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Poor Folk and the Gambler by Fyodor…
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Poor Folk and the Gambler

by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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Still pond, crystal clear, / Dew falling onto the turf. / Inner child childhood.
Random musings . . .
For ye have the poor with you always . . . well, you can take that as gospel.
Les Miserables, the prequel . . . some same, some not.
You can't fix stupid . . . that's it.

Ron White hits the mark on Dostoevsky's Poor Folk: "You can't fix stupid. There's not a pill you can take; there's not a class you can go to. Stupid is forever."

Barbara Alexievna has taken a few classes, but they didn't take. Makar Alexievitch finally believes what everyone has been telling him--he is stupid. Their problem is that they are also poor. If rich, they could dissipate a fortune and still feel well off. But they are not, so these two lead each other on a downward spiral that nearly destroys them both.

We learn of them through their letters, which they write to each other almost daily, even though they live in adjacent apartment houses. Makar is obsessed with Barbara, a paternal feeling (as he says), spends money on her he doesn't have, which he borrows until his credit runs out. We have met him before, in Pere Goriot, who sacrifices everything he has for his daughters, taking him from wealth to penury and death.

Barbara is a fallen woman, who ekes out a living as a seamstress, living hand to mouth, at times from the hand of Makar holding bon bons. She is only a snowball's throw from the same fate that Hugo's Fontine suffers.

The ethic of poverty that Makar and Barbara share is to live their life only for others. They have not the resources to live for themselves, but rely precariously on the meagre livelihood that comes to them as copy clerk and seamstress. The little life they have is mortgaged to the government office and the dress shop. Makar himself speaks to this ethic in his story about the shoemaker: the poor master-shoemaker can dream only of his craft, mechanically stamping out his shoe pattern for others to wear, his wife and children starving nearby; the wealthy neighbor dreams of all the varied shoes that are his for the taking, thinking of no one but himself. I remember hearing of a social experiment, where a caricature artist would, unasked, draw a portrait of passersby and hand it to the subject; the poor insisted on paying, the rich considered it a gift owed to them.

Nothing noble about Dostoevsky's poor. In contrast, Hugo's Jean Valjean was worse off than Makar when he received a gift of trust from the Bishop, but he invested it and created a factory, a prosperous town, and a bright future for Fontine's daughter. Valjean lived for others too, but had the advantage of being very strong, and, may I say, not stupid. ( )
2 vote WilfGehlen | Mar 17, 2009 |
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