The Eternal Husband and Other Stories is a collection of five Dostoyevsky novellas and short stories, written from 1862 to 1877, which largely overlaps with the period in which Dostoyevsky produced his classic novels upon which his reputation as one of the greatest novelists in history is based. That is to say, these stories are from the time of his life when he was at the peak of his skills.
I thought I had read four of the five at least once in my life previously in other collections (sometimes with different translated titles), but I realized as I read the book that it was actually all five. A Nasty Anecdote I read in a collection long ago and only barely remembered. The Dream of a Ridiculous Man I read in A Writer’s Diary about a decade ago. Bobok I read in that same collection with A Nasty Anecdote and also in A Writer’s Diary. The Meek One I read in A Writer’s Diary and yet again even more recently in Uncle’s Dream and Other Stories. The Eternal Husband is the one I was thinking I hadn’t read, but in fact I read it in a collection of three Dostoyevsky novellas decades ago.
A Nasty Anecdote can be read as a criticism of liberals and liberalism, but one could also say that while it expresses how difficult progressive change can be, how jarring it can be for even those of privilege who believe in it, and how it can expose such liberals’ hypocrisies and flaws, the story does not thereby establish that progressive change is somehow wrong, nor that liberalism’s opponents are not even more flawed than liberals. That is, progressivism might be a lot more complicated than some people think, and have greater costs, and its supporters may be imperfect (who isn’t?), and yet it still be broadly speaking a good and justified cause to fight for.
It’s a fun story in its way—a straightforward, easy-to-follow, misadventure that is often hilarious, while sometimes making one wince at what befalls the well-intentioned but hapless protagonist.
It is the story of a high government official, an outspoken advocate of liberal change, who believes that to live consistently with his principles he needs to treat his subordinates more as his social equals. The problem is, he also has the idea that because his views are unconventional—i.e., because the world in general and his subordinates in particular do not believe him obligated to treat others as his equals—he deserves gratitude. So while relative to his principles he is only doing his duty, according to prevailing principles he is going above and beyond his duty, and at a certain level he craves recognition and appreciation for that.
(Which, by the way, I have kind of felt in some contexts in my own life and think there might even be some justification for. For example, if I’m able to live up to some moral and political ideal of how to treat certain oppressed people 80% of the way, while it would be the easiest thing in the world to live up to it 0% or close to 0% instead since that’s what the majority of people in my position do, I think I deserve some credit for whatever enlightenment or sacrifice on my part that 80% has required. If instead people who have come 80% of the way like me are attacked with the same venom—or often more—than the 0%ers who are more blatantly enemies, I sometimes feel some resentment about that. Even more so if the 20% I haven’t managed isn’t just due to my own failures but instead to my having rationally justified disagreements with the purported ideal to that degree.)
Ivan Ilyich Pralinsky is the protagonist in question. To prove how willing he is to rub shoulders with commoners as equals, he drops in unexpectedly on one of his subordinates’ wedding parties, assuming everyone will fawn over him and he’ll be able to paternalistically bestow his blessings on the whole affair.
Instead he gets every reaction except what he expected. For a time everyone is stunned by his arrival and too nervous around him to know what to do with themselves. At other times they loosen up and more or less go back to partying the way they were, making him feel ignored and unappreciated. Occasionally they verbally attack him or mock him. At times they feel compelled to act toward him with a generosity they cannot afford that does serious damage to them financially.
The whole thing is a mess, and he just gets more and more confused and disappointed, and ultimately drunk, which makes it even harder for him to connect with them and causes him to make a fool of himself all the more.
It all falls apart and becomes quite ugly and sad, and as I say, in its way hilarious.
The Eternal Husband is by far the longest story in the collection (about three times as long as the second longest), and pretty close to a full-length novel.
The protagonist of The Eternal Husband is Alexei Ivanovich Velchaninov. He is a hypochondriac given to long bouts of depressive rumination, a person who lives in his own mind more than most, and whose inner life at times borders on the delusional. Of all major Dostoyevsky characters, his mental make-up reminds me most of the brooding Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment.
I experienced this novella strangely; I’m not all that confident I’ll be able to articulate just how it affected me.
I don’t know how true this is of other people, but there are a few sort of dreamlike incidents, images, anecdotes, whatever that I seem to have had deep in my mind for as long as I can remember, probably some even from childhood. Most of them I would guess did originate in dreams, or perhaps originated elsewhere but were then modified in dreams.
