Jordyn Hough holds a degree in Russian Studies from Stetson University in Florida. She spent spring semester of 2010 studying Russian in St. Petersburg with The School of Russian and Asian Studies. She is now applying to graduate schools for Slavic Languages and Literatures.
This paper was published as part of Vestnik: The Journal of Russian and Asian Studies.
Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Meek One: A Rebellious Reading
By Jordyn Hough
The Meek One (Кроткая) was published in The Diary of a Writer (Дневник писателя) in 1876 and is one of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s lesser known works. Despite this, The Meek One is a purely Dostoevskian story, displaying themes common throughout his larger works. I will examine cruelty, freedom, utopianism and suicide in The Meek One to show its relationship to some of Dostoevsky’s larger works. I will also focus on the work’s unnamed and despised protagonist, the Pawnbroker, to present a thorough portrait of his character.
First, it is important to understand the unusual context in which The Meek One appears. The Meek One was published in the November issue of Dostoevsky’s journal, The Diary of a Writer. Dostoevsky’s Diary began in 1873 and appeared as a column in a journal called The Citizen (Гражданин) until 1876, when a new and independent form of the Diary began. This was a historic event in Russian journalism, for the Diary was the first publication of its kind. The Diary was unique, because it was written entirely by Dostoevsky and covered an array of topics. Most often, he examined literature, history, religion, politics and society. But the Diary had no rules, and Dostoevsky could write about anything he wanted to. His family life, short stories, ideas for future works and even responses to letters written by readers may all be found in the Diary. Furthermore, the entries in the Diary may be read and analyzed independently or interpreted with respect to their position in the larger work. For this reason, Gary Saul Morson calls the Diary “one of the strangest works in world literature” (“Introduction” 1).
Because the form of the Diary is unusual, questions arise as to what genre it belongs to and how it should be read. Since it is difficult to restrict the Diary to one genre, it may be considered to belong to a genre of its own. Morson has written on this subject and asserts that the Diary belongs to a category called “threshold art,” which is “designed to be interpreted according to contradictory sets of conventions” (Boundaries x). Indeed, Dostoevsky’s letters provide evidence he meant the Diary to be read in toto, as a literary work, and not as independent or unrelated articles. Thus, the Diary should be read contrary to what its form dictates to fully understand its meaning.
The four themes found in The Meek One, cruelty, freedom, utopianism and suicide, also appear frequently throughout the Diary. Thus, the context of these themes in the Diary should be mentioned first, before examining them in greater detail in The Meek One.
In the Diary, cruel scenes usually involve children. Factual cases of child abuse as well as fictional ones, like “The Heavenly Christmas Tree,” are found throughout the Diary. For Dostoevsky, crimes against children were the most unsettling, because they signify a disharmony between the laws of nature and the laws of moral judgment. Although Dostoevsky respected the laws of nature, he sought answers to an unanswerable question: if God is good and all powerful, why is there evil in the world? Characters in Dostoevsky’s larger works also struggle with this question. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan tells Alyosha, “I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It is not worth the tears of that one child” (289). In investigating crimes against children in the Diary, Dostoevsky hunted for a justifiable explanation for their suffering.
Freedom, a pervasive theme in Dostoevsky’s works, is the most significant of the four. The articles and stories found in it are devoted entirely to the study of freedom in man. Even the Diary itself is an experiment in freedom, since its form and content are unrestricted. Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev explains, “Freedom is the centre of Dostoevsky’s conception of the world” (67). It follows that The Meek One, a purely Dostoevskian story, is a story about freedom. The Pawnbroker wants to be free but is bound by necessity and the course of events. His struggle is repeated in so many of Dostoevsky’s obsessed protagonists: Raskolnikov, the Underground Man and Ivan Karamazov, to name a few.
