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The Gentle Spirit by Fyodor Dostoevsky
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The Gentle Spirit (1876)

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Si legge con piacere ( )
  lucaconti | Jan 24, 2019 |
This bleak and puzzling story, originally published in 1876, is a tale of love gone wrong. Its narrator is a former army officer turned pawnbroker, who resigned from the army in disgrace to find that his brother-in-law had squandered the family's meagre fortune. Having clawed his way back to a semi-respectable style of living, he's embittered by the world and seeks to take his revenge on it. He decides to marry a quiet and put-upon orphaned teenager who comes to him trying to sell trinkets from a happier past; but he resolves to be stern with her. When she rushes to him, brimming over with affection, he puts her off; he encourages contemplation and silence; all the time thinking that he's creating a rational and deep connection between them - never realising that he is making her life so miserable that, one day, suicide may be the only option for her.

Dostoyevsky is not renowned for being a laugh a minute and, based on this story, it's a reputation that's well-deserved. At first I loathed the narrator, whose cold and clinical approach to love seems designed to torment his young wife - to make her, in microcosm, the butt of all the resentment he feels against the world at large. Then I began to feel for him: his tragic misunderstanding, his cowardice and his desperate attempts to revive a love that he has already crushed into ashes ('You don't know with what paradise I would have surrounded you. The paradise was in my soul; I would have planted it all around you!'). No, he isn't a straightforward villain. He's cruel without understanding the human heart, selfish, tyrannical and supercilious; but he's also a deeply wounded man whose claim to hate the world belies the fact that he cares deeply about rank and success. His determination to make money through business, and to retire to a life of comfortable wealth, has blinded him to the more delicate emotions and will, ultimately, deprive him of the chance of real happiness. No. It isn't exactly upbeat.

I should point out that this story is also often translated as A Gentle Creature. In fact, Penguin Classics published it by that title in their Penguin 60s Classics series, in a 1989 translation by David McDuff. This current version is translated by Ronald Meyer. ( )
  TheIdleWoman | May 27, 2018 |
Misogynistic man is surprised when his young wife commits suicide after he has treated her like crap for a year. Then he realises he loved her. ( )
  SashaM | Apr 20, 2016 |
I was disappointed. It is far away from Dosteoyevsky’s classics... In a way I had the feeling that he was retracing some of the major elements common in his novels…women’s struggle in a society where men are the big deciders…
Women are not so weak and absolutely not that vulnerable to commit suicide at every obstacle they encounter. ( )
  Theresedvir | May 15, 2011 |
Dostoevsky is one of my favourite writers. I discovered him in my teenage years, read as many of his books as I could get my hands on, and to be honest haven't read anything else by him in a long time. I still count him as one of my favourite writers, though, more on memory than anything else. His writing is so urgent and immediate, and began to open up a world for me beyond 1990s South London.

The Gentle Spirit is very short - longer than a short story, but barely long enough to be called a novella. Because of this, it doesn't have the grand scale of Dostoevsky's longer works. But it does succeed in its aim - to get inside the head of a pawnbroker as he watches his dead wife laid out on the table in front of him, the wife that he has recently driven to suicide.

The language reflects the disordered state of the character's mind as he tries to understand what has happened. He 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. It's a convincing portrait.

The wife's character is not so clear, but in a way that's the point. The pawnbroker did not understand her - still doesn't, really. Because we see the world entirely through his eyes, our view is very limited and distorted. His wife is the "gentle spirit" of the book's title, much younger than he is and perhaps a little naive in her expectations of him, but beyond that we discover little about her.

Even the pawnbroker's own motives are not very clear - he decided from the start of the marriage to be "stern" with her and to withhold love and affection, but the only reason given for this is that it's what he was used to from his job - a pawnbroker has to be stern with his customers, and not allow himself to be emotionally involved in their plight. Perhaps Dostoevsky is saying that after cutting himself off from people in this way for so many years, he was unable to achieve intimacy with another human being. By the time he does realise his mistake and declare his love for her, it is too late and too extreme - after months of not speaking to her at all, he suddenly throws himself at her feet and tells her everything. Whereas at the beginning she would have welcomed this display of love, after everything she's been through it just frightens her and drives her away from him.

This was a quick and enjoyable read, and was probably the right length - because of the limitations of the pawnbroker's perspective, it might be tough to read a whole novel based inside his head. In this short book, though, the style worked very well, and although I didn't really understand either character very well, they felt real to me. Now I feel inspired to go back and re-read some of those novels I loved all those years ago. ( )
  AndrewBlackman | Sep 19, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Dostoevsky, Fyodorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Praag, S. vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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...You see, as long as she's still here, everything's still all right: every moment or so I go over and take a look at her; but they'll take her away tomorrow and - how will I be on my own?
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Can too much love be fatal? You are about to find out in this exquisite psychological drama between the owner of a pawnshop and his wife. The narrator's marriage started out cordially enough, but his miserly and reserved ways are taxing to his young wife. A dearth of communication and disagreements about how the pawnshop should be run result in arguments, though the narrator insists that they never quarrelled. One fine morning the narrator opens his eyes to see that his wife is standing over him with the revolver pointed at his temple.… (more)

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