Dostoevsky and the psychology of the simp

One of the many words birthed and, once popular, emptied of its specific censuring weight by 2020 was “simp.” Defined by Urban Dictionary as “someone who does way too much for the person they like,” and “a man who puts the hoes before the bros,” the word is, as far as I can figure, the noun/verb form of “simpering,” which fits. However, these initial definitions lack a certain weight, for it’s arguable that there are circumstances where such actions would be not only appropriate but necessary (see “marriage”). A more lengthy, damning, and, in my view, useful UD definition identifies a simp as “a guy that is overly desperate for a woman, especially if she is a bad person or has expressed her disinterest in him, whom he continues to obsess over. They’re usually just virgins that will accept coochie from anyone, regardless of who they are.” Well said.

As I said in a previous post, last year I set out on a personal project to read or reread all of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work as I read through Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography on the man (one volume per year). At this point I’ve completed the first two biography volumes, which cover Dostoevsky’s early life and his time in a Siberian prison camp, and several of the author’s early works.

One major motif I kept seeing in Dostoevsky’s pre-Siberian works was his focus not on heroic characters but their opposite: the psychological weaklings of St. Petersburg. Works like Poor Folk, “White Nights,” and The Double all feature protagonists who, whether or not they let themselves be aware of it, have little to no chance with the women who occupy their affections. In fact, presaging the more serious psychology of masochism explored by Dostoevsky’s later works (and in his own early romantic relationships), Dostoevsky includes themes of self-sabotage in these early writings: it’s debatable whether or not Makar Dyevushkin, the “White Nights” dreamer, or Yakov Golyadkin would have chosen their paramours if they weren’t utterly out of reach—an idea consciously approached by the characters to differing extents. Ironically, the utter unattainability of the characters’ fantasies allows the characters to maintain their uplifted, (technically) Romantic visions of the women—and of themselves—even to their own detriment. In all three cases, the type of attraction they experience and how they treat the attraction comes out of their literal circumstances at the bottom of St. Petersburg, and in all three cases it leads to inevitable failure.

Poor Folk: Makar Dyevushkin, King of the Simps

Despite (or because of) its focus on an older clerk’s correspondence with a younger woman, Poor Folk is a testament of why one needs bros (though perhaps not the Karamazov kind). As I read the letters between him and Varvara Alexyevna, I kept wanting to do what I’ve done to friends in similar situations: slap Dyevushkin and tell him to develop some God-damned dignity. The sense that one is watching an act of self-destruction in real time is part of what Dostoevsky explores through the book: the psychology of the ashamed.

The first of the low-level clerks that would populate several of Dostoevsky’s works, Dyevushkin lacks any social standing in Russian society, and he knows it. Within the first few pages of the epistolary novel one learns of the bareness of his quarters—for which he very nearly apologizes to the hardly better off Varvara (the first of Dostoevsky’s put-upon female characters, she deserves her own post altogether). Nonetheless, despite his straits and her not having asked him for such things, Dyevushkin buys often extravagant gifts for Varvara early in their correspondence, and he even changes apartments to be nearby if she ever needs anything. Eventually, and implicitly because of possible finagling on Varvara’s part, Dyevushkin even ends up helping with preparations for Varvara’s marriage to a landowner from outside the city. In short, what 2020 called a “simp” Dostoevsky called a Makar Dyevushkin—itself a derivation of a Russian word “devushka” for girl or young woman (about which one can draw their own conclusions).

I don’t mean to sell the book short—after all, with critic Vissarion Belinsky’s endorsement it was the book that pushed the young Dostoevsky to the top of the Russian literary scene. At the time and following a similar movement in Europe, Russian culture was shifting from artistic Romanticism to a more journalistic Naturalism, and Poor Folk serves as a snapshot of this change (this movement is a major topic in Frank’s first biographical volume, The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849). Consistent through the book is the clash between the two characters’ uplifted Romantic language—much of it from the novels they read—and the squalor of their actual lives.

