Monday, February 20, 2017

Note On Dostoyevsky's Poor Folk


Not So Small Note On Dostoyevsky's Poor Folk (With Spoilers)

(Well it started out as small.)

In Poor Folk, the relationship between Makar and Varvara as revealed by their letters, the way of the book, can be endlessly analyzed as can other themes, but through reading it one question kept bugging me: why doesn't he ask her to marry him? They are deeply committed to each other. They depend fully on each other in different ways at different times for material and emotional support. They profess their love for each other. They have terrible low points but are always right there for each other. 

It at first seems confusing what exactly Makar feels for Varvara: father figure, protector, brother, lover, soul mate, Platonic best friend. Why it seems confusing is not so much that he's confused but more that he cannot confront, and suppresses and sublimates, his passionate love for her. It's notable that she keeps asking him to visit her and he seems reluctant to. Even though they live across from each other and can look into each other's windows, he only seldom meets her. And what forms much, though certainly not all, of the content of their letters is their pasts, how and what each is doing, has done and how each has been affected by things not involving the other. 

Makar is febrile. He reeks of it. It seems the perfect word for him in its meanings of feverish, highly agitated, too excitable, intensely sensitive, overly nervous, highly emotional, imaginatively overactive. He is constantly driven to agitated extremes.  He is essentially a marginal man in his febrility, a low, weak laughing stock, albeit a few rungs up from an underground man. At times he questions his own existence in comparison to others. He lives in a portion of shabby a kitchen walled off by a screen and works as a "copyist." His whole existence takes meaning only in his letters to Varvara. He lives through her the way she doesn't live through him. He abases himself for her. He goes without in giving her money and things even as she tells him not to and that he oughtn't  impoverish himself for her sake. She sends money back to him. 

His generosity to her and even the torrent of his words in his letters to her are, among other things, ways of keeping what he truly feels for her--passionate love--abstract, sublimated and at a distance. In line with that, he praises and promotes the genius of his neighbour who writes terrible, purple prose filled romantic novels. He sends Varvara small quotes from them, but she tells him to stop being a fool and sends him better books to improve his literary education. But being an abstracted romantic, Makar demands virtuous characters and happy endings. His drinking manifests what in him makes him want to escape concrete action that would show directly the truth of his feelings. In his flights into alcohol he stops all contact with her. 

In contrast, Varvara is more down to earth and practical, almost stolid and  business-like even in her feeble health, abject gloom and constant suffering. Her letters are usually shorter and to the point. Unlike Makar, she seems to have and want a life outside her letters--as noted, she continually implores him to see her--while he wants to exist in his letters and wants to avoid her living presence. Therefore, when Bykov hunts her up, pursues her and makes her an offer (marriage) that she calculates she can't refuse, she accepts it even as that will mean the end of her relationship, such as it is, with Makar. 

Bykov is the contrasting proof of Makar's personal impotence: Bykov is a man of relative action and means; he has the vitality of the country in him; he is unpoetic and unromantic; he is direct, forceful and to the point; he does not pussy foot. What he puts to Varvara is in effect a business proposition;  he tells her it's time limited and otherwise he'll marry a certain merchant's daughter. She resolves her own instability, poverty and poor health by her pragmatic agreement to marry Bykov all the while intensely sadly aware of what will become bygone.

When Makar finds out about her decision, he at first abstractly encourages it as the right thing for her to do but then in the same letter starts urging her to not marry Bykov, who, he argues, is a better match for the merchant's daughter. Again, he cannot bring himself yet to say clearly and unambiguously how he loves her and wants her to be with him. He continues to evade his deepest feelings for her. 

In the meantime, in the hurried up pace of the wedding preparations--the wedding will take place within days, Varvara becomes increasingly materialistic and has Makar running here and there on errands to do with the proper material and style for her dress and with her jewellery. 

Only in his last letter to her, after she is married and almost enroute to Bykov's place out of the city and, therefore, out of Makar's reach, does he open more fully his heart and admit to his abstractedness. 

....Ah my darling! WHY did you come to this decision? How could you bring yourself to take such a step? What have you done, have you done, have you done? Soon they will be carrying you away to the tomb; soon your beauty will have become defiled, my angel. Ah, dearest one, you are as weak as a feather. And where have I been all this time? What have I been thinking of? I have treated you merely as a forward child whose head was aching. Fool that I was, I neither saw nor understood. I have behaved as though, right or wrong, the matter was in no way my concern. Yes, I have been running about after fripperies!...

....Dearest, I could throw myself under the wheels of a passing vehicle rather than that you should go like this. By what right is it being done?... I will go with you; I will run behind your carriage if you will not take me—yes, I will run, and run so long as the power is in me, and until my breath shall have failed...

Now Makar can say such things fuelled by Varvara being beyond his reach. Now that she's gone from him, now that it is too late and there is no consequence for him, he can pathetically release himself a little from his abstracted evasions. 

But even here there is no interior full reconciliation of his true feelings:

...When you are gone, Varvara, I shall die—for certain I shall die, for my heart cannot bear this misery. I love you as I love the light of God; I love you as my own daughter; to you I have devoted my love in its entirety; only for you have I lived at all; only because you were near me have I worked and copied manuscripts and committed my views to paper under the guise of friendly letters...

The lack of reconciliation is evident in his likening of his love for Varvara to his love for "the light of God" and for his daughter, which likening mixes with the concreteness of his declaration of love as such and his admission that his "friendly letters" were a "guise," a pretext behind which he hid his complete love. 

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