Fyodor Dostoevsky: Poor People/Poor Folk – Бедные люди [Bednye lyudi] (1846)

Presented as a series of letters between the humble copying-clerk Devushkin and a distant relative of his, the young Varenka, Poor People brings to the fore the underclass of St Petersburg, who live at the margins of society in the most appalling conditions and abject poverty. As Devushkin tries to help Varenka improve her plight by selling anything he can, he is reduced to even more desperate circumstances and seeks refuge in alcohol, looking on helplessly as the object of his impossible love is taken away from him.

Poor People – or Poor Folk, depending on the translation – was Dostoevsky’s first novel. Published in 1846 it was highly acclaimed by fellow writers and critics alike. At only 24 Dostoevsky became a literary celebrity. It is generally not considered to be his best book, his masterpieces were still to come, but it already contains many of the elements that made Dostoevsky famous.

I must admit this was not an easy read. The style is simple and descriptive but the story was unsettling and depressing and it did ring unbearably true.

Poor People is an epistolary novel set in St.Petersburg among the very poor. The letters are exchanged between a young orphaned woman, Varenka,  and an elderly distant relative, the copy-clerk Devushkin, who loves her very much.

Those two poor people live very close to each other but have to hide their friendship as it could be misunderstood. The descriptions of Varenka’s past, how her parents died and mean people pretended to take care of her while in reality there was only abuse, are paired with Devushkin’s descriptions of the way he is living. Although he is very poor himself he tries to help the fragile young woman and sends her what little money he has. In order to save money he left his old apartment after his landlady died and moved into another place. In this apartment he lives with a great number of equally poor people together in close quarters. He really only occupies a little corner of the kitchen that is separated from the rest by a piece of fabric.

He doesn’t even mind living like this at first as he can see Varenka’s windows from his room but after a while it gets harder for him. In their letters they try to comfort each other and describe in great detail how they live. The tone is very emotional, there isn’t much they hold back. On some days they are cheerful and will write about nice things they have seen or experienced but on most other days they are in despair and very sad. Varenka is often ill and can’t work while Devushkin has a hard time to hide his poverty at work. His clothes are shabby and would need mending, he loses his buttons, his shoes have holes and the soles are coming off. The poorer they get, the worse they are treated by others, also from those who are as poor as they are.

As if matters were not bad enough, Devushkin spends what little money he has on alcohol. He invariably pays his escapades with fear and shame. One misfortune follows another as they have little or no means to prevent them.

Varenka is a very intelligent young woman. Unlike Devushkin she is educated and likes to read. She loves Pushkin and Gogol. In some of the letters and a little notebook that she sends to Devushkin, she describes her childhood. These are wonderful passages that capture the life in the country, the changing of the seasons. She describes with great detail how golden the autumn was in the country, how wonderful winter could be because they would sit around a fire and tell stories. These passages show how masterful a writer Dostoevsky is.

Devushkin on the other hand tells her what he sees when he goes out in Petersburg. It makes him sad to see beautiful rich women and to know how arbitrary it is to be either born poor or rich.

One of the themes of the novel is the arbitrariness of poverty and how prejudiced the rich are. They treat the poor as if they were contagious. On the other hand they like to see them because it makes them feel superior. For that very same reason they  like to give them alms. The lack of privacy makes matters worse. Living with so many or being stuffed into a tiny office space with many other clerks exposes you constantly to the prying of others.

It seems as if one should never undergo a certain level of poverty, once you fall below there is no getting up anymore. There are numerous little stories of other poor people who fall ill and of children who die because no medicine is available.

Devushkin and Varenka are amazing characters. Despite their destitution they always think of each other first and if they receive just a little bit of money from somewhere they will give to those who have even less.

Reading this in winter, when the days are getting shorter and it is getting colder was really not easy. It’s depressing and sad. I thought of a documentary that I watched not long ago about Russian pensioners and some of those people lived in the same dirty, shabby and unhealthy tiny apartments. I remember one old woman, sitting in a box-like room, crying all through the interview. She had hardly any food, no heating, her clothes were rags. And this in Europe in 2011.

I didn’t enjoy reading this but on the other hand I felt very bad for thinking like this. Those who live under such conditions cannot just decide to walk away from them. Who am I to want to shelter myself from reading about such things?

I accidentally landed in a slum once, in Fort-de-France, Martinique. I felt really miserable, not because I thought it was dangerous, (maybe it was, no clue) but because it felt like prying. By walking between the shacks I could see into the homes of these people, they had no windows or doors and I felt like a voyeur. I was then asked angrily what the heck I thought I was doing but they understood, that I had lost my way and once they realized it wasn’t curiosity, they were very helpful.

It is really in bad taste but apparently it is part of many a guided tour in Brazil to pay a visit to the favelas.

I have read a few of Dostoevsky’s books, Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, Memoirs from the House of the Dead, with the exception of the last, they didn’t seem this depressing and I liked them very much.

I still got White Nights, Notes From Underground and The Brothers Karamazov to read. But not just yet.

I didn’t include any quotes as I’ve read this in a German translation. I like the German cover a lot.