If you were to ask me now to list these I couldn’t come up with more than one or two. They’re more an “I know them when I see them” phenomenon, or in this case “I know them when I think them.” Here and there something will trigger one of them, especially if I’m daydreaming or maybe in that hazy state between sleep and wakefulness, and I’ll recognize it in kind of a déjà vu way, as a thought or fantasy I’ve experienced before.
One that I’ve had for a long time, though I’m guessing it hadn’t recurred for many years—maybe a decade or more—until I read this book, is a very, very vague sense of being in some kind of apartment or large room in a house, alone, with few or no windows and the only access being a front door that is at the very top of a long flight of stairs. It has a sort of haunted house feel to it, and one of isolation and vulnerability, though it is not set out in some remote area but probably in a fairly congested urban environment.
Some mysterious person comes to the top of the stairs, and stands on the other side of the door without knocking. I’m aware of his presence, though I don’t think in the scenario there are windows in the door or I’m looking out a peephole or anything; maybe I hear his steps coming up the stairs. There’s something forbidding about him, like he embodies the whole haunted house feeling of the environment itself.
I don’t think the scenario typically develops past this point. It’s not really a story or a complex series of events; it’s just this creepy feeling of being in this upper floor room with someone on the other side of the door perhaps intending to force his way in or confront me in some way.
The closest thing I can think to compare the setting and the feeling to is when the Dustin Hoffman character in Marathon Man is alone in his apartment and hears someone trying to break in.
I had the sense whenever it came up that it had originated in some Dostoyevsky story I’d read, though I couldn’t have told you which one. (The Double perhaps?) But I doubted that it was just my remembering something unchanged from a book like that. My guess was that it was one of those recurring fantasies or whatever you want to call it that came about as a result of my unconscious mind combining several different ingredients, of which the incident from a Dostoyevsky story was just one—assuming I was even correct in my vague impression that I had indeed read something like this in Dostoyevsky.
But it also reminded me just slightly of some places I’ve lived, most notably an interior apartment on the second floor of an old building in the French Quarter of New Orleans that had only one tiny window up high that you really couldn’t even see out of. It felt like maybe I had had an unusually vivid dream one night that combined elements I’d read in Dostoyevsky with memories of one or more places I’d lived in real life or experiences I’d had in real life, with possibly other elements (I mentioned Marathon Man above; I suppose it’s possible I’d recently seen that movie), that it was one of the few dreams I have that I remembered after waking up, and that when I kind of flash back to it periodically it further changes in subtle ways.
So kind of an imperfect memory of a long ago dream based on memories buried in my subconscious that originated in real life, books, movies, or even other dreams or who knows where.
The fantasy was never something horribly frightening or traumatic—it wasn’t like a soldier having PTSD combat flashbacks—but more curious and unnerving. When it came over me I always wondered if it was indeed from some Dostoyevsky story I’d read, and if so which one.
Well, it turns out it almost certainly came from my reading The Eternal Husband a long time ago.
Early in the story, Velchaninov keeps encountering the same strange man in public. He can’t tell if the person is following him, seeking to interact with him, seeking to avoid interacting with him, or what, or even if the whole thing is a series of coincidences or something he’s imagining. But he finds it all quite unsettling.
Then one night he looks out his window (from a dwelling that is at least something like what I picture in my recurring fantasy) and sees this man across the street. The man then seems to come to a decision, and strides across the street into the building where Velchaninov lives. Velchaninov hears him come up the stairs and stop outside his door, and then hears him trying the door in stealthy fashion to see if it might be unlocked and he can slip in unnoticed.
It’s all very ominous, or at least it feels that way to me, perhaps because something like this scenario has played out in my mind so many times over the years.
But what’s striking is the way the whole story—beyond that one scene that resembles my fantasy—hits me on some kind of emotional level that I’m not used to. Again, describing that is a challenge I’m not sure I’m up to.
There’s something about the way Dostoyevsky writes—and I feel it more with this story, but I suspect that’s because of something subjective on my part rather than because his writing here is significantly better or different from in other of his works—that isn’t just accurate in terms of describing human thought, emotion, fantasies, dreams, moral deliberation, etc. but can somehow transport you into his characters’ inner lives. So you don’t just recognize the accuracy intellectually, but somehow feel it.
