1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 5: Poor Folk, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A giant in Russian literature, Dostoyevsky has been made famous but works such as Notes From the Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, The Idiot, The Devils, and The Brothers Karamazov (which was turned into a film staring a young William Shattner). Poor Folks (sometimes translated as Poor People) is Dostoyesvky’s first published work. It is not a popular as some of his other works, and for good reason, the characters are not as richly developed, the narrative is not as compelling, the author’s voice is weak and not yet fully developed, though there are moments where Dostoyesky’s talents do bleed through in this narrative.


The novel tells the story of two working class folks who are bordering on destitute. One, an old man (Makar), and a young woman (Varvara). The two are second cousins twice removed, and the young girl, who has lost both parents to an early death, has found a benefactor in her distant relative. The two live across the street from each other, neither in very pleasant environments; she shares a room with a woman named Fedora, while he sleeps in a room that is only a partition from the house hold kitchen. She takes on some work as a seamstress, but there either isn’t very much such work, or she’s a lazy dog-fucker, which I’m not sure, though it seems like the later. He is a clerk who merely copies writing for an office (oh the days before Xerox). He take on extra work from literary types when he can, who want their own work copied out, but as you can imagine the job doesn’t pay much since all you really need is a second grade education to perform it.



The two struggle for money, Makar, who seems infatuated with his distant relative, but maintains a paternal relationship with her, tries to spoil her, but his wardrobe is in disarray, and his boots are falling apart. At one point, after taking an advance at work, he goes out to borrow money but is turn out by all he asks. Eventually, after fucking some shit up at work, his boos, the “Excellency” (as Makar calls him, and though the guy seems nice…. “Excellency? Really? That’s a but much, no?), gives him a 100 Roubles with which to get his affairs in order and settle up with a new wardrobe. Just as things start to look good for Varvaravaravara and Makar, Varavaravaravaravaravaravara get a marriage proposal from a man who is alluded to earlier in the novel as having caused her reputation damaged. Since he is well off she of course accepts, and leaves Makar to finish his life alone in poverty, albeit one which he doesn’t have to pay for two. And the pimp that came in from the county give Makar 500 Roubles for taking care of her.



Dostoyesvky does at time, employ great sympathy and compassion describing the working class and destitute people, but the narrative is unrolled via letter between the Makar and Varavaravaravaravaravaravaravaravaravara, and because both are so down trodden and insolvent , the come across as needy, and full of self-pity, which makes them harder to sympathise with. In turn it is some of the peripheral characters who seem the more sympathetic, such as the impoverished family who boards in the same house as Makar, who loses a child and dies before the narrative conclusion, and leaves a sick wife with children behind, and a child on the street who is begging for money, which Makar has not to give him. It is at this point in the novel where Makar is at his most sympathetic, because, though he does not know the child, he is overcome by a great sense of guilt for not being able to assist the homeless child. Makar of course grow and matures as the novel progresses. At the novel’s onset, for example, he tells Varavaravaravravrarvaravaravravra that he intends on write a letter describing his neighbours and that he intend it to be satirical. Later in the novel though, after reading a short story which satires a clerk much like himself, he comes to see the degrading nature of such “cunning satire”, as he see its employment in this instance to be malicious in nature, though this passage also makes Makar out to be a hypocrite of sorts, though one that seems to be experiencing personal growth as his poverty increases. When he comes to describe the patriarch of the impoverished family up the stares from him as “a poor lost, sacred creature”, his character seems to reach an apex. To give out compassion and sympathy when oneself is weighted down by destitution speaks to the very best parts of humanity, and when Makar gives him what little money he has, it is easy for the reader to finally connect with Makar.



