself, of the inadequacy of (his command of) language for expressing the nuances of the self: There is immeasurably more left inside than what comes out in words. Your thought, even if it is a bad one, while it is with you, is always more profound, but in words it is more ridiculous and dishonourable.

Despite his avowal that he is not a literary man, Arkady is conscious of the rules of the genre, and brings them to the front of the narrative occasionally by telling his reader of the difficulties he is having in relaying the story as it happened, and as he perceived how it happened at the time, a task that sometimes gives him considerable problems, both in how he represents his consciousness: As I wrote I imagined myself exactly as I was at each of the moments I was describing and in how he deals with the press of events and details: By the way, everything I have been describing so far with such apparently unnecessary details, all leads to the future and will be needed there. It will all echo in its own place: I’ve been unable to avoid it, and if it’s boring, I beg you not to read it.

To the forefront of Arkady’s narrative is his fraught relationship with his father, whom he both idolises and despises; his passionate, heroic (calf) love for the same woman his father loves, Katerina Nikolaevna, whom he can only bring himself to call ‘her’; and his ‘idea’.

Arkady’s ‘Idea’: The Power of Money as an Allegory for the Rampant Self. The First Place.

Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who is motivated by the idea of becoming a Napoleon, Arkady is motivated by the idea of becoming a Rothschild. Arkady dreams of unlimited wealth, and sets his life’s mission to achieving it, training himself to save his last kopek even at the cost of deprivation, and to make a little bit more every day.

Through the power of money, Arkady will be able to elevate himself to the ranks of the important in the world. Money is the only power that will bring even a nonentity to the first place.

From his early age, from the very earliest dawning of the awareness of himself as an ego, Arkady imagines himself in the first place: from my very first dreams, that is, from my very childhood, I was unable to imagine myself otherwise than in the first place, always and in all turns of life. This ability to imagine oneself not in the first place is the process of the normal development of an ego: an ego which cannot do this may be said to be immature at best, at worst, suffering from a pathology.

The possession of money is a means to an end. The goal of his idea is to achieve perfect solitude, through the power which infinite wealth can bring. One of Arkady’s earliest experiences of his own self is this struggle between solitude and power: I’ve thirsted for power all my life, power and solitude. I dreamed of them at such an early age that decidedly anyone would have laughed in my face if he had made out what I had inside my skull, another image of the rampant, childlike, undeveloped ego.

The Power of the Insult in Awakening an Awareness of the Self.

In Dostoevsky’s earlier work, consciousness had arisen through the conflict in the ego between its awareness of itself simultaneously as a subject and as an object, a conflict occasioned by an insult. This is one of the defining characteristics of The Double, for instance, and we see the same process in another first person narrative in Notes from Underground.

In The Adolescent, Dostoevsky sets up in the soul of his hero a different conflict, that of the irreconcilable struggle between the lust for power, and the lust for solitude, two incompatible forces. Without the social interaction necessary for the execution and maintenance of power, it is only the illusions of a madman, the ravings of Propishchin in Gogol's Diary of a Madman.

The insult is one of the ways in which power radically impinges and disrupts the eternal solitude of the ego. Arkady is repeatedly affronted, insulted and humiliated. Here, Dostoevsky incorporates his conception of consciousness into the genre of the bildungsroman through the character of the insults Arkady endures. Most of these humiliations are chiefly instances of omission, in which Arkady learns that he has been kept in the dark about what is really going on around him, for his own protection as ‘just a child’. The events of the novel force on the adolescent hero the realisation that the other characters have their own experiences of their own egos, and that they are not all fixated on him, as he is, that they are not mere appendages of his own consciousness, but indeed have their own. This realisation that he is not always in the first place for everybody begins with his first encounter with his natural father as a child. Arkady tells us that he had heard about his father long before he met him. During his first encounter with his father, he is overwhelmed by the adult’s attentions, and then has to endure rejection the next day as his father is simply too busy to see him. His father then leaves, and it is some years before Arkady sees him again. This event marks for Arkady the start of his conscious ego.

Arkady is constantly preoccupied with this ego, he is crushed by his ‘idea’ and its fulfilment, his obsession with his father, his own life; but these insulting ‘figures of omission’ force Arkady to imagine himself otherwise than in the first place. And his burgeoning ego burns with the injustice of this belittlement, in true adolescent, righteous indignation. In this way the hero of the bildungsroman gains the experience necessary for a healthy ego: the ability to imagine that one is not in the first place.

A Sarcastic Interlude

In A Gentle Creature, written around the same time as The Adolescent, Dostoevsky depicts an ego which has still not been able to do this, when the first person narrator speculates as to the reasons for his wife’s suicide: She was frightened by my love, asked herself the solemn question whether to accept it or not, found the question too much for her to bear and thought it better to die, an example of unconstrained, unconscious and utterly inappropriate egoism that spins under the lash of Dostoevsky’s sarcasm.

