[Resuming the Dostoevsky-Frank reading project after a 14 day hiatus]
After Dostoevsky finished his Siberian prison term, he was transferred into the military, and lived a life that was at least nominally more free than that while in actual captivity. He was to serve for as long as the Czar desired. He tried to get himself transferred into active duty in Turkey, thinking perhaps that if he served there, he’d be given a shorter term. This never happened. He also fell in love during this period of his life, to her first wife, Marya Dimitrievna Isaeva (whose beauty Dostoevsky was enraptured with, which is hard to believe if the picture on Frank 2:202 is to be trusted…)
Also – for readers of this blog – it is at this point Dostoevsky made a string of requests for books, by letter to his brother Mikhail – “Send me the Carus, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and if you are able to send things clandestinely, slip Hegel in without fail, especially Hegel’s History of Philosophy. My entire future is tied up with that” (Frank 2:169). Frank doesn’t devote very much discussion to wondering why Dostoevsky would have wanted Kant and Hegel (or what “The Carus” is – apparently at one time this was mis-transcribed as “The Koran” but Frank says it was definitely “The Carus”). Frank just suggests Dostoevsky was after some more intellectual reading, feeling that his focus prior to that hadn’t been serious enough.
To me, it sounds like quite an interesting amateur-ish area for speculation – where, if anywhere, do the influence of Kant and/or Hegel show up in Dostoevsky’s work after this point? Perhaps others might like to comment?
So after this time, but before returning to western Russia, Dostoevsky wrote one long-ish short story/novella – “Uncle’s Dream” and one shorter novel – The Village of Stepanchikovo. As regards “Uncle’s Dream” – this has the feel of a parlour-farce, if there is such a thing. It’s pretty funny. “Uncle” is the senile and artificially but shabbily maintained “Prince K.” He has a host of contraptions that he thinks make people forget his age – wigs, springs that pull back his wrinkles, makeup, and so on.
The story is set in the fictional town of Mordasov, presumably a town small enough to lack genuine sophistication but large enough to have people who pretend to it. In the opening pages, Prince K accidentally presents himself at the home of Marya Aleksandrovna Moskaleva, a scheming society matron whose eternal wish is to marry off her 23-year-old daughter Zina. who is described in quite sexualized terms:
She is one of those women who produce universal enthusiastic amazement on the occasions when they appear in society. She is pretty to the point of the impermissible; tall, dark-haired, with wonderful, almost completely black-pupilled eyes, a shapely figure and powerful, enchanting breasts. Her shoulders and arms are classically Graeco-Roman, her legs seductive and tempting, her walk that of a queen. Today she is somewhat pale; on the other hand, however, her bee-stung, scarlet lips, marvelously outlined, between which her small, even teeth gleam like threated pearls, would fill your dreams for the next three nights if you so much as gave them a single look. Her expression is unsmiling and severe (Uncle’s Dream and Other Stories, trans. David MacGuff, p. 132).
It turns out she has a suitor – one Mozglyakov, a second-rate romantic intellectual type, and some variety of nephew to Prince K (hence the title) – whom she doesn’t exactly care for, and whom her mother loathes. So Prince K shows up at their house, an in a senile blur of drunkenness proposes to Zina. Marya’s hope is to formalize the marriage before (but not too long before) the prince dies. He’s quite wealthy (he’s a prince) and used to have some important military commission. The idea is that Zina will be able to use this short first marriage as a stepping stone to greater things. At first, Zina is outraged by this idea, but her mother’s contsant nagging (which has clearly been going on for several years) eventually takes its toll: Zina decides to submit to the plan. Mozglayakov gets wind of this and is both humiliated and burning for revenge. He convinces the Prince to profess that it was all a dream, and he had never proposed. Eventually the prince dies as Marya and her family are disgraced. But in an interesting denouement, years later in St. Petersburg, Mozglyakov meets Zina, who is now married to a different well-to-do aristocrat, and she doesn’t even recognize him when he introduces himself. The clear implication is that Marya ultimately succeeded in her gambit to marry off her daughter for financial advantage.
This story definitely starts to have a bit more of the pathos one expects from a later Dostoevsky novel, and also the sort of wry, cynical but somehow at the same time sympathetic perspective on each of the characters’ lives. Marya is presented with a sort of admiration, despite her crass, manipulative projects. She’s repeatedly embraced as “our heroine.” Frank takes this story to be the start of Dostoevsky’s “anti-ideology” novels, taking Marya’s idee fixe – of making her daughter a successful marriage at all costs – as the first in a sequence of characters whose ideological commitments develop into tragic situations. I find this a little forced – but there is some depth to this story, one I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s certainly clear Dostoevsky has come pretty far towards the production of serious art.