Utopian passages appear throughout the Diary. Morson explains that in the Diary, utopian passages are usually “addressed to a scornful opponent” from the position of the “prophet ridiculed” (“Introduction” 34). Interestingly, Dostoevsky, and not just some of his protagonists, often speaks from the position of the “prophet ridiculed.” Throughout the Diary, Dostoevsky warns his readers of an imminent apocalypse. Five months before the Meek One was published in the Diary, Dostoevsky, in his article “The Utopian Understanding of History,” claimed that a third period in Russian history was almost here. Dostoevsky countered, “And if believing in this ‘new world’ with Russia, heading a united Orthodoxy, is a ‘Utopia,’ worthy of nothing but ridicule, let people class me, too, among these Utopians, while the ridicule – leave that to me” (Diary 365). Indeed, Dostoevsky suffered ridicule, especially when an apocalypse did not occur. Morson points out that the skepticism was not just from his readers “but also of the diarist himself in moments of wry self-reflection” (Boundaries 36). And so, Morson continues, “the voice of the prophet usually predominates, but that predominance is always precarious, and prophecy is never free from the threat of parody” (36). In the Diary, the Ridiculous Man is a clear example of one of Dostoevsky’s protagonists facing ridicule. The Ridiculous Man dreams that he lives in and then destroys a utopian society. After the Ridiculous Man wakes up, he preaches his dream to an audience of disbelievers. Later, we will examine the Pawnbroker’s utopian vision, which he defends throughout his confession.
The final theme, suicide, had always fascinated Dostoevsky. However, despite Dostoevsky’s fascination with suicide, he had a lust for life. In one of his letters he wrote, “I have in me a cat’s tenacity for life, don’t I?” (Notebooks 81). To Dostoevsky, a lust for life was instinctive, whereas suicide was a revolt against human nature. Therefore, Dostoevsky studied suicides as anomalies, and sought to understand the reasons behind them. It is not surprising that twenty-two suicides occur throughout his works, seven of which occur in the Diary (Shneidman 103). The Diary contains fictional and factual suicides. Undoubtedly, the factual suicides Dostoevsky studied influenced his portrayal of fictional ones. In his article “Two Suicides,” he examines the suicide of Herzen’s seventeen year old daughter and the suicide of a young seamstress. The seamstress’ suicide mirrors the suicide of the Meek One’s so greatly, that there can be no doubt of its overwhelming influence. Dostoevsky’s analyses of the two suicides were published in the Diary just before The Meek One, as if he were setting the stage for the work to appear.
Before further examining the four themes, it is important to address The Meek One’s unusual preface, where he reveals that he has subtitled his story “A Fantastic Story,” even though he considers it to be “real in the highest degree” (Diary 491). The origin of this paradox may be ascribed to Victor Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man, a story that deeply influenced Dostoevsky. In many ways The Last Day is a fantastic story: the reader learns all of the condemned man’s thoughts through his diary entries, which he updates until just before he is executed. This fantastic element allows the condemned man to reveal his thoughts without restriction. The truthfulness and lucidity of the condemned man’s entries make this fantastic story seem wholly real. This fantastic element is also reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s short story Bobok where the dead speak openly among themselves and reveal secrets and desires they would ordinarily never disclose.
The fantastic element in The Meek One is less obvious, though it deserves exploration. Morson cites “an extraordinary degree of authorial omniscience” as the only thing fantastic about The Meek One (Hidden 43). In addition to this, however, the extreme events that precipitate the Pawnbroker’s confession and the style in which the Pawnbroker delivers his confession are fantastic. The Pawnbroker confesses the events that led to his wife’s suicide. In fact, she is still in their apartment, lying dead on the table. In his preface, Dostoevsky explains that the Pawnbroker’s confession is written as if a stenographer were eavesdropping on him and secretly recording his every word. The first line of his confession begins with ellipses, making it seems as though the Pawnbroker starts his confession long before the unnoticed eavesdropper had begun to listen. “… Now, as long as she is still here – everything is still all right” (Diary 492). This fantastic element allows the Pawnbroker’s thoughts to pour out. For this reason, the Pawnbroker contradicts himself, retracts his own declarations and has trouble staying on topic, making his fantastic confession seem all too real.
In the opening scene of The Meek One, Dostoevsky illustrates what Nikolai Mikhailovsky, in his essay “A Cruel Talent,” calls “the sensation of a wolf devouring a sheep” (12). When the Pawnbroker meets the right type of person, he enjoys gaining the upper hand and poking fun at that person. After all, this is one of the few joys he has left in life. He is the proprietor of a pawnshop, a profession scorned by Russian society, and, in his mind, he has been the victim of great injustices, which have nearly cost him everything. When the Meek One comes to him to pawn her belongings, he immediately thinks he has the upper hand. She is young and poor, and, to her, his profession must appear respectable. He offers her two rubles for a worthless cigar holder that another pawnbroker refused to accept. He is delighted that she has no choice but to accept his two rubles. “Is it possible that this triumph over her costs me two rubles? – Hee, hee, hee!” (Dostoevsky, Diary 493). The Pawnbroker’s surge of delight over his small triumph must match what a wolf feels the moment he knows his sheep is not getting away. Furthermore, the Pawnbroker brandishes and savors his triumph, something perhaps even a wolf would not do.
