Despite the description on the cover of this book, this is NOT your typical Dostoyevsky! It is a collection of ten short stories, in many different styles on many different subjects. They deal with moral conduct, love and relationships, psychological exploration, and one very bizarre political comedy. A few are serious but most contain some degree of humor, ranging from scathing irony to laugh-out-loud funny.
An Honest Thief is a tale told by an elderly lodger, Astafy Ivanovitch, after the master of the house has his greatcoat stolen before their eyes. It is a dryly humorous story about a down-and-out drunkard named Emelyan Ilyitch who clings to Astafy Ivanovitch until one day a pair of costly riding breeches shows up missing.
An Unpleasant Predicament is a biting satire about the humanitarian movement taking place in Russia in the mid-nineteenth century. Three successful generals are spending the evening together in celebration of Stepan Nikiforovitch Nikiforov, upon his 65th birthday and the purchase of his new home. He is conservative, lacking in ambition, and disliking enthusiasm. He hoped, this evening, to convince his friend, Semyon Ivanovitch Shipulenko, a man much like himself, to rent the story below him in his new house, as he lives in the upper story alone. The other guest, however is quite different. Ivan Ilyitch Pralinsky embraces the new humanitarian reforms, wants to love and be as one with his fellow creatures, at least in theory. He also does not recognize his limits, as the others do, and seeks to rise high in the leadership of Russia. Presently, it is time to depart, and Pralinsky is distressed to find that his driver has gone off. Shipulenko offers him a ride home, but Pralinsky, having had a bit too much to drink, and wanting to prove a point, decides to walk. On the way home, he discovers a party of common folk having a celebration. He soon learns it is a low-paid registration clerk from his office, Pseldonimov, who has just been married. Pralinsky lingers outside, dreaming of the scenario that would occur if he invited himself to the party, for just a short time: how the others would be so honored at his presence, how he would blend in with the celebration, then in the future Pseldonimov would relate to his children how a great general was present at his wedding party. So he proceeds in, and the results are funny and pathetic at best, and downright disgusting at worst, as the only thing he succeeds in doing is making a complete fool of himself and ruining the celebration.
Another Man's Wife or The Husband Under the Bed: An Extraordinary Adventure
This one is just plain old funny, and gets funnier as it moves along. Two gentlemen meet on the street, one young and plain, the other wearing a raccoon fur coat, and obviously well-to-do. It is he who approaches the young gentleman, flustered and seeming to want to ask a question, but scurries off instead. Thinking it over, he again confronts the young man and enquires if he has seen a certain lady. Though neither is willing to confide much information, it eventually seems there may be a possibility they are awaiting the appearance of the same lady. The gentleman in the fur coat swears he is not the husband, that he is investigating the whereabouts for the husband who is an intimate friend standing over there on the bridge. The lady in question does finally appear, leaving no doubt that the gentleman in furs, Ivan Andreyitch, is indeed her husband. We next encounter him at the opera, normally a situation he finds advantageous for a nap, but today he is unable to be settled. The party on whom he wishes to spy is seated directly above him, making it impossible to observe them. As the curtain falls after the first act, what appears to be a playbill drifts down from above and lands on the mostly bald head of Ivan Andreyitch. It is not a playbill, however, but a scented love letter with instructions for a late-night rendezvous, to which he scurries to intercept at the end of the opera. The fun really begins when, after bursting into what he believes to be the designated apartment, he finds himself in the presence of a lady whom he has never met, soon followed by the arrival of the lady's husband. So he does what any respectable gentleman would do: he hides under the bed, only to find another man there with him! The conclusion of his horrible mess is hilarious!
The Peasant Marey is a very short reminiscence written about the author's own experience in prison. (Dostoyevsky
spent four years in prison for political "treason".)
In this vignette, he retreats to solitude to escape the drunken violence of other inmates, and suddenly remembers an occurrence that took place when he was nine years old at the family's country home. He is playing alone in the thicket watching the peasant he knows as "Marey," ploughing the fields. Suddenly something terrifies him, and he runs screaming to Marey, who gently comforts him. Now, years later, it is this memory that helps him endure the misery of prison.
The Dream of a Ridiculous Man is one of the more serious stories. It is the mental rambling of a man who believes he does not care or feel anything any more; nothing really matters. That is, until one miserable rainy evening. As he is walking down the street, a little girl runs to him screaming, "Mammy, mammy." He sends her off, but upon reaching his apartment, begins to feel remorse that he did not give her assistance. Still, this was the evening in which he had determined to shoot himself, and he proceeds to carry out his plans. As he sits in his chair holding the gun, something happens thoroughly unexpected and abnormal: He falls asleep! And as he sleeps, he is taken though a dream journey. It begins as he is lying dead in a coffin, then suddenly finds himself flying though space to another earth, much like our present one. Here, it is like a paradise, bright and fragrant. The people are filled with joy, love, serenity; here there is no suffering. The dream continues as he realizes how humanity has been corrupted. This story is an excellent example of the depth and genius of Dostoyevsky's philosophical thought process, not to mention his foresight into modern metaphysical theories. Brilliant!
White Nights is a poignant romance about a lonely man in Petersburg, and though he really has no friends there, feels even lonelier now that everyone is leaving for vacation. One evening, he chances upon a lady who appears to be in distress, and comes to her aid. They talk and begin to like each other, agreeing to meet the next evening. When that evening comes, they share their life stories. He speaks to her of dreams, love, disappointment, and loneliness. She, whose name is Nastenka, then tells her story: She lives with her blind grandmother. They have enough money to provide, plus take in a lodger upstairs. The year before, the lodger had been a young man with whom she fell in love. He had to leave the city, but promised to return in a year and marry her when his prospects were better. He has been back for three days and still has not contacted her. This has been the cause of her despair. And so the two, Nastenka and her new friend, form a bond which does not quite turn out as planned.
These stories are all unique and of varying degrees of difficulty to comprehend. Though they all contain a deeper message, sometimes subtle and sometimes not, a few require more than one reading (and perhaps a little additional research) to begin to grasp their meaning.
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