After Dostoevsky was convicted of treason and conspiracy for, among other things, reading an ironic letter about Gogol aloud to his literary circle, he was sentenced to death, but that sentence was then commuted by the emperor into four years of labor in a Siberian prison camp, and then enlistment in the Russian army for an indefinite period of time.
According to Frank, such commuted death sentences were fairly common. The emperor used them as a means of demonstrating his benevolence, and, at the same time, terrorizing the population. He could always, after all, decide not to commute the sentence. Usually, the emperor would tell the prisoners involved about the commutation beforehand. The actual execution would proceed apace, and then, at the last minute, the would-be executioners would stand down. Everyone involved would know it was a show, but they’d do it anyway. In the case of Dostoevsky and his co-conspirators, however, the emperor decided not to let his wishes for commutation be known beforehand. In fact, the entire sentence was decided in secret, and not announced to the prisoners until they were standing on the risers, waiting to be tied to stakes and shot.You can only imagine what would have gone through Dostoevsky’s head at this time. Apparently in The Idiot, Dostoevsky later placed a character in the same predicament. He learns he has five minutes before the execution, and he decides he’ll spend two minutes conversing with his co-conspirators, two minutes in silent meditation, and one minute looking around at his immediate surroundings. There is a nicely Kantian point here – it seems like, loosely speaking of course, practical reason, pure reason, and judgment are all given their due (though judgment, for some reason ends up getting short shrift). But there is something tenderly human and at the same time chillingly horrifying about this plan. We can’t really know for sure this is what Dostoevsky thought of at that time – but it seems like a good hint nonetheless.
At any rate, during his temporary jailing at the Peter-and-Paul Fortress, which sounds like the Russian version of Alcatraz or the Tower of London, Dostoevsky, before he had been summoned to mock execution, wrote a short story called “A Little Hero.” This story is strange precisely because if you were reading it out of context, you would have no idea that its author was locked up and facing a death sentence for treason.
The story centers around an unnamed 11-year-old boy. He’s a little boy who’s staying, for reasons unspecified, at the house of a wealthy family. In a sense, he is a male counterpart to Notochka. He falls in love with the lady of the house – Mrs. M., and helps her conceal an affair (not with him, but with a mysterious Mr. N.) from her husband, Mr. M. The emotions he experiences, as I remember it, are all very real. He recognizes, on the one hand, that he’s obviously too young for Mrs. M., but on the other hand, or perhaps because it’s impossible, he falls more and more deeply for her. In the climactic episode of the story, he discovers a love-note from Mr. N. that Mrs. M has dropped in the forest. He wants to make sure she receives the note before Mr. M figures it out.
There is also a portrait of Mr. M. He’s not someone the narrator likes, since, after all, he’s married to the narrator’s beloved. He’s a sort of hypocritical gentleman who exudes kindness but lapses into a kind of bureaucratic-professional existence, not unlike Anna Karenina’s husband – hence the affair with Mr. N.
Frank says that we can see in this story a desire to escape from the conditions of the Peter-and-Paul fortress. How can we see this? Precisely by that prison’s complete absence from the story. This sounds suspiciously like the sort of reasoning for which Frank criticizes Freud for in explaining Dostoevsky’s epilepsy (volume one of the biography has an appendix that takes Freud to task for explaining the epilepsy in terms of an early childhood caught-during-masturbation episode – Frank’s dismissal of Freud’s account is the literary-biography of hitting a hanging curveball over the fence, satisfying because it reveals the dogmatic, unfalsifiable nature of Freudianism in general).
Frank’s explanation of Dostoevsky’s motivations in writing “A little Hero” is purely un-falsifiable reasoning after all. But it’s as good an explanation as any other. Perhaps Dostoevsky thought of the story before he went to prison, and was just continuing with his pre-arrest projects. Perhaps he thought he’d just been there a brief time, and hadn’t yet adjusted to his eventual fate. There’s no real explanation, apparently, in Dostoevsky’s letters, which are very spare and untrustworthy, because he knew he was being read by a censor. At any rate, it’s interesting to speculate.