Dostoevsky’s short story “A Gentle Creature” (also translated sometimes as “The Meek one,” and the original Russian is “Кроткая”) is very influential and is very useful in understanding Dostoevsky’s ideas as a whole. The full text of the story can be found here. The picture is from a Russian film version of the same story. I may use some spoilers in the analysis, as it is a short story, and because I become very long-winded when discussing one of the greatest writers of all time.
As in many of Dostoevsky’s works, we begin in a pawn shop. I’ve read enough Dostoevsky novels by this point that I’m a bit superstitious about them; I wouldn’t want to go into a pawn shop for fear of becoming the victim of an axe-murder (or worse!). Even in this story, the first thing we learn is that the narrator is a pawnbroker and that there’s a dead girl. The pawnbroker then begins a flashback narrative to describe how everything got to that point.
A pawnbroker observes an impoverished teenage girl come into his shop on a regular basis. She has a degree of pride and dignity that most of his other customers don’t possess, and he thinks that it’s hot. He starts flirting with her, and allows her to pawn some things that would normally be worthless. It’s clear that she’s not entirely comfortable with this, but she’s so impoverished that she doesn’t have much of a choice. Eventually, the girl is forced to pawn her most precious possession–a religious icon. Rather than let her go
The pawnbroker finds out that the girl is an orphan, and that her abusive aunts are determined to marry her off to an obese shopkeeper who wanted a mother for his kids. The narrator finds himself making an offer, which the girl accepts as being the lesser of two evils.
The narrator enjoys having power over the girl. Power, dominance, and submission are major themes throughout Dostoevsky’s works. There are some critics that take it a wee bit far, and seem to speak of their own unfulfilled desires (as I mentioned in another post that turned into a rant about literary criticism). In “A Gentle Creature,” we see this theme very clearly. The narrator enjoys being in a position of dominance over the girl, while she tries to retain her pride and doesn’t want to be at his mercy.
The narrator is very stingy, and doesn’t talk to the girl much. She becomes increasingly unhappy when he’s around. The couple begins to fight, and the girl starts runs away to visit Efimovich, a man from the narrator’s old regiment, where she learns about the circumstances in which the narrator left the military. She then realizes that she has to return to the narrator, because she has nowhere else to go.
The narrator gets a revolver next time Efimovich comes to the pawn shop, and listens to the girl continuously reject his advances, so he doesn’t shoot anyone. Later, the narrator wakes up to the girl pointing the gun at his head, but she doesn’t have the heart to shoot him.
Oh, and then the girl gets tuberculosis. This is also typical in Dostoevsky novels–people tend to get tuberculosis and die. The narrator’s wife, however, recovers, largely due to the excellent care that he gave her during her illness. One day, the girl sings in front of him. Thinking that their relationship finally has a chance to improve, the narrator becomes excited, and promises that things will be better and that they’ll immediately go on vacation together. He goes out to get their passports, and returns to find that she jumped out the window clutching her icon and died. The narrator then despairs that he came home five minutes too late to save her–ironic, because he was so clueless that he didn’t have a clue why she did it.
It’s worthwhile to take note of the fact that in 19th century Russia, most authors didn’t take the time to realize the kinds of major problems that women had at the time. Dostoevsky is an exception, as he treats his female characters as actual people, and provides a social commentary on their general status. His emphasis on the girl’s religion is important, so that we see her as a pure character forced by society into her unhappy marriage, from which she feels there is no escape but death.
Overall, “A Gentle Creature” serves as a good introduction to the varying themes found in Dostoevsky’s writing. While a bit depressing, it’s a good story. Of course, I may be biased, as Dostoevsky is one of my heroes.