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.

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

  1. I haven’t read this one yet. I’m currently watching an 8 part Russian television mini series about Dostoevsky (who’s played by one of my favourite Russian actors, Mironov). It’s excellent. Poor Folk was written pre-Siberia, and when he’s finally released from prison, everyone in this 2-horse Siberian town treat him like a celebrity.

    I know people who would love that Favela tour. They’d even take popcorn!

    • That sounds interesting, I’m sure I’d like to watch it as well. I wasn’t really aware that he had written soemthing at such an early age.
      I wouldn’t know of any good reason why anyone would want to visit a favela. But you will find people for every kind of “attraction”.

  2. Wonderful review, as always, but not the book for me right now. I know what you mean, about feeling that as readers in comfotrtable circumstances, we have no right to be too squeamish to read upsetting books. But I also think there are times when we are stronger than others, and there has to be enough strength in the soul to take in misery and not be overwhelmed by it in a useless way. So I’m okay with making choices about when I take on sad books.

    • Thanks, Litlove. I agree with you we need to take care of ourselves as well. It wasn’t the bets moment for me to read this. I wasn’t completely overwhelmed but I was glad it had only 200 pages. Especially since I had seen this documentary that has unsettled me a lot. I really don’t think we have this kind of poverty here in Switzerland.

  3. I was quite fond of Poor Folk when I read it: I imagine I found it uplifting in its humanity, or something of that sort. Dostoevsky was highly acclaimed by all the socialist revolutionary literary critics for writing it, and then succeeded in annoying them all by following it up with his Gogolian fantasy, The Double.

    • I know what you mean. For that very same reason Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” is one of my ten favourite books. I felt it was uplifting despite the dreariness. It didn’t depress me like this one.
      I’m glad I read Poor People, I like to see how the themes he wrote about here are taken up and elaborated in later books.

  4. The book seems to be real depressing. In India – after the success of Slumdog Millionaire – we have something called Slum Tourism where they take you to a guided tour of the slums.Even poverty is now commercialised.

    • Yes, it was depressing.
      I heard about the Slum Tourism in India. People can be so heartless.
      The same happens in Brazil and there the tourists get a special kick out of the idea how dangerous the favelas are.

  5. This was so well-written, as always. I have to be in the right frame of mind to read something this sobering, but it sounds like a book I’d like to read eventually. Crime and Punishment is one of my favorite books, but it was also “unbearably true.”

    • Thanks, Carole. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. I don’t do well in winter, the cold is something I find difficult and they are cold and ill all the time in this novel. It was well worth reading, that is for sure. He really had a gift Dostoevsky, the way he describes people and things makes them ring very true.

  6. Great review, very sensitive. I need to read more by him. I’ve only read The Idiot but not now.

    I like that you ask “Who am I to want to shelter myself from reading about such things?”. That’s how I feel about books like If this is a man or Fateless. You need to brace yourself to read them but at the same time, not reading them sounds like cowardice. It’s “just” a book and anyway we just have to put it down to get out of it.

    • Thanks, Emma. His whole work has been newly translated into German, I almost bought the whole collection but I think it’s highly unlikely I will read more than one of his big/great novels per year and I got the Brothers Karamazov already. What is fascinating with Dostoevsky is that all of his books are still of such timeliness.
      Funny enough, I was thinking of “This is a Man” while reading Poor People. The instances in which he is mistreated by other poor people reminded me of Levi’s account.
      Not reading these books is “too easy” for me. It isn’t an option.

      • I tend to shy away from long books and his aren’t exactly funny. This also explains why I always postpone starting one and why the next one could be this one, Notes from the Underground or The Gambler.

        • I’m not keen on long books either. Certainly a reason why I haven’t read Dickens or George Eliot or War and Peace and many more. I didn’t think Crime and Punishment was very long. At least I thought it was a fast read. The Gambler is very good too. I think I will start to read some longer books next year. The chunkster that tempts me the most is War and Peace.

          • I loved loved loved War and Peace, although I didn’t understand all the passages about the Napoleonic battles. I remember the names of the characters 20 years later, which is a good sign, I think.

            I think it’s easier to read chunksters on the kindle, at least you don’t have the weight and the small characters that usually go along with huge books.

            • Now I’m tempted even more… You liked it better than Anna Karenina, right?
              I agree, this would be an advantage of the kindle.
              I also have a problem reading hardbacks…or carrying them around.

                  • Now I am even more excited to read it. I don’t remember much about the Napoleonic wars, but I have my Western Civ books on hand to help me out. And I will have to find a paperback since I really just don’t like hardcovers. I still don’t have an e reader, but maybe this book will be the final straw for me to get one. Thanks to both of you. I feel a little less intimidated!

                    • I’m still not sure which edition I will buy. There are so many. On the other hand, maybe I should finish Anna Karenina first. I’m still stuck on page 400.

