The Village of Stepanchikovo

The Village of Stepanchikovo is the last novel Dostoevsky wrote before completing his military service and returning to St. Petersburg.  It’s also the first novel that was, to me at least, recognizable Dostoevkyian in the expected sense that the later novels are – it’s got a vast array of characters, perhaps even too many, and has them interacting in complex and unpredictable ways.  There’s plenty of apparent mental illness around, whether diagnosed or not, and there’s that real organic confusion I’ve really only experienced from this author.

By organic confusion, I mean something like the way that when you’re dreaming, one event will follow another, and despite the apparent non sequitur nature of what’s happened, your mind follows the transition.  It feels right but makes no logical sense.  You are talking to someone and then moments later, that person has changed into someone else, and the same conversation continues.  Or your physical setting changes in the midst of running somewhere, again, breaking any ordinary sense of continuity, but then, still feeling as though it hasn’t.

This is meant as an analogy only – Dostoevsky’s prose is at times dream-like, for example in the earlier-reviewed The Double.  But what I mean more is to emphasize the really strange thing that happens to his characters quite frequently through a book.  I once heard someone say “you think you understand the character, and then you get to the end of the paragraph and things have been completely turned on their head – and since it’s Dostoevsky, that “paragraph” can be 5-6 pages long at times.

Characters start in on one idea (say, an impassioned protest about the immorality of bribery) and then end somewhere else (the character announcing that, of course, in this case, not to accept the bribe would be immoral).  There’s often no logical connection between the start and the end, but there is a strong emotional and aesthetic one nonetheless.

The main action of The Village of Stepanchikovo revolves around the estate of Yegor Illyich Rostanev, a retired Colonel.  The narrator of the story, Sergey Aleksandrovich, is Rostanev’s nephew, and is travelling to visit him.  On his way, he meets with a random aristocrat at a wagon-repair garage.  This man spends several pages declaiming against the state of things at Rostanev’s estate, and has, more or less, fled in horror from a dinner he had been attending there.  He has left even before dessert was served; he simply could not take it.  Aleksandrovich puzzles over what could have brought such horror upon this refugee, and, after all, he himself does not seem much of a trustworthy or moral gentleman either.  But somewhere in his rantings, he mentions one Foma Fovich Opiskin – surely one of Dostoevsky’s most compelling demented creations.

Opiskin is described on the back cover of my translation (by Ignat Avsey, in Penguin Classics) as “a pretentious and despotic pseudo-intellectual… a charlatan who has ingratiated himself with Yegor’s mother and now holds the entire household under his thumb.”   That description is true as far as it goes, but barely does justice to the depths of sadistic intellectual bullying Foma Fovich seems capable of.

He spends pages and pages (often quite hilariously, for the reader anyway) berating servants for their incorrect French, decrying his moral outrage at a developmentally disabled servant’s obsession with a certain dance, one which, according to Opiskin, has been revealed as immoral, even scandalous, in polite company.  No one else assembled at the estate (and there are something like 10+ main characters, sometimes present, sometimes absent, at very confusing intervals) is in a position to question Opiskin’s grandstanding.

But beyond developmentally disabled servants or children, the person Opiskin spends the longest time berating, and whom he berates with the most ferocious arrogance, is his host, Colonel Rostanev.  Every time he tries to speak. Opiskin belittles him mercilessly.  Rostanev never quite stands up for himself, partially because his domineering mother, who also lives on the estate with him, is completely enthralled with Opiskin and his opinions.  She’s also got a couple of older friends who are similarly taken with his (seeming) worldliness.

Opiskin is quite threatened by the arrival of the narrator, since he’s apparently university-educated, and one senses that Opiskin is aware, at some level anyway, that he’s not the intellectual he’s been presenting himself as.  Opiskin’s real motive seems to be to receive the mother’s inheritance by impressing her with his intellect and his moral character.  Aleksandrovich’s presence, therefore, has to potential to derail Opiskin’s plans.

