Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Gambler
The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky
translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett
"...people not only at roulette, but everywhere, do nothing but try to gain or squeeze something out of one another."
Alexey Ivanovich, the lead character in Dostoevsky's novel, The Gambler, makes this shrewd if cynical observation. In many ways, it sums up many aspects of this book, which was written in a mere four weeks and is highly autobiographical. To say it deals merely with the compulsion of gambling would be to do it a great disservice. Although it can hardly be ranked with Dostoevky's most famous works, it does deal with some of the same concepts that make books like Crime and Punishment and The Possessed such impressive accomplishments: namely, the dark side of human nature and the tendency towards corruption and wickedness that is in all of us. It's a psychological novel that is deeply Russian, and the narrator's observations about life and those around him are much more penetrating and insightful than those of an English or American narrator might be. The plot is haphazard, and at times the structure of the book is discursive. Minor characters are given nearly as much attention as those who play a pivotal role in the book, and everyone seems to be a mass of contradictions. Early on in the book, the narrator says:
"It is most charming when people do not stand on ceremony with one another, but act openly and aboveboard."
The irony in this remark is remarkable as we go on to witness all sorts of duplicitous, cruel, and manipulative behavior take place between all the figures that people this 152-page story. It has been rumored that the character of Polina, the woman whom Alexey both loves and hates, was based on Dostoevsky's mistress, the twenty-two-year-old student, Apollonaria Suslova. Apollonaria (also called "Polina") was dissatisfied by Dostoesky's sexual prowess, and she was openly unfaithful to him. The Polina that inhabits the novel is coldhearted and insensitive, yet Alexey is drawn to her, much as one might be drawn to a museum piece that is behind a glass case. He is well aware of her lack of affection towards him:
"...the idea that I knew, positively and distinctly, how utterly beyond my reach she was, how utterly impossible my mad dreams were of fulfillment, that thought, I am convinced, afforded her with extraordinary satisfaction; if not, cautious and intelligent as she was, have been on such intimate and open terms with one?...Yes, often she did not regard me as a human being!"
Nearly all the characters in this novel have self-destructive tendencies, but Alexey is masochistic. He is addicted both to the roulette table and to Polina, and in moments of fury he makes all sorts of insane threats:
"If ever I do kill you I shall have to kill myself, too. Oh, well, I shall put off killing myself as long as possible, so as to go on feeling this insufferable pain of being without you."
"Do you know something incredible? I love you more every day and yet that is almost impossible."
Indeed, it seems only a lunatic would love Polina at all. But Dostoevsky's characters are not guided by reason, logic, or common sense. Their instincts and passions are their ruling force, and, in some ways, this makes them very realistic. A writer like Henry James, whose figures oft-times seem to almost magically be capable of repressing their emotions makes Dostoevsky's characters seem downright theatrical. Which writer portrays people in a way that is more true-to-life? That is a matter of opinion, but what I have always found so engaging about Dostoevsky's work is his ability to peel off the masks his characters wear, in order to give us glimpses of the true, often diabolical faces that lurk beneath. In this respect, he is not unlike other Russian writers. They are not inclined towards subtlety or discretion. They rarely make the reader guess at what is transpiring, and so we cannot help but feel a certain kinship with the characters--and yes, with the authors themselves.
It is impossible not to empathize with Alexey, even though his passion for Polina is inconceivable:
"Polina was always an enigma to me, such an enigma that now, for instance...I was suddenly struck while I was speaking by the fact that there was scarcely anything positive and definite I could say about our relationship. Everything was, on the contrary, strange, unstable, and, in fact, quite unique."
Everyone's relationship in this book could be described this way. There is Mlle Blanche, who is described as having hair "as black as Indian ink" and "lips (that) are always painted." At twenty-five, she is engaged to a general who is thirty years her senior. The narrator observes:
"Possibly she is not even intelligent; but, on the other hand, she is striking and she is artful. I fancy her life has not passed without adventures."
Mlle Blanche and her fiance are waiting for the death of the General's grandmother, so that they'll have enough money to get married. At seventy-five, Granny is a wealthy old landowner, who has been without the use of her legs for over five years. However, she arrives at the hotel that Alexey is at and displays a level of vitality that is extraordinary:
"...she had arrived and was, as always, alert, captious, self-satisfied, sitting upright in her chair, shouting in a loud, peremptory voice and scolding everyone.
Granny's commanding and authoritative appearance as she was carried up in the chair was chiefly responsible for the sensation she caused. Whenever she met anyone fresh she scrutinized him inquisitively and questioned me about him in a loud voice."
Dostoevsky took pains to create a fully realized character in Granny, which makes you wonder whether or not one of the distinguising marks of a master writer is his or her ability to build layers on minor characters that lesser authors might depict as mere paper-dolls.
Another trademark of Dostoevsky's writing is refusal to be half-hearted about anything. When he explores gambling, it is not a mere addiction--it is an overwhelming compulsion that possesses its victims' minds, bodies, and spirits. Even Granny is hooked on the game. For, as Alexey assures us:
"When once anyone is started upon that road, it is like a man in a sledge flying down a snow mountain more and more swiftly."
Alexey's passion Polina is like gambling, though rather than money he is putting his heart on the roulette table. He continues to imagine that the two of them will have a future together, even though she never promises him anything--not even her love, which is what he craves beyond all else.
"...I wanted her to come to me and say: 'I love you,' and if not that, if that was senseless insanity, then...well, what was there to care about? Did I know what I wanted? I was like one demented: all I wanted was to be near her, in the halo of her glory, in her radiance, always, forever, all my life. I knew nothing more."
It's easy to empathize with Alexey on every level because Dostoevsky paints him in such a way that, in spite of seeming dramatic, he is nevertheless utterly genuine. He doesn't pretend to be anything he isn't--and he doesn't necessarily seem to be asking for the reader's understanding as he relates all the events that have taken place in his life. He continually makes it obvious that he is incapable of understanding the motives behind the behavior of other people, and the fact that he knows every bit as little as we do about what is really transpiring lends an aura of both mystery and authenticity to this novel.
I'll be honest. I did not expect The Gambler to be a masterpiece. Dostoevsky is a writer whose oeuvre of work is formidable, and his "big" novels are in a class all to themselves. To have high expectations of a small novel that is not generally associated with Dostoevsky's body of work would be naive. However, The Gambler is a diamond in the rough--a gem that ought to be appreciated in all its unpolished glory. It's smart, witty, and in many ways a work of genius. And it surely gives you a clear-cut idea of why Dostoevsky went on to become one of the most renowned and respected writers in the history of world literature.
If you haven't read Dostoevsky before, The Gambler wouldn't be a bad place to start. It can be finished in a day, and it will leave you aching for more of this Russian master's work.
The Gambler was written in-between Dostoevsky's work on Crime and Punishment. With the help of a stenographer, Dostoevsky completed it in twenty-six days, finishing it on October 30, 1866. It is set in the imaginary German town of Roulettenberg.
At age seventeen, Dostoevsky wrote, in a letter to his brother, Mikhail, words that turn out to be prophetic of the themes he explored in his writing:
"Man is a mystery. It must be brought to light, and, if one puzzles over it all one's life, let it not be said that one is wasting one's time. I am studying this mystery, for I wish to be a man."
Gender constructs aside, the passage from this missive is very telling. Dostoevsky indeed seem to use his work as a vehicle through which to explore the contradictions within men and women, and the enigmatic facets of human nature.
Last edited by titania7; 08-Feb-2009 at 20:50.
"All men have the same defect: they wait to live, for they have not the courage of each instant.
Why not invest enough passion in each moment to make it an eternity?" ~E. M. Cioran