Thursday, November 11, 2010


Fyodor Dostoevsky was born on this day in 1821 (New Style). Poor Folk, Dostoevsky’s first book, was published to wide acclaim in Russia when he was just twenty-two. Dostoevsky scholars find in the tale and the writing talent many characteristics of the later classics, most notably Dostoevsky’s ability to capture and empathize with the lives of the poor, the marginalized and the misfit. The story is framed as a series of impassionate letters between an impoverished clerk and his beloved, a seamstress but also an avid reader and writer. Her letters include her own autobiographical short story in which her friend, a poor tutor in the last stages of tuberculosis, finally passes away. His funeral must be financed by the sale of his precious books, but his father, overwhelmed by grief, cannot bear to see this happen. He stuffs as many books as he can into his pockets and hat, and will not set them aside even to follow the broken-down hearse to the graveyard:

At length the coffin had received its burden and was screwed down; after which the bearers placed it upon a bier, and set out. I accompanied the cortege only to the end of the street. Here the driver broke into a trot, and the old man started to run behind the hearse—sobbing loudly, but with the motion of his running ever and anon causing the sobs to quaver and become broken off. Next he lost his hat, the poor old fellow, yet would not stop to pick it up, even though the rain was beating upon his head, and a wind was rising and the sleet kept stinging and lashing his face. It seemed as though he were impervious to the cruel elements as he ran from one side of the hearse to the other—the skirts of his old greatcoat flapping about him like a pair of wings. From every pocket of the garment protruded books, while in his hand he carried a specially large volume, which he hugged closely to his breast. The passers-by uncovered their heads and crossed themselves as the cortege passed, and some of them, having done so, remained staring in amazement at the poor old man. Every now and then a book would slip from one of his pockets and fall into the mud; whereupon somebody, stopping him, would direct his attention to his loss, and he would stop, pick up the book, and again set off in pursuit of the hearse.

Source: Today in Literature

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