Indeed, the problems arguably created by a Romantic perspective are present in the book’s opening letter from Dyevushkin to Varvara: “I compared you with a bird of the air created for the delight of men and the adornment of nature.” In his next letter, the protagonist reflects on his own language:

“I ought not in my old age, with scarcely any hair on my head, to have launched out into lyrical nonsense and fine phrases…For no rhyme or reason there was a regular holiday in my soul; I felt so gay. I took up my papers eagerly—but what did it all amount to! As soon as I looked about me, everything was as before, grey and dingy. Still the same ink-spots, the same tables and papers, and I , too, was just the same; as I always have been, so I was still…”

Though much of Dostoevsky’s later skill would consist in his synthesizing the best aspects of Romanticism with honest portraits of Russia’s middle and lower classes, at this point the language of the Romantics which had momentarily lifted Dyevushkin’s perspective only serves to highlight his squalor after the words have left.

More relevant to the current topic, the opening letters introduce the theme of how Dyevushkin’s Romantic perspective of Varvara keeps him from actually acknowledging her character and circumstances. Much of the book’s tension lies in his subtly counseling the younger woman against things that might aid her advancement—reading, finding employment, and ultimately marrying a secure (if distasteful) prospect. However, far from merely speaking to 19th-century perspectives of women as the weaker or lesser sex, Dyevushkin’s Romantic condescension speaks more to his own weakness. He can’t afford for the young Varvara to rise in the world because it will only underscore how pathetic he, himself, is.

The rest of the book is a masterpiece in projection: everything from Dyevushkin’s seemingly selfless encouragements for Varvara to his annoyances at his humorously critical peers to his much more vicious resentment of charity from the upper classes serve to characterize only himself, and it is one of the aspects that fills the book with critical potential. At some level Dyevushkin knows his seeing St. Petersburg from the bottom has affected his perspective. In a letter dated July 8 he describes the paranoia of the poor:

“One hides oneself sometimes, one hides oneself, one tries to conceal one’s weak points, one’s afraid to show one’s nose at times anywhere because one is afraid of tittle-tattle, because they can work up a tale against you about anything in the world—anything.”

Presaging Rodney Dangerfield by a century, Dyevushkin develops this sentiment in his August 1 letter, saying, “The poor man is exacting, he takes a different view of God’s world, and looks askance at every passer-by and turns a troubled gaze about him and looks to every word, wondering whether people are not talking about him…everyone knows, Varinka, that a poor man is worse than a rag and can get no respect from anyone…”

Considering Dyevushkin’s constant experience of such things, it is not surprising that he should try to find solace in his Romantic vision of Varvara. However, like a modern subscriber donating thousands of dollars to his mistress’s OnlyFans only to see it go to her and her boyfriend’s downtown flat, Dyevushkin’s Romantic relief, itself, becomes tragic. In a master move foreshadowing his later articulation of the psychology of those who steer more directly into self-destruction the closer they come to it, Dostoevsky does not pull Dyevushkin back from the edge. Instead, he leaves the clerk simultaneously trying to manipulate her into maintaining correspondence by threatening to withhold his own letters and refusing to accept that Varvara has married and will receive no more of his letters:

“…when you go away you must write to me from there, or else, my heavenly angel, this will be the last letter and you know that this cannot be, this cannot be the last letter! Why, how can it be, so suddenly, actually the last? Oh no, I shall write and you will write…besides, I am acquiring a literary style…Oh, my own what does style matter now? I don’t know, now, what I am writing, I don’t know at all, I don’t know and I don’t read it over and I don’t improve the style. I write only to write, only to go on writing to you…my darling, my own My Varinka…”

One can hardly find a worse L in the whole of Reddit, and it’s only one instance of my favorite game to play nowadays: “Dostoevsky called it.”

“White Nights”: TFW a Friendzoned Dreamer

Unlike Makar Dyevushkin, the unnamed dreamer of Dostoevsky’s first-person short story “White Nights” is aware of the effect loneliness and Romanticism have had on his perception of the world. However, rather than avoid the perspective, he embraces his Romantic solipsism and enjoys the way it allows him to see the world in a better light. Notably set in the white nights season of summer, where St. Petersburg’s proximity to the Arctic Circle ensures that the skies never darken beyond dusk, the short story continues Dostoevsky’s wrestling to find the dramatic balance between Romanticism and Naturalism.

