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“A Meek Girl”

June 19, 2021

Fedor Dostoevsky’s “A Meek Girl”* (Кроткая, 1876) is the first-person story of a middle-aged man who marries a teenager. We gradually learn he’s a former military officer who left his regiment because his comrades thought he was a coward after he failed to confront “the hussar A——v,” who had casually insulted their regiment’s Captain Bezumtsev during an intermission at the theater. Meanwhile his and his sister’s inheritance had been squandered by his brother-in-law, and he was left penniless. After years of struggles, he became a pawnbroker to take revenge on society.

The narrator’s analysis of why he didn’t confront the hussar is a convincing bit of Dostoevskian psychology:

I explained to her that that time at the bar in the theater I really had been a coward, because of my character, my overanxious nature: I was overwhelmed by the situation, the bar overwhelmed me; I was overwhelmed by, what if I do suddenly take a stand, and it looks stupid? I wasn’t afraid of a duel, but that it would look stupid… And afterwards I didn’t want to admit it, and I tormented everyone, and I tormented her for it, and that’s why I married her, to torment her for it. (24:30, ellipsis in original)

In that passage he is describing a past conversation with his wife, who has since died by suicide. Much earlier he had explained that he cared about the age difference:

I didn’t fall asleep. And how could I, some kind of pulse is beating in my head. I want to make peace with all of it, all this filth. O, filth! O, what filth I pulled her out of then! She really needed to understand that—didn’t she?—to give what I had done its due! I liked other thoughts too, for example, that I was forty-one, and she was only just sixteen. This captivated me, this feeling of inequality, it is very sweet, very sweet. (24:13)

As I read the story, the narrator isn’t like Totsky in The Idiot (Идиот, 1868), who takes it for granted that his wealth should be able to buy him access to an attractive teenager, nor quite like the Underground Man in Notes from Underground (Записки из подполья, 1864), who ironically plays with the idea of a man rescuing a fallen woman, mocking the Nekrasov poem “When, out of the darkness of error” (Когда из мрака заблужденья, 1845), where the rescued woman joins the rescuing man’s household as an equal.

Poster by Iu. V. Tsarev (1932–1995) for a 1960 Soviet adaptation of “A Meek Girl,” which you can watch here.

Instead, the narrator of “A Meek Girl” likes the thought of his wife’s extreme youth because he wants her to be a blank slate he can use to tell the story of his disgrace exactly the way he wants to, unhurriedly, and in a way that proves he has been cruelly mistreated. The story of their marriage, in his telling, feels like a story of his tactics and plans for how he will reveal this earlier story, plans which involve months-long periods of hostility and near-silence. The reader can see that his tactics defeat themselves, and if he had poured everything out in a torrent of sincerity at the very beginning, the way she at first freely shared her few secrets with him, things might have gone better.

He arguably succeeds in telling his story on his terms to the reader, but he fails when telling it to his wife, who, unlike us, can and does hear a less flattering version from a different source first. She also objects to these revelations coming after, not before, she married him. Another problem is that by the time he eventually opens up, his secrets include spying on and manipulating his wife, not just failing to challenge someone to a duel.

That’s what I took away from “A Meek Girl.” I thought I’d put my initial thoughts here, and in the next post I’ll look at what I thought was an interesting and rather provocative reading of the story from Thomas H. J. Dyne.

* The title is usually translated as “The Meek One,” including by Dyne, but one-and-a-half syllables of the one-word, three-syllable Russian title is a feminine ending on the adjective. I like “A Meek Girl” by analogy with Michael Shotton’s “A Spiteful Fellow” for “Язвительный,” another short work whose title is a single gendered adjective referring to a person. In this I’m following Sarah J. Young.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    June 19, 2021 8:13 am

    It’s a wonderful story, and I’m glad you’re writing about it! I complained (gently) about D’s choice of a viewpoint character here.

    • June 19, 2021 2:43 pm

      Thanks for that link! I also like the story a lot, though it’s hard for me to imagine what it would look like if the story weren’t told through the husband. I don’t think that choice makes her just an accessory. The title isn’t “A Neurotic Man Who Can’t Let Go of a Minor Incident at a Theater That Ruined His Reputation and Career” for a reason—I think it just works well to have the person who caused the trouble try to explain it, instead of the admirable person who was made to suffer. Cf. some stories by Olga N. from around the same time (“Liza” and “Marfa”) that are clearly the stories of the women named in the titles, but as here, we learn about the women mostly or entirely through men’s words. OTOH I also wish Dostoevsky had been able to finish Netochka Nezvanova and write more things like it!

      • languagehat permalink
        June 19, 2021 5:08 pm

        Oh, I wasn’t really suggesting the story should have been told from her point of view — far be it from me to tell D how to write! — just using it as a hook for my general sense of disappointment that he never continued along the road he started with Netochka Nezvanova (what a weird title, considering that her name is Anna and no Nezvanovs ever turn up in what we have of it). He was clearly capable of imagining a female viewpoint character, so I wish he’d done more of it.

    • June 19, 2021 5:53 pm

      Re: the title, isn’t it just “Nettie No-Name,” with Anna–>Annette–>Netochka? Maybe I’m missing what you’re saying is weird—it’s been a long time since I’ve read it!

      “Это название она изобрела сама, любовно переделав мое имя, Анна, в уменьшительное Неточка, и когда она называла меня так, то значило, что ей хотелось приласкать меня. Я была тронута; мне хотелось обнять ее, прижаться к ней и заплакать с нею вместе. Она, бедная, долго гладила меня потом по голове, — может быть, уже машинально и позабыв, что ласкает меня, и всё приговаривала: «Дитя мое, Аннета, Неточка!»” (from chapter 2)

      • languagehat permalink
        June 19, 2021 6:11 pm

        Sure, but most titles don’t require that kind of elaborate explanation. Why did he choose it? We’ll never know, of course.

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