Thursday, January 07, 2010

Poor Folk

In its form, Dostoevsky's Poor Folk is an epistolary novel, written in the form of a series of notes and letters between Makar Devushkin and Varvara Dobreselova, two people who live across each other, two poor folk. Devushkin is a copying clerk, he makes it known, very poor, nearly fifty, somewhat reclusive. Varvara is young, inexperienced, very poor and somewhat immature. Both live at the margins of society, impoverished, unhappy, poor folk. In these letters, we get to know them and all exchanges, which begin in winter and end in the autumn, reflect their daily worries. Dostoevsky, while depicting their outer states achieves a penetrating psychological analysis of their mental states and allows the reader to see not only their plight but also their reactions to that plight.

Devushkin is perhaps the forerunner of the later ideologues as it is clear that his thoughts are not yet sufficiently clear or organized for the usual sustained onslaught of thoughts and ideas that is so characteristic of Dostoevsky's more mature writing. Written before the Petrachevsky Circle days, the book was Dostoevsky's very focussed project and allowed him to gain a certain reputation vis a vis his critics notably Belinsky, who later lauded this novel. Devushkin lets Varvara know that while he is true to what he writes to her, he is also maturing his style in writing. The letters he lets her know are also an exercise in stylistics.

Devushkin and Varvara are extremely poor; any union between the two is always unlikely. They do have soft spots for each other but how can these poor folk actually dream together? Under constant threat of eviction, barely managing to meet ends, romance does look very superfluous here. Devushkin is at lengths to examine his thoughts, his thoughts are an answer, as Bakhtin analyses, in response to the thoughts of others. In a penetrating essay on this novel, Bakhtin examines the ground state, as it were, of Devushkin's more philosophical thinking. Devushkin is not a thinker, at least not yet, though he attempts to answer those questions that have not been asked yet, those assumptions which seem paranoid to the reader have been though through by Devushkin, but not sufficiently through. In comparison to the later protagonists, Devushkin is in the process of analyzing and coming forth with his answers, which Ivan Karamazov or Stavrogin are so emphatically clear about. Devushkin is also the first of a series of underground men, men who make their ideologies known in his other works.

Poor Folk is definitely unlike Dostoevsky's later works in that there is a palpable melancholy at work here; comedy and farce are not exaggerated, rhetoric is evident, so is the usual exhortation but the sadness, the sadness of poor folk.The letters are sometimes heart rending and usually very emotive. Towards the end, when Varvara decides to leave, decides to marry against her wishes, decides to leave the neighbourhood, to save herself and save herself from shame, Devushkin's last letter pleads her to reconsider her decision, to change her mind. However, the last sentences reflect that he is not too sure, has my style in writing improved he asks her, he is not sure. Devushkin, while not entirely the ridiculous man is clearly unimportant. In the bigger scheme of things, Devushkin just disappears. We also do not know whether Dobreselova found happiness.