“A Gentle Creature” by Dostoevsky

“A Gentle Creature” by DostoevskyA Gentle Creature by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Published: 1848 Genres: Fiction (General)
Pages: 68
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This is in part for those of you who find my blog through Google when looking for help with your Russian lit classes, or for fellow Russian lit nerds.  I know you’re out there…

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.

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15 comments

  1. I am shocked…. SHOCKED that a Dostoevsky novel is depressing. heh. Just kidding. I haven’t even heard of this novel. Last Dostoevsky novel I read was Notes From Underground. I remember liking it, but I can’t seem to conjure any memory of it.

    1. Well, this one’s just a short story… it’s not incredibly well-known though. I still have to read Notes from Underground. Actually, I have yet to finish Brothers Karamazov, because I tend to start reading it over a summer and then run out of time. I think I’ll have to push myself to finish it at some point.

  2. This is one of my favourite stories by Dostoevsky and it really saddens me how misinterpreted the pawnbroker’s character and motives are. It is not about dominance and abuse it is about fear and insecurity. The girl fell in love with him shortly after they’d got married but he decided to withhold his feelings because “she was very young and prone to extremes” he knew she secretly despised him for what he was doing to earn his living (even though he did not like it either). But he was older and much more experienced and knew that people don’t do what they want to do in their life, they do what they have to do to survive and she was so quick to judge and all black and white about things. He wanted strong and constant feelings from her, he wanted to be sure she’d remain with him no matter what and was scared she’d lose interest if he’d poured out his heart to her too soon. So he was waiting and watching her, he wanted her to come to him and tell him about her feelings first he thought that would save him from a broken heart in the future. So he withheld his love and waited until he heard her sang and then it dawned upon him that she’d fallen out of love and did not care whether he was there or not anymore. That’s why he was so hectic about going on vacation; he wanted to start it all again, to make her love him again. To me he is more of a victim than an abuser; he is a victim of his own insecurities and poor choices but can he really be blamed for what hard life had done to him?
    p.s sorry English is not my first language

  3. In the last few months, I’ve become an avid reader and fan of Dostoevsky. I’ve discovered that, while it takes a more concentrated approach to reading his work, the effort is rewarding. I have vivid impressions in my mind that may last forever — scenes from The Idiot and Crime and Punishment that stole my imagination while I read. I’m working on The Brothers Karamozov now and will move onto A Gentle Creature after. Thanks for your thoughts and your blog.

  4. One of the most haunting short stories I have ever read. I’ve seen this story in movie form and my favorite is the mordern take on this tragic tale in The Shade by Raphaël Nadjari.

    This tale us haunts me in that the pawnbroker will never know or never admit that HE is the one that drove his young wife to suicided. He wrongly blames himself for not getting home sooner, as if somehow stopping her would of prevented a second attempt. He somehow justifies his stingy acts of affection through out the story, but we, the reader can tell by his wife’s silence and in-actions that she is miserable and feels trapped. At the point in the story where she contemplates killing him, their marriage is doomed beyong repair. Maybe if they talked about it…..?? Maybe.

    This couple did not communicate, and dare I say it….when reading this story or even watching a movie adaptation, I am rooting or this couple. I am well aware they are doomed from the beginning, however the love is there, or it was there it just needed to be properly nutured.

    1. I hadn’t heard of The Shade before, but it sounds fantastic!

      And you hit the nail right on the head. The pawnbroker doesn’t understand that he drove her to killing herself, and when he thinks he could have prevented it, he completely misses the fact that he’s been emotionally abusing her the entire time they were together, no matter what feelings he might have had. It’s incredibly tragic.

  5. I have to agree with Elena. I don’t see the pawnbroker as being motivated by dominance or a need to control the gentle creature, to me that seems like a very western literary idea for Dostoevsky. The narrator asks questions, changes his mind, berates himself for going too fast or too slow or missing the point, and is always alternating between self-justification and self-flagellation. But the wife’s character is not so clear, we only see the story through the yes of the narrator, and so our view of her is limited and unclear (probably reflects back onto the pawnbroker for his inability to understand her, because he reserved his love for her). The pawnbroker learn from his job that he needs to be stern with people and not get too emotionally involved, in order for his business to succeed (a theme that is also present in Crime and Punishment) He is unable to truly love someone and only realizes his mistake too late. Nevertheless nowhere in the text do we see that his intentions were evil or manipulative.