His description of his neighbour as “a poor last sacred creature”, was one of the finest moments in the novel. It speaks to the Christian idea of “the least among us”. A passage from Matthew 25:44, in which Jesus says “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Makar, by describing his impoverished neighbour as sacred, sees him as an extension of Christ, of god. The implications are refreshing in this contemporary climate where American politics see the Republican party present itself as representing Christian values when they oppose things like nationalized health care which would ‘help the least’ of us and aim to stop immigrant families who are seeking better lives for themselves and their children. It is a passage that serves to shed a light on some of the hypocrisies that dominate the western political movements, such as the neo-conservatism that has found momentum in the Tea Party. Perhaps the Republican party will realize that when they shut immigrants out of their country, and discourage a system that seeks to provide health care for those less fortunate, that it is in fact the embodiment of their own benefactor that they are turning out!



There is a passage also where Makar states that “poverty is not a vice”. Though The Big D. was writing at a time when the contemporary concepts of post-modern literature had not yet been formed, he had the foresight to see the importance to the social panopticon (even if there was no word for it at this time). Makar is perpetually concerned, not as much with his own health, but with what others will say, and how they will see him. He does not visit his cousin for fear that rumour will spread about the nature of their relationship. He is concerned that people at work will speak ill of him because of his tattered wardrobe. And most of the things he does, he does not for himself, but for the benefit of those around him, that he might avoid the persecutory stares. When, towards the end of the novel, he writes that “poverty is not a vice”, he is lashing out against those who pass judgement on him because of his station in life. He is declaring, albeit quietly in the form of a letter to a friend, that he is not defined by his poverty, that his morals and virtue are not tied to his income, and it is a moment the reader can see Makar’s passivity dissolve, even if only momentarily.



The other passage that stuck out was when Makar described himself as “a lodger among strangers” whilst writing to Varavaravaravaravaravaravaravaravrarvavravravravaaavavaarraaravarvavra. It is through her that he sooths this feeling of being alone, but it is to this feeling of loneliness which he must return at the conclusion of the narrative as his beneficiary has decided to abandon him and the narrative concludes with this tragic tone.


If you like this:


Notes From The Underground, by Fyodor Dostoysevsky


Like Poor Folk, Notes From the Undergrounds is a shorter narrative (under 200 pages, rather than over 1000 as most of his other famous works are), and in it is his finest work. The protagonist is an isolationist who seeks to find comfort in reason and is only too hesitant to indulge in the emotive side of life. An easily relatable character with depth from an author who had the full utility of his literary skills.



The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair


If you think Poor Folk is a depressing narrative concerning the working class, get ready to commit suicide! Sinclair’s portrayal of immigrant communities in the meat packing district of Chicago in the early 20th century makes one wonder how our society even managed to come up with a word like “sympathy”. It was said that Sinclair was aiming for the hearts of Americans, but instead hit their stomachs. When folks read this flawed masterpiece, they didn’t stop and say: WHAT!!! Little children lose limbs walking five miles to work in the snow without shoes (yes, he goes there, and its all tragically true), or WHAT!!! People die and fall into the pig meat? They instead said: WHAT!!! They still use that pig meant? Ewww… I don’t want to eat that. The book spurned dramatic changes in the food industry (progress with companies like Tyson have reportedly by eager to repeal, and have been doing so with great success you know, like all the bank lobbyists repealed all the economic regulations that kept us from dropping into a depression for the last 80 years). Sadly, America was more concerned with what they were eating than how immigrants in Chicago were living. Much longer than Poor Folk, but very much worth reading.



Dubliners by James Joyce


I know I have mentioned this one twice already, but it is a perfect example of working class literature. Joyce is compassionate, sympathetic, and tragically accurate in his portrayal or working class Dubliners, documenting their virtues and vices, while remaining objective and withholding judgement.




Up next…. I haven’t decided?????????


Words I thought were interesting enough to look up.


Scarlatina: Used interchangeably with “Scarlet Fever”, an illness caused by the secretion of micro-organisms, fungi and algae. It can and WILL KILL YOU!!!! Unless you have a serviceable immune system or get it treated antibiotics. Not to be confused with the Kenny Rogers song of the same name. That is just Kenny describing a bonner he got over an under age stripper! Oh the things that passed as acceptable forms of entertainment in years gone by.