The short story—which, according to Joseph Frank, was “the only one of Dostoevsky’s minor stories to be greeted favorably by the critics” (Seeds 346), no doubt because of its lighter tone and subject—follows a man wandering around St. Petersburg, which has been virtually emptied as the more wealthy inhabitants have left the city on vacation. In an early, if unserious, image of Raskalnikov, the narrator says, “I felt afraid of being left alone, and for three whole days I wandered about the town in profound dejection, not knowing what to do with myself.” To fight off the impulse to feel “ashamed, mortified and sad that I had nowhere to go for the holidays,” he seeks the type of serendipity popular in Romantic novels of the time.

In a self-fulfilling prophecy, he finds this in a young woman—Nastenka—whom he finds crying on a bridge over a canal. As in Poor Folk, the dreamer’s Romantic interpretation of the girl is immediate; however, he is self-aware enough that rather than being reductionary it becomes parodic:

“And timid as I was with women, yet this was such a moment!…I turned, took a step towards her, and should certainly have pronounced the word ‘Madam!’ if I had not known that that exclamation had been uttered a thousand times in every Russian society novel. It was only that reflection stopped me.”

Rather than maneuvering to avoid the pitfalls of Romanticism, Dostoevsky exploits them for comic effect—for not even his characters can believe them without reservation. With his capacity for irony in tow, the narrator develops a three-day relationship with the girl, who he learns is awaiting her fiance. Upfront about his Romantic perspective, he seeks to turn his apparent loneliness into charm. “I do nothing but dream every day that at last I shall meet some one. Oh, if only you knew how often I have been in love that way…Why, with no one, with an ideal…” Paradoxically, the ridiculousness of his tendency to live in a dream allows him to displace his apparent timidity and develop a touchstone with which to entertain the young Nastenka, and the two meet up for the next couple of nights in anticipation of the girl’s fiance.

Far from blinding him to those around him and the state of his life, as does Dyevushkin’s, the “White Nights” dreamer’s frankly Romantic perspective gives him not only apparent courage and talking points, but a way to cope with solitude. “He desires nothing, because he is superior to all desire, because he has everything, because he is satiated, because he is the artist of his own life, and creates it for himself every hour to suit his latest whim.” Even as these lines augur the strength-in-solitude elements of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, they sufficiently draw Nastenka into the dream enough that, by her fiance’s inevitable arrival, she is (or seems) tempted to remain with the narrator.

However, ironically this would be anticlimactic: because the story’s main theme is the amusing unbelievability of Romanticism, for the dreams to become reality would undercut the underlying premises of the story. It is a break, a holiday, from reality that comprises the whole impetus for the story’s relationship, just as much as the transient white nights season provides an empty St. Petersburg for the story’s setting. The transience of the brief romance (which will surprise no one who has worked with teenagers) is emphasized by the story’s final section being labeled “Morning”—as if Nastenka’s letter apologizing for abruptly leaving the narrator the night before weren’t enough of a wake up call.

Nonetheless, although “White Nights” follows the same general form as Poor Folk, with the protagonist developing an outwardly platonic relationship with the girl only for her to eventually marry someone else, it is more parodic than tragic. In tone, it is a 9gag meme with which one sympathizes (#feelsbadman) rather than a Reddit post of a massive but deserved L. Because the narrator is consistently aware of the unreality of his perspective, he does not suffer a metaphysical rupture when reality hits. Indeed, in what can, like other parts of the story, be interpreted alternately as optimistic and pathetic, the narrator faces his contradiction directly:

“[The] whole vista of my future flashed before me so sad and forbidding, and I saw myself just as I was now, fifteen years hence, older, in the same room, just as solitary…But to imagine that I should bear you a grudge, Nastenka! That I should cast a dark cloud over your serene, untroubled happiness…Oh never, never! May you be blessed for that moment of blissful happiness which you gave to another, lonely and grateful heart! My God, a whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for the whole of a man’s life?”

Rather than resent Nastenka for leaving, as Dyevushkin does Varvara, the white nights dreamer chooses to maintain his parodically Romantic view of Nastenka and remain grateful for their brief interaction. Though he uses language of doing it for Nastenka’s sake, it’s clearly for his own sake—or, rather, for the sake of his memory of the girl, which, even as it ennobled her, ennobled St. Petersburg for the dreamer.