Mikhailovsky explains that there are different forms of cruelty. For example, some are “more elegant and more interesting, which one can even flaunt should the opportunity arise, openly declaring that I, they say, like to torment people, but, look here, how far above simple mortals I nevertheless stand…”(36). Mikhailovsky is referring to the Underground Man, but his quote is suitable for the Pawnbroker as well. Like the Underground Man, the Pawnbroker believes he surpasses all others in intelligence and integrity, and a case may be made that he does. After all, one must be intelligent to be so brilliantly cruel. But everyone fails to recognize this in the Pawnbroker, and, to make matters worse, his profession is lowly and ignoble. He is sensitive about his profession and adamantly defends it. “You say ‘pawnbroker’ – everybody says it. And what of it? This means that there must, indeed, have been some reason why a most magnanimous of all men became a pawnbroker” (Dostoevsky, Diary 494).
Although everyone fails to recognize the Pawnbroker’s genius, this terrible misunderstanding could be mitigated if just one person recognized him for the exceptional man he thinks he is. Therefore, it is a triumph for the Pawnbroker when he impresses the Meek One and thinks that she sees him as a respectable and cultivated man. He achieves this by quoting Mephistopheles. But the Pawnbroker wants her to respect him so badly that he blindly thinks her response, “Somehow you are strange…” is a compliment (Dostoevsky, Diary 496). A similar scene occurs in Notes from the Underground, when the Underground Man tries to deliver a powerful speech to Liza. She interrupts him, “Why, you – you’re speaking as though you were reading from a book” (Dostoevsky, Notes 348). Both scenes signify that the Pawnbroker and Underground Man are withdrawn from the real world and therefore incapable of discerning another’s response.
Mikhailovsky explains, “There are people who find in tormenting the greatest and most intense enjoyment – sensuality; that it is possible to torment with enjoyment not only a despicable person, but a beloved one as well” (33). The Pawnbroker is one of these people. He even declares, “Didn’t I already love her then?” (Dostoevsky, Diary 498). He proposes almost immediately and delivers his marriage proposal ingeniously. He boldly proposes right at the gate and in front of Lukeria, the Meek One’s servant. In his speech, he purposely does not declare his love for her and enumerates his defects. “I announced, first, that I was a man of no great talent, not too clever, perhaps even not very kind – a rather cheap egoist” (499). This scene is similar to when the Underground Man first meets Liza, and he is glad he seems revolting to her, since this will make their time together more exciting.
Once the Meek One agrees to marriage, the Pawnbroker is overjoyed. Even after presenting himself in the worst light, she has still agreed to marry him. However, the Meek One paused for a long time before saying yes. The Pawnbroker wonders if, at that moment, she had been choosing between him and the fat shopkeeper who also wanted to marry her. The Pawnbroker is excited by this idea and even contemplates whether he is more repulsive to her than the fat shopkeeper, and whether she decided to choose the worst of the two. In fact, the Pawnbroker even hopes that he is the worse of the two. He does not want to be seen as the Meek One’s benefactor. “‘It is I’ – I implied, as it were – ‘who is overwhelmed with benefits – not you’” (Dostoevsky, Diary 499). He would rather seem repulsive to her, since, like the Underground Man, this idea is incredibly exciting.
The Pawnbroker, an exceptional, intelligent and magnanimous man, in his mind, has distinguished himself in these first cruel scenes. He has executed his plan to marry the Meek One, and he even thinks he has gained the upper hand. And, after all, the Pawnbroker should not be chided, since, for Dostoevsky, a love of cruelty and suffering are an inseparable part of human nature. The Pawnbroker’s boldness and extremism are not bad qualities either. He is “a straightforward man” who does exactly as he pleases (Dostoevsky, Diary 498). When he wants to be cruel and succeeds in being brilliantly cruel. When he delivers his marriage proposal, he leaves out the excess embellishments ordinary men would include. And so, maybe the Pawnbroker’s style is just something that, as he himself would say, “you people,” (those who have renounced him), do not understand (Dostoevsky, Diary 504).
