On the cover of the edition of The Adolescent (more often translated as A Raw Youth) that I happen to have read, there is a blurb from Konstantin Mochulsky, a Dostoyevsky biographer: “The Adolescent is the most captivating of Dostoevsky’s novels.”
I just have to shake my head at that, as that was absolutely not my experience of this book.
I love Dostoyevsky. He’s without a doubt one of my all-time favorite authors. But to me, The Adolescent is a swing and a miss.
The odd thing is that this is from Dostoyevsky’s later period, his period of unquestioned greatness. Published in 1875, The Adolescent came just after Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, The Idiot, and The Possessed, and just before The Brothers Karamazov, all terrific books.
But it’s not like it would fit better with his earlier—generally not as strong—work. In style and subject matter—and ambition—it does indeed resemble these middle-to-late life classics. It’s just a puzzlingly flat version of such novels.
The protagonist and narrator of The Adolescent is Arkady Makarovich Dolgoruky. I picture an “adolescent” as middle school age or so, maybe 12-15 years old, but Arkady is 21, so more college age, if not late college age.
Arkady is the son of Andrei Versilov, a landowner who impregnated the young Sofya, one of his serfs, who was married to the substantially older serf Makar Dolgoruky. Versilov runs away with Sofya—more or less with the blessings of Dolgoruky; he seems to have been closer to a father figure to Sofya than a romantic partner—but they’re only together off and on over the ensuing years, as Versilov travels, toys with other women, and has various adventures.
Arkady has virtually no contact with his biological parents in his childhood, seeing them just once or twice, but for that matter doesn’t have a relationship with Dolgoruky—his legal father—either, as he grows up primarily in boarding schools (where he is mistreated by staff and his fellow students alike for how low is the nobility status of his family compared to that of most of his peers, and of course because of his illegitimacy).
Upon becoming an adult, he travels to St. Petersburg to reunite with Versilov and Sofya. This is pretty much where the story begins; the rest is background that is dispensed with fairly quickly. Though he evinces some warm feelings toward his mother, really his purpose is to get to know his father and to see if he can establish a relationship with him.
Here the various main characters are introduced. Arkady has a sister Liza and a half-sister Anna, who he also has had little or no contact with until now. (There’s also a half-brother—the brother of Anna—but he is in Moscow and only makes brief appearances in the novel.) Versilov gets Arkady a job as a sort of secretary or personal assistant to a wealthy old prince who is showing possible early signs of senility.
There are numerous entanglements between these two families. Both Versilov and his son Arkady have a romantic interest in the old prince’s daughter—a young widow—Katerina Nikolaevna. Anna is interested in marrying the old prince.
Meanwhile, Arkady falls in with another prince, a party-prone but troubled young man with an interest in both Anna and Liza, and they do plenty of carousing and gambling together—with the young prince’s money, which becomes a source of conflict between them.
One of the main plot points is that Katerina Nikolaevna at some point had written a letter she now much regrets, questioning her father’s soundness of mind and speculating about whether it would be best that he be put away. She is concerned that if this letter were to come to light, her father would disown her (meaning, among other things, that she’d be out a considerable inheritance.) Arkady ends up in possession of the letter, but is indecisive about what, if anything, to do with it.
There are also various shady characters—loan sharks, con men, etc.—hovering around these folks, looking to get their hands on the old prince’s money, whether it be through blackmail or by strategically allying themselves with one of the characters who has the potential to inherit or marry into money.
So the novel proceeds as both a family drama concerning what kind of relationship Arkady can develop with these family members—especially his father—who have been basically strangers to him up until now, and a soap opera-like tale of various romances, swindles, betrayals, etc., with some philosophical, religious, and political discussions thrown in for good measure.
But, again, to me this just doesn’t rise to the level I expect from a Dostoyevsky novel. I had far more trouble remaining focused on it than just about anything of Dostoyevsky’s I’ve read, certainly than any of his other major novels. Rarely do I have to go back through a Dostoyevsky book—or do a quick Google search—to remind myself of who a given character is, or what happened earlier in the story that might make sense of what’s happening now, but I did that multiple times while reading The Adolescent, as my mind frequently wandered. Even now I’m frankly not a hundred percent confident of every point in the above summary.
OK, so let’s see if I can articulate any reasons why The Adolescent didn’t impress me nearly as much as most things I’ve read by Dostoevsky.
Early on, it appears that one of the main themes of the book is going to be what Arkady calls his “idea.” This is, one, his conviction that it really isn’t that difficult to become as wealthy as you could ever want to be if only you have the self-discipline early on to continue living at a bare subsistence level instead of increasing your spending as your income increases, two, his commitment to live up to that conviction until he achieves the wealth of a “Rothschild,” and three, his vague intention, once he’s that wealthy, to not use his wealth to take revenge upon those who humiliated him when he was at the bottom or to pursue self-interested ends in general, but to relish the satisfaction of knowing that he could if he wanted to while in effect continuing to live incognito as if he were still a non-rich person.
