Places: Poor Folk

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Bednye Lyudi, 1846 (English translation, 1887)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Impressionistic realism

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*St. Petersburg

*St. Poor FolkPetersburg. Capital of Russia at the time in which the novel is set. The main characters of the novel, the poor clerk Makar Dievushkin and the seamstress Barbara (Varvara) Dobroselova with whom he corresponds, are denizens of one of the shabbier districts of the large city. As a consequence, the story provides only limited views of other sections of the capital. Makar’s letters to Barbara are filled with descriptions of the grubby, impoverished areas of the city, and it becomes clear that this gloomy cityscape has a woeful impact on the psyche of those who dwell in it. Makar’s presentation of city life focuses on three sites: his apartment, the streets through which he walks, and the office in which he works. His entire life seems circumscribed by these three realms.

In his descriptions of the people he encounters on the streets of the city, Makar again singles out the poor and the downtrodden. He finds the faces of the artisans and tradesmen frightening and depressing. In a long passage reminiscent of passages from Honoré de Balzac and Charles Dickens, Makar describes the pitiful sight of a young boy begging those passing by for help for himself and his dying mother. The boy is constantly rebuffed, and Makar foresees a grim future for him. Over the course of the novel, as the seasons change from spring to autumn, growing cold and darkness heighten the somberness of the St. Petersburg scenes that Makar describes.

Makar’s apartment

Makar’s apartment. Makar’s home is a crowded St. Petersburg apartment building, most of whose lodgers are nearly as impoverished as Makar is. Makar mourns the fact that he lives in what is essentially a slum, and that he is surrounded by noise, shouting, and a constant uproar. He lives in a tiny corner behind a partition in the kitchen, yet in an attempt to bolster his image in Barbara’s eyes, he tries to convince her that he is quite comfortable there. Other inhabitants, he points out, are even worse off, and entire families are squeezed into even smaller rooms.

In a particularly telling passage, Makar contrasts the building’s main entrance, which is clean and spacious, with the back entrance, a dark staircase with greasy walls. The back staircase is littered with filth and rubbish that emit an unbearable odor. In fact, the stench is so bad in the building that pet birds die when they are exposed to it. Through these descriptions, Fyodor Dostoevski reveals to readers a grim reality about the lives of the poor in St. Petersburg. Indeed, in one letter Makar declares that well-to-do people need someone to wake them up and make them realize that there are other things in life besides their comfortable material possessions.

Makar’s office

Makar’s office. As a lowly clerk in a large, impersonal bureaucracy, Makar seldom comes to the attention of his superiors. However, in one of the most striking scenes in the novel, Makar is summoned to explain a mistake to the head of his department. His description of walking through room after room to get to his superior’s room has a nightmarish quality to it.

Barbara’s childhood home

Barbara’s childhood home. Contrasting with the grim conditions of her St. Petersburg existence are Barbara’s recollections of her happy childhood in the country. Her evocations of pleasant moments spent out of doors and in the company of her family are brief moments of light amid the relentless series of descriptions of the hardships she has suffered since moving to the city. These positive recollections of country life can also be contrasted with the unpleasant prospects of a future life that awaits her as she marries the caddish Mr. Bwikov and is carried off to a home somewhere in the remote steppes of Russia.

BibliographyBreger, Louis. Dostoevsky: The Author as Psychoanalyst. New York: New York University Press, 1989. Contains a chapter on Poor Folk and several chapters of biography. Discusses the symbols and associations of the novels.Jackson, Robert Louis. Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form: A Study of His Philosophy of Art. 2d ed. Bloomington, Ind.: Physsardt Publishers, 1978. Considers the contradiction between Dostoevski’s working aesthetic and his higher aesthetic of true beauty. A mature and helpful study for the serious Dostoevski reader.Leatherbarrow, William J. Fedor Dostoevsky. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Includes a biographical sketch and chronology of Dostoevski. An excellent guide for the study of Dostoevski. Commentary on Poor Folk and other early work.Mackiewicz, Stanislaw. Dostoyevsky. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1947. Examines the women of Dostoevski’s novels and the relevance of the loves of Dostoevski’s life to his work. Contains biographical information as a reference to the novels.Miller, Robin Feuer. Critical Essays on Dostoevsky. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. Contains an essay by Tolstoy and criticism and commentary on Dostoevski up to the twentieth century. A very broad spectrum of the material available on Dostoevski and how he and his novels have been perceived.
Categories: Places