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Badly reading people in “A Meek Girl” and Poor Folk

June 20, 2021

Thomas H. J. Dyne reads “A Meek Girl” (Кроткая, 1876, a.k.a. “The Meek One” or, as in this Languagehat post, “A Gentle Creature”) differently than I did. He doesn’t look at the narrator and his wife as one of Dostoevsky’s examples of a richer, older man approaching a poor young woman, but as Dostoevsky having a male character misread a female character, saying what she thought and felt at particular moments and guessing wrong. In this, Dyne argues, the narrator of “A Meek Girl” is “the grotesque and tragic fulfillment of the problematic misreading of the other first mapped out in the letters of Makar Devushkin” in Dostoevsky’s debut novel Poor Folk (Бедные люди, 1846) (456).

The genres are different—in Poor Folk we can compare our opinion of Varvara from the letters she writes to the image of her Makar creates in his letters; meanwhile, since these are letters, they are presenting themselves to each other, selecting and framing topics with the recipient’s reaction in mind. In “A Meek Girl,” the title character exists only in the male narrator’s monologue to himself and imaginary audiences, and we have nothing else to check his account against. (We have the fact of her dead body and the witnesses who saw her jump, but these facts also come to us through the husband’s words.) Deciding whether the narrator is misreading her boils down to deciding how well his portrait of her stands on its own.

I’m a little skeptical of Dyne’s argument that the wife is “reduced to a nameless and nearly voiceless character in his story (as well as a powerless agent in their marriage)” (466). Through the also nameless husband’s thoughts, we hear the wife say things that aren’t what he expected or desired; at a key moment, she sings—which her husband considers proof she has forgotten about him for a moment—as if to say that whatever she is, she isn’t voiceless. And her supposed lack of agency doesn’t keep her from deciding to marry the narrator over another, less (?) desirable suitor; deciding to go to a rendezvous with another man, then deciding not to have an affair; pointing a gun at her husband and deciding not to shoot it; and deciding, at the end, to kill herself. Her husband does prevent her from being too generous to people who come to pawn items, and before their marriage external circumstances had ruined her plan of working as a governess, but in general she seems to freely decide the most important things.

The other place I found myself disagreeing with Dyne’s provocative and persuasively argued thesis was how badly he thinks the narrator of “A Meek Girl” misreads his wife. Sometimes the narrator’s theories about what’s going on in her mind seem like moments of psychological insight, not a desire to impose his own narrative on her.

For example, don’t we agree with him that her singing means she has forgotten him (24:27)? His reaction shows he thinks he belongs at the center of her inner world, but we can read this as a desire for domination or control without simultaneously seeing it as him misunderstanding her.

A similar case is the aftermath of her non-murder of her husband. She could have killed him while he was pretending to be asleep. He opens his eyes for a moment, sees her standing over him with a gun, then closes his eyes and waits. She puts the gun down. It’s unclear (to him) whether she knew he was awake and had seen her. Hours later he wordlessly buys another bed, and that night she sleeps in it instead of with him.

The husband believes that his buying the bed right after the incident with the gun was a signal to her that he had in fact seen the gun (24:22). Dyne sees the husband as “compounding misreading upon misreading”—the husband thinks the wife uses the bed as a non-verbal answer to the question of whether he knew she had pointed a gun at him, a question that appeared in his reconstruction of her “inner monologue” (470). And for Dyne, this makes the narrator just like Makar Devushkin, who had invented a non-verbal language of curtain-moving and written that he was sure Varvara had intuitively understood his system of signals, though she would later write that she had not been thinking of the same thing at all when she moved her curtains (456, 460, 471).

Comparing how well different characters guess each other’s thoughts is tricky. When I make the same comparisons, I come to different conclusions than Dyne. I find it plausible that Varvara really wasn’t trying to send a signal to Makar with her curtains, but I also find it plausible that the wife’s reaction to the new bed in “A Meek Girl” meant exactly what the narrator thought it meant. He couldn’t know, and our picture of her is refracted through him. But the couple in “A Meek Girl” had lived at close quarters for months and were more accustomed to reading the non-verbal signals of a physically nearby but silent person than most of us will ever be. Why wouldn’t they be better at guessing each other’s thoughts than a notoriously bad reader living out a story of unrequited love through letters would be?

To put it another way, it would be natural for Varvara to think about the curtain code if she were in love with Makar (but she’s not). It would be natural for the wife in “A Meek Girl” to wonder if her husband had seen her if she had pointed a gun at him (and she had).

I don’t mean this as a defense of the narrator, who by his own admission “had made a mistake […] perhaps, many mistakes” (24:29). His ideas about his wife are contradictory and sometimes obviously wrong (“I knew that a woman, especially at sixteen, could not help submitting entirely to a man. Women have no originality, that’s… that’s an axiom, even now, even now I consider it an axiom!” 24:15). His elaborate psychological plans were destined to make both of them unhappy, and his actual actions, like paying off his future wife’s aunts’ servant to get information, were often reprehensible. But I’m not sure he’s as bad a misreader of other people as Makar Devushkin is. If he’s guilty of the “over-reaching” Dyne convicts him of (470), we all might be whenever we try to go outside ourselves.

See Thomas H. J. Dyne, “‘That’s the Horrible Part: I Understand Everything!’: The Narrative Ethics of Misreading the Other in Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk and ‘The Meek One,’” Slavic and East European Journal 64.3 (2020): 455–474. I recommend the full article, which definitely got me thinking about these stories in new ways. Quotes from Dostoevsky are from his collected works in 30 volumes (1972–1990), which you can download as .pdfs from Pushkin House.

One Comment leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    June 20, 2021 7:56 am

    An excellent discussion, and now I want to read Бедные люди again!

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