The first part of his “idea” is kind of interesting and has some merit, as simplistic as it is. Think of it this way: You’re a young person making $12,000 a year, you’re just barely surviving on a diet of little more than bread and water, you don’t have a car, you’re not dating, you’re living with your parents or crashing on a friend’s couch, etc. Then your income rises to $15,000. What do 99% of people do? They take that extra $3,000 and modestly upgrade one or more areas of their life to slightly above that rock bottom level.
But Arkady’s insight is that if you resist that temptation and instead keep your lifestyle the same, and then continue to do that when your income rises to $18,000, and $20,000, etc., and instead of ever using the extra income above $12,000 to live better you always save it somewhere that earns interest, you’ll achieve great wealth surprisingly quickly.
He’s confident he’ll be able to stick to the plan because he has experimented with it already, forcing himself to live on virtually nothing for an extended period just to make sure he could do it.
The thing is, despite the fanfare with which it’s introduced, nothing much comes of the “idea.” Once he hits St. Petersburg in no time at all he’s already living contrary to it—his job with the old prince seems to be a part time gig and he shows no inclination to parlay it into anything more to increase his earnings, and he runs through whatever little money he has very quickly and is soon borrowing from the young prince in order to continue living the high life—but there’s little mention of it for the remainder of the book. You’d think in a Dostoyevsky book it would lead to a great deal of soul-searching, analysis, and maybe guilt on the part of Arkady—think of Raskilnikov and his philosophy of life in Crime and Punishment—but not here.
Then there’s the matter of Katerina Nikolaevna’s letter, which Arkady keeps sewn inside his jacket while he considers what to do with it. Oddly, he was in a similar situation earlier in the book with a different letter. His father Versilov was involved in a civil suit where he stood to gain considerable money, but Arkady had come into possession of a document that could alter the case against him. There again he had to decide whom, if anyone, to reveal the letter to.
I mean I’m sure at some level it’s not “odd,” or at least not coincidental. I’m sure Dostoyevsky repeated the device for some artistic reason, to convey or symbolize something about Arkady or whatever, but I don’t know what that reason is. To me it just seems pointlessly redundant.
There’s also the question of the gravity of the subject matter. Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Idiot all have murders as key plot points, The Possessed is about nihilistic political violence, and multiple of Dostoyevsky’s novels reference child molestation (typically only in a creepy, implied way), so you can kind of understand why the characters act in such a “Dostoyevskian” manner—constantly losing their tempers, “flying” at each other, fainting, falling into delirium, making passionate pronouncements to a roomful of people, committing or contemplating suicide, falling madly and recklessly in love with someone they also hate at some level, getting stupefyingly drunk, seeking some kind of extreme religious redemption, etc. These are people under great stress, caught up in terrible situations, burdened by heavy guilt, existing right on the edge.
But somehow when the characters in The Adolescent behave in such ways, it feels disproportionate. When you get right down to it, maybe it’s no more unrealistic—I mean, people can get extremely worked up when large inheritances are in doubt, when there are accusations about people marrying for money, when a son is reunited with a family he has barely known, etc.—but to a reader it seems excessive. I compared it to soap opera plots above, and that’s what it feels like: the kind of artificially extreme drama of a soap opera.
Often in Dostoyevsky’s writing he manifests a sharp wit, skillfully creating characters and situations that are at least borderline satirical. Even if he’s just taking a cheap shot at Poles or something, there are usually a number of good laughs in his novels. There isn’t much of that kind of thing in The Adolescent though; I don’t recall finding anything in it all that humorous.
Maybe as important as anything is that compared to what I’ve come to expect from Dostoyevsky none of the characters comes alive or is particularly memorable.
Versilov has elements of the self-important lovable rogue Stepan Verkhovensky of The Possessed, the obsessed and potentially violent lover Rogozhin of The Idiot, and the voluptuary Karamazov Senior of The Brothers Karamazov, but he’s a weaker, less interesting version of any of these. At times he serves as Dostoyevsky’s mouthpiece for the author’s philosophical musings on the unique character of the Russian people and all that, but frankly much of that is rambling and incoherent.
Makar Dolgoruky is a kind of gentle, idealistic, pious fellow who people naturally are drawn to and respect, and so overlaps to some degree with characters like Prince Myshkin in The Idiot and the Elder Zosima and Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov, but again he is not nearly as well-drawn and interesting as any of these.
Arkady himself is OK as a first-person narrator—at times annoyingly hyperbolic or prone to grandstanding, but arguably in a way that makes sense given his age—but I prefer the “voice of reason” first-person narrator Mr. Govorov of The Possessed.
None of the loan sharks and other assorted baddies are nearly as fascinatingly creepy or complex as the characters that populate the shadows of Dostoyevsky’s greatest works.
I just feel like all too often reading The Adolescent my reaction was “Well that character was never particularly developed,” or “That subplot never really went anywhere and then just seems to have been dropped from the book,” etc.
Assessing The Adolescent relative to all the novels I’ve read in my life, I suppose I’d rank it somewhere around the middle, so it’s not an utter failure by a long shot. But it is far inferior to the classics of Dostoyevsky’s most productive period—which is the time period from which The Adolescent comes—and modestly inferior to the average of Dostoyevsky’s earlier novels and short stories.