Netochka Nezvanova is the story of the title character’s childhood. (In English the name has no significance or symbolism, but in Russian it is close to the words for “nameless nobody.”)
The first half of the book is about Netochka’s life in poverty with her mother and stepfather, actually starting with some background information on her stepfather. They married when she was two.
She is orphaned when she is seven or eight, and the second half of the book is about her life with the rich family that took her in at that age and raised her.
The best character in the novel by a wide margin is the stepfather. Mainly for this reason there is much more that is compelling in the first half of the novel than the second. Once he leaves the stage I found myself noticeably less into this book.
This was written before the classic, and in some cases very long, novels that made Dostoyevsky one of the giants of world literature. He actually intended it to be his first massive, ambitious project like that, but this was as far as he got on it before giving up and moving on to other writing. It wasn’t supposed to be the story of just Netochka’s childhood, but of her whole life.
The book does indeed end a bit abruptly. I mean in some ways it ends at a logical break point, right after a major conflict that seems to indicate the end of one stage of life and the opening of another, so it’s not as abrupt as, say, where one of Kafka’s novels stops. But given that there are hints here and there in the book about her adult life, this feels more like the end of a chapter rather than the end of a book (i.e., break point, not end point).
The stepfather is an intriguing loser figure, the forerunner of later classic Dostoyevsky characters like Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment. He is convinced that he is a great violinist, held back by factors other than lack of talent, mostly the injustice of others toward him, as well as his own alcoholism, whereas the evidence indicates that he is probably a musician of moderate talent who is much sharper at understanding music and critiquing others than at actually playing it, the kind of person who would have made an excellent music critic or music teacher had he been satisfied with that, or a passable violinist somewhere below an elite orchestra.
As an artist he treats regular, non-artistic jobs as beneath him, and as a drunk he’s incapable of holding a job—artistic or otherwise—for any significant length of time anyway. He lives off what he can finagle from people, and marries Netochka’s mother for the really quite modest amount of money she has, which he burns through in almost no time.
A sickly woman, the mother can generate very little income, but she provides for her daughter as best she can out of that, hampered by the fact that the stepfather swoops in and finds a way to get whatever pennies aren’t nailed down every chance he gets.
Of course the stepfather doesn’t think of himself as a loser, but as a man of much nobility of character and generosity of spirit who has been victimized by other people and bad luck. He has largely given up on any chance of a warm, positive relationship with his wife, but does have an attachment to his stepdaughter.
She more than reciprocates the attraction. Even at such an early age she becomes more or less aware of his flaws, yet there is a charisma to him that makes her love him and crave his love, whereas she doesn’t feel as close to her mother the disciplinarian, and maybe takes her love for granted.
There is much that is psychologically fascinating, much that is sad, about the relationship between Netochka and her stepfather, about the ups and downs of loving a highly imperfect person, including the guilt and ambivalence both feel about his pressuring her to do things they both know are wrong, primarily helping him get her mother’s money.
There is not as much humor in Netochka Nezvanova as in some of Dostoyevsky’s writings, except insofar as you find eccentric loser characters inherently funny.
The main problem I have with Netochka Nezvanova is that its children seem nothing like children to me. The story is told in the first person by Netochka herself, and while presumably she is recounting it as an adult, she attributes certain thoughts and emotions to herself and other children that seem way too deep, extreme, and self-conscious, a degree of internal torment and self-examination and such that you’ll rarely come across in an adult—outside a Dostoyevsky novel—let alone a child.
In my experience, kids tend to be far more superficial and simple than all that, especially the younger they are. I don’t say that as a criticism, as I like and respect children, and treat them far more as an equal than 99% of adults do. But I don’t see little kids as having this kind of rich and complex inner life. It’s hard enough to get college kids to really think hard about morality and deep emotions and such rather than just bouncing along from one superficial experience to the next.
For that matter it’s not just the thoughts and emotions, but the behavior. In the second half of the novel, which takes place in the rich people’s house, Netochka and another girl of about the same age (they’re about 9 by now I suppose) fall in love with each other. I mean literally. There’s a degree of passion and physical affection here that I would think is rarely if ever present in adult lesbian couples. They can’t resist smothering each other with kisses whenever they’re together. They sleep in the same bed, and hold and caress each other all night while talking intimately about their undying devotion to each other. When they’re separated for a matter of days they are so traumatized you’d think one or both of them is on the verge of suicide.
It’s frankly weird.
I don’t know that Dostoyevsky even does female and child characters particularly well, especially from the inside. They tend to instead be symbols and stereotypes that play some role in the lives of his male protagonists. They are madonnas, whores, innocents, victims, temptresses, redeemers, etc. In Netochka Nezvanova he tries to show us what’s going on inside an adult woman narrator and child main characters, and it seems to me he ends up making them the same as his obsessive, brooding intellectual, male characters who are constantly analyzing themselves and their world from a moral point of view, when they’re not exploding with passion in some way or another.
It’s Dostoyevsky, so there are still plenty of powerful and beautiful moments in this book. The first half is at least in the same ballpark as his mature writings. So I wouldn’t necessarily steer people away from Netochka Nezvanova, but it’s far from his best work.