I think that most would peg me as far more the cerebral than emotional type, which may be more accurate than inaccurate, though with plenty of caveats (including doubt as to whether these are really polar opposites that can be usefully contrasted). When I read—or watch a movie, etc.—it’s not that I don’t feel anything, but maybe more that I still typically feel it as a detached observer.
For example, I read a lot of depressing stuff, both fiction and nonfiction—which I’ve often speculated might not be a particularly healthy thing to do—and I can be appropriately depressed (infuriated, frustrated, whatever) by it. So, for instance, I might find genocide appalling, and when I read about it I feel appalled. I feel a kind of moral indignation and disappointment that human beings have the tools to be so much more than we are, and yet we so frequently engage in horrific behavior. It’s kind of a moral judgment, a reaction to certain ideas or phenomena—like genocide—in the abstract. Particulars are what I read about, but the general ideas they represent are what I think about and react to emotionally.
(That’s just an example. I’m not saying there aren’t also positive things I read that I react favorably toward.)
But there’s still something sort of one step removed from what I’m reading that I’m reacting to. I’m not “in” the story; I’m assessing it from outside, and that assessment brings up certain emotions in me.
(I’m not at all confident of how I’m describing any of this, by the way.)
But something about The Eternal Husband affected me in a more immediate way, like I wasn’t in control of it, but being pulled along for the ride.
Like if something frightens you in real life. It’s not that you observe something, its objectively dangerous qualities become apparent to you, and you choose to react in a way we recognize as a reaction of fear—fleeing, screaming, whatever. The reaction is direct; it doesn’t come about through some kind of conscious judgment of risk. Chances are you wouldn’t even be able to articulate exactly why you’re frightened; you just feel what you feel.
Insofar as the distinction I’m trying so clumsily to draw makes any sense at all, I suspect most people respond to things—like certain of their reading—in this immediate emotional manner far more often than I do.
Anyway, besides that one scene—of being behind one’s door at the top of stairs with a threatening presence on the other side—that for some reason that I couldn’t begin to identify seems to have burned itself into my subconscious only to reemerge in various forms randomly over the years, there are other elements of this story that take me out of my usual psychological and emotional mode like that.
There’s a whole section early on, for instance, where Velchaninov finds himself involuntarily dwelling on all the little—and a couple not so little—transgressions of his life, all the things that can give rise to guilt if for some reason our usual rationalizing defenses are malfunctioning. He thinks about the women he’s deceived in one way or another to increase his opportunity for sex, the people he has allowed to take the blame for things he has done, the times he felt on the verge of experiencing some kind of shame or public awkwardness and was able to shift that onto some other innocent party instead, etc. All the times that pride caused him to safeguard his ego or pursue his self-interest in ways that implicitly devalued other human beings.
And when I read that, it isn’t just that it struck me intellectually as being an accurate depiction of one of the ways that a depressed person can bring himself down and feel bad about his life, but that I felt it, in a “Yeah, I’ve been there” kind of way. Almost like I and Velchaninov were intermingling, and I was going through that kind of inner journey of guilt myself.
The dream/fantasy sequences seemed real enough to trigger that same kind of direct emotion, that sense almost that I was experiencing them rather than being told about them.
Dreams are notoriously difficult to convey in fiction. Think about in a movie or TV show, typically you have to infer that what you’re seeing is a dream or some kind of product of imagination or fantasy from clues such as surreal things happening, or worse yet conventions like the shot getting all wavy for a few seconds. It doesn’t really feel like a dream; you just recognize from the evidence that what you’re seeing is supposed to represent one of the characters’ dreaming.
But in reading The Eternal Husband, it was like it’s so accurate in depicting the stream of consciousness of a dream state that, again, I felt like I was somehow participating in—almost certainly not the right term—the story emotionally in a way I almost never do.
I suspect the effectiveness of the story stems in part from its accurate depiction of psychological, emotional, and moral complexity. Characters don’t do x and say y for straightforward, unambiguous reasons that could consistently be articulated by a reader, and yet they also don’t behave in some kind of bizarrely random way. It all hangs together and is coherent only to the very limited degree that in real life our own opinions, intentions, plans, emotional reactions, etc. hang together and are coherent.
It just feels like Dostoyevsky knows how we—or at least I—think, feel, dream, experience guilt or shame, etc., and he gets inside the reader’s mind and emotions directly by accurately depicting the similar inner lives of his characters.
