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Kalganov and those who “hover vulnerably on the borderline between name and number”

February 7, 2015

Kalganov is a character from The Brothers Karamazov (Братья Карамазовы, 1880) who appears in three scenes, “the scandalous visit of the Karamazovs to the monastery, Dmitry’s trip to Mokroe, and Dmitry’s trial” (395). He is described very fully, twice, despite his unimportance. Eric Naiman (who unraveled the hoax about Dostoevskii meeting Dickens) asks three related questions: What’s the point of a character so minor no one remembers him? What’s going on with Kalganov’s sexuality? And how do Kalganov and the Mokroe scene relate to The Adolescent (Подросток, 1875)? Here’s how he deals with the first one.

Naiman lays out a theory of minor characters by Alex Woloch. Literary characters are like real people, but not the same thing. Realist novels make their central characters seem more like real people than they are, and the minor characters who “hover vulnerably on the borderline between name and number” seem less real (qtd. on 396). This plays out differently in different authors; in Dickens, minor characters’ “physical and lexical distortions” are for Woloch “the collateral damage of being compelled to live on the outskirts of the plot” (395). But there are two recurring types, the worker and the eccentric. The worker has a clear function in the plot, while the eccentric “plays a disruptive, oppositional role” and is therefore cast out (397).

Kalganov is neither of these things. His “purpose” in the plot — half a sentence of redundant evidence at Dmitry’s trial — is negligible. He exists on the margins, and if he is unnecessary to the story, being at the center of the story is unnecessary to him. Being minor allows him “not to matter and accords him an independence and freedom that is not vouchsafed to more central talkative figures caught at a novel’s polyphonic core”; if in Dickens the minor characters are anxious, in Dostoevskii the major characters are “tormented by their own narrative centrality and denied the refuge of relative muteness” (416, see also 409).

There are other ways of explaining why Kalganov is described in such detail. Naiman says Vladlena Drabkina has argued that Kalganov “would have grown up to kill or attempt to kill the tsar” in a never-written sequel (as “nearly all heroes named Pyotr in Dostoevsky’s world” are “either villains or nihilists,” 414). It made me think of Gary Saul Morson, open time, and sideshadowing: Kalganov being set up as if he were going to be important to the narrative, but then not becoming important, is Gania in The Idiot (Идиот, 1868-69) writ small.

Naiman doesn’t expect us to remember Kalganov — I didn’t — and names several lists of Dostoevskii characters where Kalganov is too obscure to appear. That shows how huge The Brothers Karamazov is. My computer counts 65 instances of the name “Kalganov” (not counting his first name and patronymic or pronouns referring to him), including in the very last paragraph. For comparison, “Karamazov” comes up 74 times, “Grushenka” 278 times, “Smerdiakov” 151 times, and the novel is on the order of 194,000 words long.

See Eric Naiman, “Kalganov,” Slavic and East European Journal 58.3 (2014): 394-418 (no link). Greta Matzner-Gore has an article in the same issue that mentions Kalganov and Woloch.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2015 8:54 am

    It made me think of Gary Saul Morson, open time, and sideshadowing

    Heh. I was thinking of that too, before I even scrolled down to your line about it! Thanks for this post; the subject of minor characters is an interesting one.

  2. February 7, 2015 9:02 am

    I see your Morson link goes to a post about an article of his; I highly recommend his book Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, which I briefly reviewed here.

    • February 8, 2015 10:12 am

      Thanks! I remember when I read the article thinking I should read the book too. I’ll put it on my list again.

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