The Pawnbroker is not truly free. He is utterly bound by the course of events. His life is dominated by an incident from his past, when he was unjustly expelled from his regiment, and he is set on protesting against society, which he maintains is responsible for this tragedy. The Pawnbroker’s freedom is a temporal, rebellious freedom which will inevitably lead to annihilation. Berdyaev, in his essay on freedom, explains that rebellious freedom, a type of freedom clearly expressed in The Brothers Karamazov, “definitively shows that freedom in so far as it is self-will and self-affirmation must end in a negation of God, of man and of the world and of freedom itself” (82). The Pawnbroker’s rebellious freedom denies the very idea of freedom. It is a limitless freedom, a freedom without God, in which, as Ivan Karamazov declares, “Everything is lawful” (Dostoevsky, Brothers 312). Like Stavrogin, Svidrigailov, Raskolnikov and Ivan Karamazov, the Pawnbroker chooses to abandon true freedom, freedom in Christ, in exchange for self-will and self-deification.
If man has limitless freedom in which there is no God, then, Berdyaev asks, “May not man aspire to become himself a God?” (80). Indeed, the Pawnbroker assumes the role of Christ.
Once married, he wants his wife to come to him freely, without coercion. Dostoevsky scholar Temira Pachmuss writes, “In this he resembles Christ in ‘The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor’” (102). In “The Legend,” found in The Brothers Karamazov, Christ refuses to ease man’s suffering by limiting his freedom. Instead, He does not coerce man through miracles. Man is given the freedom to choose, and Christ wants man to freely choose Him. Like Christ, the Pawnbroker places this burden on his wife. He responds to her affection with stern silence, because he hopes that one day she will understand and freely choose him. However, Pachmuss explains, she is unable to understand, and so the Pawnbroker must show her proof of his love (103). But he refuses to show her proof, just as Christ refused to descend the cross.
This brings forth another idea, that of purification through suffering as an excuse for cruelty. Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank explains that the Underground Man uses this idea with Liza (Liberation 344). Similarly, the Pawnbroker makes his wife suffer for a greater good. This absolves him of all wrongdoing and allows him to remain “a most magnanimous man” (Dostoevsky, Diary 504). Additionally, the way the Pawnbroker justifies the suffering he causes his wife matches Christ’s justification for inflicting suffering on man. In giving man freedom to choose between good and evil, Christ also causes man to suffer. Because of this, the Grand Inquisitor accuses Christ of not loving man at all. “Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all” (Dostoevsky, Brothers 302). But Christ’s actions are justified, since he gives man a free choice and so presents man with the possibility of ultimate freedom, or freedom in Christ. The Pawnbroker too must reason that his cruelty toward his wife is justified in the same way, since he offers her a choice he thinks will lead to a greater good. He thinks he is offering her a choice, since, from the beginning, he does not make promises or show affection to her and even enumerates his defects so that she will not feel compelled to “love” him.
The Pawnbroker’s extremism should be mentioned here. Pachmuss posits that the Pawnbroker should have “bribed her with love and compassion” (102), instead of treating her as he did. But this suggestion ignores the Pawnbroker’s nature; this is unthinkable for the Pawnbroker, an extremist. He would rather his wife despise him than have to “bribe her with love and compassion.” Besides, he is too proud; “Oh, I was always proud, and I always sought either everything or nothing! – Because I am not a half-way man where happiness is concerned” (Dostoevsky, Diary 502). The Pawnbroker is also not a half-way man where freedom is concerned, and embraces a rebellious, destructive and godless freedom. Although the Pawnbroker’s freedom is an illusion and not true freedom in Christ, it is dearer to him than anything else. He has mistaken it to be the ultimate and freest freedom, a mistake Dostoevsky’s most extreme characters, Stavrogin, Svidrigailov and Raskolnikov, wishing to overcome the bounds of human nature, often make.
In the chapter “The Meek One Rebels,” it becomes clear that the Pawnbroker’s rebellious freedom is smothering his wife. She starts to rebel against his rules, lend money without him knowing, and appraise items in excess of their value. When he reprimands her, she explodes. To assert her free will, the Meek One pushes herself to act contrary to her nature. She brings up the most tragic incident in the Pawnbroker’s life, when he was thrown out of his regiment. “Is it true that you were kicked out of the regiment because you were afraid to accept the challenge to a duel?” (Dostoevsky, Diary 507). The Pawnbroker starts to defend himself, but in doing so, he only increases his humiliation. But the Pawnbroker’s honor is restored soon after this, when he wakes up to his wife standing over him with a pistol. He shuts his eyes and pretends to be asleep. An exciting thought flashes through his mind. “If she had guessed the truth, known I was not sleeping, I should have crushed her by my readiness to accept death” (511). He is willing to risk his life over this triumph. Time passes, and he opens his eyes to find she is no longer in the room. “I had conquered – and she was forever vanquished!” (512). The Pawnbroker does not reveal the truth to his wife. Instead, he savors his triumph. Mikhailovsky asserts that “Dostoevsky’s creations do not behave so simply; they do not need the end, the result, they need the process. They have to devise something more refined, cruel and bizarre than simple vengeance” (42).