The Development of a Healthy Self as It is Chronicled in the Novel

This imagining of oneself not in the first place is one of the lessons of experience which forms the main subject matter, as well as one of the technical difficulties, of the bildungsroman, imprisoned in the limitations of the first person narrative. The ego development this represents is charted carefully in the novel, from a childhood awareness of the overwhelming subjectivity of the ego, to a process of socialisation, of incorporating the self as an object in the social, familial world through an awareness of the other.

Arkady becomes a gambler, and one of the ways he interacts with the wider society outside his family is in the casino. He begins from a position of egoistic solitude, like all fresh souls. If I had a reader and he had read all that I’ve already written about my adventures, doubtless there would be no point in explaining to him that I am decidedly not created for any society whatever. Then, through various insults sustained in the casino, Arkady learns to socialise his ego.

This process is painful, difficult, and accompanied by haunting dreams of the solitude which he is being forced to relinquish. Arkady dreams that he is alone in a huge room, but though I’m alone, I constantly feel, with uneasiness and torment, that I’m not alone at all, that I’m expected and that something is expected of me. The ego yearns to hold on to its solitude but social and familial expectations necessitate interaction with the world, causing uneasiness and torment. In a dream my soul herself presented and laid out all that was in my heart with perfect precision and in the fullest picture. Dostoevsky here anticipates Freud in his awareness of how the stresses of conscious life are reflected in the dreams of the subconscious.

Arkady, in his early visits to the casino, is tormented by the kind of irrational-in-spite-of-himself behaviour that is so characteristic of Dostoevsky’s protagonists. In the very early part of his career, Dostoevsky investigated the nature of the self in his novel The Double. In The Adolescent, Arkady is not sure of the integrity of his own self: I consisted entirely of other people’s thoughts, where could I get my own, when I needed them for an independent decision? Here, in the penultimate work of his final maturity, as a corollary to the instability of the self, the double reappears, to threaten the self with irrational behaviour and fragmentation. Versilov, Arkady’s father, in his final breakdown, announces You know it seems to me as if I’m divided in two. Truly, mentally, divided in two, and I’m terrified of that. Just as if your double were standing next to you. You yourself are intelligent and reasonable, but that one absolutely wants to do something senseless next to you and sometimes something very amusing, and you suddenly notice that it’s you who want to do this amusing thing…. With this open appearance of the double, much of what Arkady has written about his father becomes clear. His father’s double stands as a warning to the young Arkady of the dangers of the self that is not integrated.

The Adolescent, then, stands as one of Dostoevsky’s most thought-through examinations of the self, and the nature of consciousness. Dostoevsky combines this project with one of his most complex and overwrought plots. In doing this, he tries to extend the boundaries of the bildunsgroman genre, which usually have very simple, linear plots, the better to bring out the development of consciousness which is their main theme. In spite of its many strengths and insights, perhaps in this novel, he overreached himself technically.

Why should I necessarily love my neighbour or your future mankind, which I’ll never see, which will not know about me, and which in its turn will rot without leaving any trace or remembrance (time means nothing here), when the earth in its turn will become an icy stone and fly through airless space together with an infinite multitude of identical icy stones...?

On finishing my notes and writing the last line, I suddenly felt that I had re-educated myself precisely through the process of recalling and writing down.

An old man should be pleased at all times, and he should die in the full flower of his mind, blessedly and handsomely, full of days, sighing at his last hour and rejoicing, departing like the ear to its sheaf, and fulfilling his mystery.

I would set it down as a commandment for any developed man to make at least one being happy in his life, unfailingly and in something, but to do it in practice, that is in reality.

Youth is pure, if only because it is youth.

4 comments:

dglen said...

Your last unitalicized paragraph should be the standard encyclopedia entry on this maligned novel. I was shocked when I read it, because I had put it off due to things I'd heard. I'm not meaning to just be a cheerleader, but your commentaries are a great service and I'm always lifted at their appearance, esp. on Dost.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely thing to say! I am most encouraged. Thank you.

Mss Eraser said...

As a quick note, Sofya was already married, when Versilov seduced her. And characterising one of the most complex and interesting characters and maybe even genius mind - Versilov as a 'gentlemen' of early 1840s, e.i. sticking him to some century and year - well that sadly put me off reading the rest.

Murr said...

Too long for you, right? Sorry, I don't do twitter....

Thanks for the correction regarding Sofya. As for your remark about 'sticking' Versilov to a some century and year, if you knew anything about Russian history in the 19th century, you would understand the reference. A 'gentleman of the 1840s' is a specific type in Russian 19th century lit. You're right that Versilov is a complex and interesting character, but he is still a type that Dostoevsky's contemporary readers would have recognised.