One key aspect of the story’s charm is Nastenka’s difference from Varvara. Whereas Dyevushkin interprets Varvara through a Romantic lens without her playing along and in a way that keeps her at a level to which he can condescend, the “White Nights” dreamer withholds his Romanticism during his first couple of interactions with Nastenka. He keeps it hypothetical in a way that attracts Nastenka, which successfully happens. Indeed, she enjoys partaking in the dreamer’s dream so much that, playing her part in the Romance, she makes as if tempted to forsake her intended for him. Unlike Varvara, who, despite at times arguably manipulating Dyevushkin with his own servility, has a tragic past and consistently aims at improving her future, Nastenka hardly lives up to the dreamer’s perceptions of her. Far from being tragic, the disconnect between the Romantic and the real has a humorous effect; one is reminded of Don Quixote‘s Dulcinea del Toboso.

Because of all this, “White Nights” may not fit in a post about characters overly desperate for women, especially when the narrator accepts the story’s end with apparent contentment. Of course, the white nights end in his ultimately being friendzoned, and one could easily read his insistence on maintaining his ennobled view of Nastenka as so much cope. Nonetheless, if anything, the optimistic narrator, though consciously maintaining an unreal and rosy perspective, deserves not censure but an F in chat—in no small part due to Dostoevsky’s maintaining the story’s unserious tone. Furthermore, one can see early hints of Dostoevsky developing a psychology of happiness in spite of adversity, part of which involves the willingness to look past the apparent facts of one’s life and into their possible Romantic meaning—a view Frank relates to Dostoevsky’s Orthodoxy, which sees the life through a sacramental lens, interpreting the material world as a vehicle for something much greater.

Dostoevsky will take the issue of the Romantic lens to its furthest and most destructive extreme in The Double, but here in “White Nights” one finds a lighter look at the psychology of the St. Petersburg clerks that populate so much of his work.

The Double: Yakov Golyadkin—the Tryhard who Played Himself

Titular councillor Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin picks up Dostoevsky’s investigation of shame at lowliness where the previous examples left off; however, unlike the pathetic but not unsympathetic Dyevushkin and the gay dreamer, Golyadkin soon breeds little but contempt. Opening in medias res with Golyadkin renting livery to perfect his persona of a member of the aristocracy, The Double follows Golyadkin as he plans to crash the birthday party of his benefactor’s daughter, Klara Olsufyevna, with whom he hopes to endear himself enough to marry up. However, it is soon apparent that the man’s use of cliche, a motif through the book, is the extent of what he knows of the upper class, and it only highlights his going outside his lane.

Upon being initially rejected from benefactor’s daughter’s party, Golyadkin, after “inwardly [uttering] a desire to sink into the earth or to hide in a mouse hole together with his carriage,” sneaks in and hides in a cupboard, eventually joining the party before being summarily escorted out and running off into the St. Petersburg night. Over a canal one wonders might be the same over which the dreamer met Nastenka in a lighter milieu, Golyadkin sees a man dressed exactly like him whom he recognizes but does not identify. Following the man, he is led back to his own apartment, which the man enters. Entering, himself, Golyadkin finds, sitting on his own bed, his double.

After going to Golyadkin’s work the next day—where, despite their physical similarity, he is not recognized, presumably because his demeanor is so different from Golyadkin’s—the double returns with Golyadkin to his apartment, where they share a meal and enough drink to foresee nothing but good prospects in their relationship. However, the relationship soon sours as the new Golyadkin, embodying all the traits our protagonist wishes he had, begins to assume all of his aspirations. This heightens not only Golyadkin’s sense of inadequacy, but his delusional paranoia that everyone, even his double, is plotting his downfall.

In this case, Golyadkin is not wrong: he is plotting against himself, but it is not in the form of his double. In The Double Dostoevsky uses the Romantic trope of the doppelganger to explore not only a mistaken identity plot but also the psychological vicissitudes and evasions of a man who cannot live up to and is, indeed, sabotaged by his delusions of grandeur.

This division between Golyadkin’s pretensions and the reality of his character and manners eventually reaches its climax when the double who embodies all the things he lacks but wishes he had sets his sights on Golyadkin’s love, Klara. As with Dyevushkin’s—though in a much more theatrical way—Dostoevsky ends Golyadkin’s story not with his facing the reality of his situation but with his unconsciously resigning himself to a false reality as he steps into the carriage hired by his double to carry him to an asylum.

Throughout the book, it is evident that at some level Golyadkin knows his own lack of belonging in St. Petersburg society, but he consistently refuses to accept it. More than either Poor Folk or “White Nights,” The Double explores the dramatic potential of psychological projection and displacement, as well as the role the subconscious can play in literature, literally splitting one character into two.