This most tragic incident, heretofore, in the Pawnbroker’s life serves as an example of his rebellious freedom in action. Many years ago, between acts at a theatre, the Pawnbroker overheard a hussar say that his (the Pawnbroker’s) captain appeared to be drunk. The Pawnbroker kept silent and was subsequently reprimanded for not defending his captain’s honor. The Pawnbroker was ordered to have a formal talk with the hussar. But, the Pawnbroker did not want to, and so he “refused with haughtiness” and proudly resigned (Dostoevsky, Diary 514). After resigning, he spent three shameful years wandering the streets. This incident is reminiscent of the Underground Man’s dialectic, in which he argues that man may act against against his own interests, just so he may prove that he is free to choose what is absurd and unreasonable. So, like the gentleman with the cynical and sneering face, who also makes absurd choices in Notes from the Underground, the Pawnbroker makes an irrational choice and does so proudly. The main point here is that this was the Pawnbroker’s choice, his freedom in revolt, which caused him so much suffering. “And so – if it is shame, let it be shame; if it is degradation; the worse, the better – this is what I chose” (514). The Pawnbroker’s choice is worth the suffering he endures, for his freedom to make an absurd and unreasonable choice is proof, to him, that he is free.
The Pawnbroker keeps mentioning a vision. His vision is to protect himself from society by constructing a wall, raise thirty thousand rubles and then retire somewhere in the Crimea and help his neighboring farmers. He would also have a beloved woman by his side and perhaps children and an ideal in his soul. Society has mistreated and overlooked the Pawnbroker, and the world is unfair and unjust. Therefore, the Pawnbroker strives to construct a new one. He sets up a formula for a moral utopia, where he will be appreciated and respected.
Berdyaev writes, “Under the influence of the Euclidean mind man thinks he can make a better world, wherein evil and misery and the tears of the innocent have no part” (85). Similarly, in The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan tells Alyosha that he cannot accept a world in which children suffer. “It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket” (Dostoevsky 291). In Ivan’s world, like the one the Pawnbroker seeks to construct, goodness and happiness would be obligatory. However, in their worlds, man would cease to be free. But the Pawnbroker’s utopian vision is just that, a vision; it will never be achieved. Like the gentleman with the cynical and sneering face in Notes from the Underground, the Pawnbroker would immediately stick his tongue out at his moral utopia. And, just as the Ridiculous Man from Dostoevsky’s short story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” does, the Pawnbroker would destroy it since doing so would be an expression of his freedom to choose what is absurd and unreasonable.
Although it is unspoken, one gets the sense that the Pawnbroker, during his three shameful years wandering the streets, spent much of his time dreaming and devising systems. After he marries the Meek One, he admits to spending most of his time dreaming. “Therein is the nastiness – that I am a dreamer; there was enough material for me, and, as for her, I reasoned that she could wait” (Dostoevsky, Diary 515). Certainly, the Pawnbroker thinks his dreams are superior to the real world. One can imagine the Pawnbroker, after being thrown out of his regiment, replying, “I will go and invent my own world, a superior and just world, where I am respected and adored!”
The Pawnbroker and his wife spend the whole winter in silence. Consumed by his dreams, the Pawnbroker fails to realize that something horrible has occurred. His wife, who became ill after the incident with the pistol, is ashamed that he is her husband. He understands this now, but at the time, when she blushed because he was taking care of her, he mistakenly attributed this to humility. The Meek One also sings in front of him. “She sings – and in my presence! Did she forget about me?” (Dostoevsky, Diary 518). He begins to realize that while he was dreaming the whole winter, his wife had not been as crushed and humiliated as he had thought. Instead, she had forgotten about him.