I know I’ve said almost nothing about the story itself, and focused instead on my reaction to it, but what I do in these essays, basically, is write about what where my mind goes when I read a book, and only sometimes is that a straightforward recitation of the book’s contents, or even a review of how “good” or “bad” the book is and why.
But anyway, The Eternal Husband is primarily about the confrontation between a man and the husband he cuckolded with a wife who has since died. (Of all things, it put me in mind of an HBO short film of the ’80s called Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson, with Laurence Olivier and Jackie Gleason, with the same premise but wildly different in almost every other respect.)
I think it’s Dostoyevsky at the top of his game.
One interesting thing about it is how little it has of that signature Dostoyevskian humor, that depicting of serious situations with just enough exaggeration, outrageousness, buffoonery, or satire to add a little humorous element to go with the seriousness. This is more—to me at least—psychologically dark and forbidding in an unrelentingly realistic way.
The third story is Bobok, which is certainly not intended to be realistic or deadly serious.
Following a funeral, a man lies down next to a grave, lost in thought. Soon he hears voices. He realizes they are coming from underground, from the corpses. The dead people have no idea they are being overheard.
It turns out dead folks keep their same personalities, and for the most part stick to the same social customs and hierarchies and such, to a comic degree. There are arrogant high officials, servile toadies, bimbos, whiny society women, etc.
I don’t know what Dostoyevsky’s point is here, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that one of the dead people eventually comes up with the idea that the best thing to do is feel no guilt or shame over anything they did in their lives, since that’s all in the past and can’t be changed anyway, and that being free of any negative feelings like that they should now entertain each other by telling the stories of their lives, warts and all, holding nothing back.
But I don’t know if this is supposed to be analogous to what certain real people do in certain real situations, whether he’s endorsing it or holding it up to ridicule, or what.
I won’t say a lot about The Meek One, as I wrote about it—though quite briefly—when I read it in Uncle’s Dream and Other Stories (where it was translated as The Meek Girl).
I think the story, like The Eternal Husband, is particularly strong in depicting the inner life of a troubled character, in this case from the first person perspective whereas The Eternal Husband is written in the third person. It accurately and effectively describes this inner life appropriately as a series of complex grays of limited coherence, and not as simplistic black and whites that all make sense. Interestingly, it’s preceded by an introduction spelling out that that’s what Dostoyevsky is trying to do as a writer, to present a realistic depiction of a haunted mind by not forcing it to all be coherent.
It’s effective, as I say, but didn’t affect me in the kind of direct emotional way that something about The Eternal Husband did. Perhaps, again, that has to do more with me than with the quality of the writing. On the other hand, the protagonist of The Meek One has more of that Dostoyevskian passion and bombast that verges on the caricaturish. He feels more like a fictional character than does Velchaninov, so perhaps it does sacrifice a bit of realism in that manner.
In any case, it’s still a solid story.
The collection closes with The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. This is the most unabashedly moralistic of the stories, the one that overlaps the most with the kind of simple Christian message of love you find in Tolstoy’s writings in the later stages of his life.
The first person protagonist of the story has reached a point where he is utterly indifferent to everything, where nothing any longer has any importance to him. He decides to kill himself.
But on the night he is to do so, he falls asleep in his chair and has a dream. He dreams that he does indeed kill himself, and is subsequently buried, etc., but that throughout it all he retains his consciousness. A mysterious figure then whisks him out of his coffin out of the ground and transports him to a mirror image of Earth.
This is a version of Earth, he ascertains, from “before the Fall.” Everyone lives in an ideal state of love and harmony.
He is inspired to change his life, to care about things again, to not commit suicide, and to preach the message that a better life is available to us if only we would choose it.
It is in some ways an uplifting story, but the problem comes when Dostoyevsky tries to describe this ideal world the narrator travels to in his dream. It’s the kind of thing that probably should be left implied rather than spelled out, in that when you have the details in front of you of just how the people are interacting, how they’re spending their time, etc., it’s easy to find fault with it as kind of boring and unchallenging. They seem to be quite humorless folks, so incessantly kind and loving toward each other as to be rather hard to take.
On the whole this may be the best collection of Dostoyevsky short stories and novellas I’ve read. The Eternal Husband is the one that had the strongest impact on me—due to my odd history with the story you might say—but none of them are duds. Bobok I suppose is the most lightweight, and if I had to give up one of the five it would be that, but it’s not bad.