Barges: A long narrow, flat-bottomed, freight boat.


Inscrutable: Mysterious, not expressing anything clearly.


Dissipated: Over indulging in the pursuit of physical pleasure.


Presentiment: A feeling that will happen, usually bad, and without any reasonable evidence to encourage the apprehension.


Tambour: An embroidery frame.


Delirium: Temporary mental disturbance: a state marked by extreme restlessness, confusion, and sometimes hallucinations, caused by fever, poisoning, or brain injury, or excitement.



Steppe: An extensive, usually flat, treeless plain.


Frills: Unnecessary additions.


Flounce: To move with angry swagger.


Mignonette: A plant with fragrant green and white flowers.


Gentry: Upper classes.


Rated: To charge money.


Perfidy: Deliberate treachery.


Lovelace: No definition available other than as a surname.


Tramp: A metal plate on a boot (other than it more popular and obvious meanings).


Pang: A sharp pain or intense emotion.


Assiduously: With great and persistent care.


Perturbation: To be in a state of concern in response to a mitigating cause.


Profligate: To be wasteful or to have low morals.


Reprobate: One who is damned, or of low moral standing.


Arrant: Complete, used to articulate disapproval .


Jackanapes: An imprudent person or mischievous child.


Scamp: A rogue, or mischievous child.


Disconcerted: To feel ill at ease.


Ignoramus: A pejorative term used to insult somebody intelligence, or lack there of.


Unfledged: Young and inexperienced when applied to persons, without feather for flight when applied to birds.


Frantic: Excited, or out of control due to a high emotional response.


Epaulettes: A decorative shoulder garment.


Titular: Either, to have a title or rank in name only and without the authority attributed to it, or simple in reference to a title or rank.


Siskins: A Eurasian finch with yellow and green plumage.


Lark: A small, brownish, song bird.


Fedora: Used as a name in the book, but meaning a hat. Like an intended juxtaposition in the novel to accentuate the destitute nature of the character’s station in life.


Brambeus: The pen name of Jozef Skews (I have omitted accents of the vowels) who published adventure narratives relating to voyages and travel.


Roubles and kopecks: Russian currency. A rouble is divided into a 100 kopecks. The value of a rouble in the novel would be hard to access due to a combination of exchange rates and inflation.


Repine: To complain when dissatisfied.


Balsam: In the novel, a flowering plant.


Facetious: Intended to be funny, often inappropriate.


Benefactor: Financial supporter.


Samovars: A Russian tea urn.




Salubrious: Good for one’s health, or generally pleasant.


Ha’porth (or Ha’p’orth): The equivalent of a ha’penny, or ‘half penny’, but also used to describe somebody who is daft, as in not sensible.


Convalescence: A recuperating patient.


Farthing: In Britain, it is a small denomination coin, in the context of the novel, something that is considered to the lowest of its kind.


Fastidious: Demanding or easily disgusted.


Efface: To behave humbly, or to rub out and eliminate or obliterate something, or…. someone!


Propensities: A tendency to demonstrate a particular behaviour.


Vexation: In a state of annoyance.


Woe: An unfortunate happening or grief


Chit: Official note or document.


Ardent: Passionate or enthusiastic.


Ecstatic: Delighted, or dominated by emotion.


Disconsolate: Extremely sad.


Enumerated: To count things, or to list items.


Intemperance: Lack of self-control, or excessive drinking.


Exhortations: To give advice, or to urge in an attempt to persuade.


Defray: To pay somebody all of a cost they have taken on.


Repudiate: To disown, deny, or reject something.


Chemises: A long, loose dress or undergarment.


Affable: Easy-going, friendly, and easy to talk to.


Cordial: Deeply felt, or hospitably warm.


Edifying: Educational.


Jocose: Fond of joking.


Rarebit: Rabbit… in Welsh, when the poor thing is used as food!


Apropos: With regard to.


Boudoir: A woman’s bedroom.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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