He approaches her, almost deliriously, and begins, “Let’s have a talk… You know… say something!” Astonishingly, her eyes express “stern surprise,” and she becomes embarrassed by his advances. The Pawnbroker, almost in a state of frenzy, decides they must travel to Boulogne. “Spring – Boulogne! Over there, there is sun, our new sun!” Throughout the Pawnbroker’s confession, whenever he mentions his utopian vision it is linked with a feeling of great expectation. This time is no different. He exclaims, “Insanely, I was waiting for the morning” and “I was only waiting for the next day” (Dostoevsky, Diary 519, 522, 521). Like Dostoevsky’s own utopian articles in the Diary, there is a sustained feeling that the Pawnbroker’s vision is imminent. However, the Pawnbroker and his wife never even set off for Boulogne. Certainly, the Pawnbroker knew this all along and only perpetuated his fantasy, because, as the Underground Man argues, humanity likes the process of achieving something, but not the result.
The Meek One’s suicide occurs during the short time the Pawnbroker leaves to get their passports. Although she does not leave a note, her suicide contains a message within itself, in the details. Just after the Meek One finishes praying, she jumps out of her window holding her icon. For Dostoevsky, when one abandons the idea of spiritual immortality, suicide becomes inevitable (Berdyaev 105). But here, Dostoevsky shows that even believing in spiritual immortality is not always enough to prevent suicide. In this way, the Meek One’s suicide differs from most, since it is not the result of irreligiosity (Shneidman 94). Instead, the cause of her suicide is unknown. Emotional frustration, spiritual emptiness, and psychological alienation, no doubt, contribute to her suicide. But these causes are very complex, and it is therefore impossible to claim that just one of them is the ultimate cause.
An interesting detail of her suicide is that she did not break anything when she fell. Only “a handful of blood” was found next to her body. When the Pawnbroker enters the gate, he sees a crowd surrounding her. All he remembers is someone shouting about the handful of blood. “I believe, I touched the blood with my finger (this I remember), while he kept saying: ‘A handful, a handful!’ ‘And what’s that about a handful?’ – I cried at the pitch of my voice” (Dostoevsky, Diary 524). The handful of blood denotes the destruction and defilement of something pure. Again, the Meek One’s suicide differs from the suicides of, for example, Kirilov and Stavrogin from The Possessed, Smerdiakov from The Brothers Karamazov, and Svidrigailov from Crime and Punishment, because she is pure and religious.
The Pawnbroker wonders, “What if it were possible not to bury her? Because if she should be carried away, then… Oh, no: it is almost impossible that she be carried away!” (Dostoevsky, Diary 526). Dostoevsky had a similar response when his wife Marya Dimitrievna died. He kept a vigil at her bier and “pored over their life together as he sat beside her dead corpse” (Frank, Liberation 296). The Pawnbroker, too, sits by his wife’s dead body and goes over the events leading to her suicide. He cannot understand how only a few hours ago she was alive, and now she is dead and will soon be taken away. “She’s blind, blind! Dead! She hears nothing!” (Dostoevsky, Diary 527). This is impossible for him to comprehend.
The question of whether or not the Pawnbroker is responsible for the Meek One’s suicide should be addressed. Although it was the Meek One who jumped from the window, the Pawnbroker still torments himself over his role in her suicide. Here, Dostoevsky shows that “consciousness exacts more than the frigid civil law,” since it understands that “we do not kill our brother only when we put a violent end to his physical life: our secret thoughts, which sometimes hardly reach our consciousness, make us murderers in spirit” (Berdyaev 103). Even though the Pawnbroker did not end her physical life, he ended her spiritual one, and for Dostoevsky, one’s spiritual life holds greater value. A “murderer in spirit” is exempt from criminal prosecution. However, like Ivan Karamazov, who did not murder his father but feels at fault for it, the Pawnbroker recognizes his role in her suicide. This is why, at times, his confession seems more like a criminal defense addressed to a jury than anything else.
The first category contains factual suicides, like those of Herzen’s daughter and the seamstress. The second is fictional suicides based on factual ones, which is where the Meek One’s suicide belongs. The final category concerns “works of fiction which can be classified as philosophical allegories in which self-destruction is at the center of the plot” (Schneidman? 89). Although Shneidman places only “The Verdict” and “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” in this category, the Pawnbroker’s retreat from society in the final lines of his confession is spiritual self-destruction, which, for Dostoevsky, is worse than physical self-destruction. In the last part of his confession, he cries, “What do I care about your laws?” and “What use have I now for your laws? – I segregate myself” (Dostoevsky, Diary 526). The Pawnbroker understands that nature does not care whether or not his wife has committed suicide or the reasons for her suicide, because the pendulum is still ticking. “To it it makes no difference; it regrets no one” (525). Like the narrator of “The Verdict,” who cannot receive an answer from nature and so destroys himself, because he cannot destroy nature, the Pawnbroker decides to separate himself from this world, because it is not just and rational.