As far as she goes, Golyadkin’s love, Klara, plays a much more minor part in the story than Varvara and Nastanka do in theirs. Her role in The Double is, if anything, merely symbolic, for if Golyadkin can marry her he will be proven to belong in the upper class. However, this is precisely the problem: the need for proof, itself, implies its lack, and the impulse to try so hard to rise only underscores his inferiority complex. Golyadkin can definitely stand as one who does too much for an obviously fruitless dream of romance, though having the qualities of a simp are merely accidental to his deeper problems. Clearly unaware of upper class etiquette and bearing beyond the externals he has picked up from below, Golyadkin will never embody the persona needed to join the aristocracy; that his double does so shows that at some level Golyadkin knows it. Indeed, his attempts actually have the reverse effect, landing him lower in society than where he started.

[*this and the next paragraph added after initial posting] One major theme in The Double is shown in the quote above, where Golyadkin, at being rejected, wishes to disappear: the desire to see without being seen. A hallmark of Golyadkin’s deep-seated shame, his focus on what people will see and subsequently think about him comprises much of his inner life. To, perhaps, force The Double into this post’s argument of “Dostoevsky prophesied the modern incel,” the desire for one-way sight which will allow Golyadkin to look on Klara (or, rather, his stylized idea of her) while complacently maintaining his own perspective of himself without its being interrupted by reality may align his psychology with the caricature of coomer basement dwellers who choose online pornography over self-improvement and attempts at real relationships.

Applied to sexuality, solipsism like Golyadkin’s is masturbation, and, while Dostoevsky of course never even hints at the topic, the self-reinforcing disconnect from reality—and the critical yet beneficially refining role other people play in it—progressively engaged in by Golyadkin parallels the type of spirals and porn addictions not only described but, nowadays, defended in different fora of the internet. One of the marks of Dostoevsky’s skill in The Double, and one of its most contemptible aspects, is how much evasion Golyadkin must engage in to maintain himself as the good guy of the book when he is often the source of the problems. That he becomes his own antagonist in the form of the double—which is his idealized version of himself, and yet which is not himself—makes this clear, and it parallels how the longer one spends replacing real relationships with the romanticized ideals involved in porn, the less possible (and, indeed, more sabotaging and deluding) the romanticized ideals will become. If anything, Golyadkin’s utter oblivion to his own vicious cycle might serve as a warning of how similar evasions of reality (such as one-way “relationships” with the glamorized caricatures in pornography) can lead us into our own solipsisms—i.e., madnesses—that can affect all other areas of our perceptions, and thus, of our lives.

Dostoevsky’s early works, divided from his larger corpus by his time in Siberia, reveal an author responding to the literary milieu of the time while trying to work out his own style and perspective. Paradoxically combining tropes of sublime Romanticism with the least salutary members of St. Petersburg, his early works can be read as literature, social commentary, farce, and psychological expose. His characters Dyevushkin, the white nights dreamer, and Golyadkin lined up with other trends in Russian literature (especially Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and Dead Souls) while providing a look at what, in Dostoevsky’s view, were the downsides of Tsar Peter’s effort to westernize and bureaucratize Russia through cities like St. Petersburg.

I opened this post with a brief discussion on what constitutes a “simp,” and I’ll be even briefer in closing it. My topic, after all, is not modern online coomer culture but Dostoevsky. And yet, it’s striking how many parallels there are between the memes and trends one reads about on Twitter and Reddit and Dostoevsky’s early antiheroes, all of which could very easily be termed simps, incels, and betas (and they are only one class of the undesirables examined by the man). That the author who would become one of history’s greatest novelists should consider such characters worthy of dramatic exploration is something to consider, as are the fruits of such explorations. Such characters are not the last aspects of Dostoevsky’s writing to parallel things one sees today—though those are, of course, better saved for later, hopefully shorter, posts.

Author: dustinllovell

Writing professor, literature and US history tutor, previous ESL instructor, and would-be novelist who enjoys/specializes in Shakespeare, 19th century lit, and philosophy (whether in print or via audiobook). Author of the novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (Wipf and Stock, Resources Imprint). Member of Heterodox Academy. Columnist for The Mallard.

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