The story unfolds with totally confusing, manic group scenes that take place only over a couple of days – at times, this, as other Dostoevsky works, feels more like a play than a novel.  The narrator presents more stage-directions than anything else, such as the sort of conscious thought or observational omniscience you might expect from a ypical 19th century novel.  The main course of the plot is conveyed through a frenetic series of dialogues and monologues.

Eventually, Aleksandrovich gets his uncle to confront Opiskin, but of course, things don’t quite work out.  Before being fatally embarrassed, Opiskin manages to save face in a way that allows him to peaceably leave the house, and things are left in relative order.

Without actually reading this book, I think it would be very hard for me to convey just the intensity of Opiskin’s bullying, but also, the very real sense Dostoevsky creates which shows you exactly why the uncle is so loathe to question it, and why the old women are so enthralled.  Dostoevsky shows us a dysfunctional system of intellectual sadism (and masochism) and you start to understand how it’s come about, as confounding and frustrating it is.

Frank reports that, soon after this novel’s publication (though not because of it) Turgenev published a “highly controversial essay, Hamlet and Don Quixote” (Frank 3:11).  In this essay, Turgenev expresses a preference, perhaps surprisingly, for Don Quixote.  Deluded as he is, Turgenev argues, at least he’s committed to something, not crippled by self-doubt and disillusionment.  Opiskin definitely has a Quixotic sensibility about him, and in different ways, both uncle Rostanev and the narrator Aleksandrovich have a sort of Hamlet-ish quality.

Dostoevsky was also, apparently, meaning to ridicule a certain sort of intellectual of the 1850’s and 1860’s, one who, like one Chernyshevsky, thought all art ought to be subordinated to the needs of the radical social movement towards Socialism.  The strange thing, perhaps the most effective thing about this book, was that in spite of this apparent polemical intent, one comes not only to hate Opiskin, but also to see the ways that such a person exists within and because of a certain sort of system of dysfunction.  One even comes to understand and sympathize with Opiskin’s berating.

This is a reaction I remember having with all the later works I’ve read – Crime and Punishment especially.  The criticism of these character types is balanced so well with compelling portraits of them that you come to wonder where your allegiances lie, and just like a dream, your logic pulls you one way, and your feelings another.

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3 Responses to The Village of Stepanchikovo

  1. David says:

    The following question occurred to me while reading your latest summary, Josh. Was Dostoevsky a self-conscious artist, by which I mean: was he setting out to do something with his fiction, deliberately experimenting with narrative structure and so forth, or is the opinion that he was just a bit mad and manic himself and this is how his stories tended to turn out?

  2. Josh says:

    This question is something I’m thinking about as I read each book. Frank seems singularly uninterested in psychological explanations – he seems to think they incline too readily towards unfalsifiable reductionism. He’s probably more against Freudianism than against any psychological account, but he’s just generally more interested in providing a social/political/historical context for Dostoevsky’s work.

    Frank’s approach has been interesting to read about, but I do sometimes think there is a certain aesthetic aspect of the experience of reading Dostoevsky that Frank’s not really speaking to, and it’s precisely in the area of question you raise – is this self-conscious art meant to depict individual and interpersonal instability and dysfunction, or is it the organic result of an author who experiences the world in just this way?

    A similar interpretative question is often asked about Hamlet, I think (I mean Hamlet, the character in the play Hamlet, not the play as a whole) – is he insane, or is he artfully constructing this insanity? I seem to remember my Shakespeare professor pointing to Hamlet’s Act 1 declaration that “I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on” – and also in Act 2 – “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a hand-saw.”

    I think Dostoevsky may have been the sort of person who had access to this sort of feeling – and he was, after all, an epileptic, but also had the ability to constrain it, turn it off and on, use it for self-conscious purposes, etc. But that’s really just conjecture on my part.

  3. Pingback: The Dostoevsky Project Wrap-Up #1: Everything I Wrote – Original Positions

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