  7. He was young when he became famous. I like your point that these types of works are hard to read, but important to read. I haven’t read any Dostoevsky yet, but I did mention on Carl’s blog yesterday that he is an author that I want to start reading. And he is on my list. In fact he has five on my list, but this one isn’t included. However, maybe I will love his works and want to read them all.

    • It isn’t considered to be his best but we are talking about Dostoevsky, he never really wrote anything that isn’t good. I think it’s highly likely you would like him but considering your reading plans for next year, should you start reading Dostoevsky, I’m afraid you wouldn’t read anything else but him and Dickens. 🙂
      Poor people is an important book, an important topic. The way we think and react regarding poverty, is teaching us a lot about ourselves, I think. It triggers all sorts of extreme emotions.

      • Maybe you can try and read 40-50 pages every week? There are some books I don’t feel guilty about setting aside, but others like Anna K I do feel like I need to finish–I’m glad I read it, though it was certainly an undertaking!

        • Yes, in this case I feel a bit forced but I try to never abandon books with the exception of those that I consider to be just bad or awfully boring like La Reine Margot by Dumas père… Nothing and nobody could make me finish that. I didn’t even want to read it diagonally.
          Maybe 40-50 pages a week could be managable.

  8. I’m hoping I can find one in the bookshop down the street. I never know which translator to choose. Let me know if you have any suggestions. I have read Anna Karenina, but it was years and years ago. I’ll be re-reading it at some point. Probably not this year. Maybe Emma is right, set it aside for now. I’ve done that with a few books. But then I had to start over so that might discourage you from doing so.

    • I can’t help I will read it in a German or French translation. Most probably German as I have this idea that it’s closer to Russian than French from the point of view of the grammar.
      Stu from Winstons Dad’s Blog was doing a readalong. Maybe you find something on his blog. The button is still there. I think he is very attentive to translators.

  9. I’ve been reading everyone’s comments on this one and I feel so behind! I never read any Dostoyevsky, even in college. I know I should. They say that reading the great Russian writers is so important to any aspiring novelist like myself.
    I agree with your comment that sometimes you have to be in a certain frame of mind, and sometimes a certain point in your life for a book to resonate. I remember reading Gatsby in high school and really didn’t appreciate it until I reread it as an adult. Poor People sounds like it might be one of those books.
    Would you believe I’m rereading Anne Frank’s diary right now?

    • It’s an amazing book and one can only assume what would have become of her if she had not been killed. One of my last posts was about Diaries and I mentioned Anne Frank because apprenntly there are two versions of her diary and one has only ben published in 97. I suppose you read that one. She has re-written parts of the eraly one. I have only read the first.
      It seems there was never the right time for reading Dostoevsky for you. On the other, I don’t think that Dostoevesky is someone who could inspire me in my writing. I like him for the humanity and the psychological insight. Should you want to try him, The Gambler is a great book and not one of those 700pages chunksters. And it seems the story White Nights is very famous as well.

      • Thank you for the suggestions about which Dostoyevsky to start with. Many of his works are so long and intimidating.
        In the introduction to the Anne Frank book, the editor says there are actually 3 versions of her diary. Version A is her original. Version B include some edits she made as she thought about publishing her diary as part of a Dutch initiative to capture individual war experiences. Version C is Otto Frank’s version. He changed some names and removed some entries that might be disrespectful to people who were now dead, such as Anne’s mother. My book is a combination of the three.

        • He is an accessible writer though, clearly 19th century. Some of the early classics of the 20th are decidedly harder to read.
          That’s interesting, I didn’t realize there were even three versions. the one I have came out before 1997, it’s the first version. I’d like to see what she chose to change, should be fascinating.

  10. I read this yesterday in my mobilephone but couldn’t leave comment due to symbols in the url.

    you know I don’t like story about the rich and the poor. I wonder is this book highlighted more on how the rich look down on the poor or more in how the character deals with poverty? I can accept the later.

  11. I love epistolary novels, so will have to keep this in mind, though I admit I sometimes have a hard time reading very depressing novels at certain times. I agree that it is good to be exposed to different circumstances–happy and unhappy, but I do need to be in the right frame of mind. I’ve not read much by Dostoevsky–maybe nothing since high school–eeps–too long ago now!

    • It was depressing and when winter is just coming and it’s dark and cold…And the end was very sad.
      But it is so well written. Very touching and I’m a huge fan of the genre.

  12. Wonderful review, Caroline! I haven’t read much of Dostoevsky, but he is one of the authors that I want to explore more, soon. There is a collection of his short novels which is sitting at the top of my desk 🙂 ‘Poor people’ seems to be a touching, poignant novel. I will look for it. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    I have read Dostoevsky’s ‘White Nights’ and because I stayed near the Fontanka river once, it really resonated with me. Hope you enjoy reading it.

    • Thanks, Vishy.
      It is moving and really worth reading but sad. I’ve never been in Russia. I’d like to see St. Petersburg. Maybe next year. It would be great to see the places where some of the famous Russian novels and stories are set.

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