In the final lines of his confession, the Pawnbroker understands that he cannot endure an illogical and senseless world, but he also cannot go on living separated and alone. He does not have the answer and does not know what he will do tomorrow, when they take her away. Of the Pawnbroker’s confession, Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank explains, “Nothing that Dostoevsky ever wrote is more poignant than the narrator’s cry of despair at the end…” (Prophet 350):
Oh nature! Men on earth are alone – this is the calamity! “Is there in the field a living man?” – shouts the valiant Russian knight. I – not a knight – am shouting too, and no one responds. People say that the sun vivifies the universe, and look at it – isn’t it a corpse? Everything is dead, and everywhere – nothing but corpses. Only men and, around them, silence – such is earth. “Love each other.” – Who said this? Whose covenant is this? The pendulum is swinging insensibly and disgustingly. It’s night – two o’clock. Her little shoes stand by her dear little bed, as if awaiting her… No, seriously – tomorrow, when they carry her away, what will I do? (Dostoevsky, Diary 527)
Although The Meek One is a story about freedom, in the Pawnbroker’s final “cry of despair,” Dostoevsky reveals that it is also a story about the necessity of Christ and a belief in spiritual immortality. This is the solution to physical and spiritual self-destruction that Dostoevsky presents to us.
In a response to a letter written by a certain Mr. N.P found in the Diary, Dostoevsky maintains that most suicides are the result of one not believing in immortality of the soul and “the sublime idea of existence” (Dostoevsky, Diary 537). The Pawnbroker has placed his ideas above this truth, and he has destroyed his spiritual self. Dostoevsky tortures the consciences of those who exchange freedom in Christ for self-will and self-deification. If they do not repent, as Raskolnikov does, they end up weakened and destroyed (Rozanov 152). Berdyaev explains, “Dostoevsky taught the religion of love for one’s neighbor, and he denounced the falsity of this disinterestedness in favor of some far-away end out of sight and reach of mankind: there is a ‘far-away’ principle, it is God – and he tells us to love our neighbor” (99). But this “far-away” principle is difficult for a man of higher consciousness, like the Pawnbroker, even in his state of desperation, to understand. Thus, Dostoevsky’s depiction of man’s struggle toward truth and freedom in Christ is usually one without resolution.
Dostoevsky’s characters go astray and experience the bounds of freedom. Through their extremism, Dostoevsky shows the breadth of human nature. But with such a burden of freedom, it is difficult to come to Christ freely and follow his teachings. Dostoevsky explains in his notebook that, “To love mankind like oneself, according to the commandment of Christ is impossible. The law of the personality on earth binds. The ego stands in the way” (Notebooks 172). And so, man’s struggle toward freedom in Christ is eternal. Dostoevsky seems to understand this better than anyone, and depicts his characters not as complete, balanced, and perfected individuals, but as suffering, tormented and rebellious souls, struggling to find true freedom.
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Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. “Notes from the Underground.” Trans. David Magarshack. Great short works of Fyodor Dostoevsky. New York: Harper & Row, 1968
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: Random House, 1950.
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Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.” Trans. David Magarshack. Great short works of Fyodor Dostoevsky. New York: Harper & Row, 1968
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, Carl R. Proffer, and T. S. Berczynski. The unpublished Dostoevsky: Diaries and Notebooks (1860-81). 3 vols. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1973.
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Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
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Morson, Gary Saul. “Introduction.” A Writer’s Diary. By Fyodor Dostoevsky. Trans. Kenneth Lantz. Northwestern University Press, 1994.
Morson, Gary Saul. The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky's Diary of a Writer and the Traditions of Literary Utopia. Austin: University of Texas, 1981.
Morson, Gary Saul. Hidden in Plain View: Narrative and Creative Potentials in ‘War and Peace.’ Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.
Pachmuss, Temira. F.M. Dostoevsky: Dualism and the Synthesis of the Human Soul. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963.
Rozanov, Vasily. Dostoevsky and the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. Trans. Spencer E. Roberts. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1972.
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