Dostoevsky’s last, interrupted work before his arrest for participation in the Petrashevsky circle’s illicit printing, Netochka Nezvanova (1849) was (or would have been) the writer’s first attempt at a longer novel. In it Dostoevsky follows the growth of an orphan into a young woman developing her skills as a singer by the time she reaches eighteen at the end of the installment. Presumably intending to carry Netochka’s bildungsroman into her life as a famous singer, Dostoevsky uses several elements of the by then out-of-vogue Romantic tradition, just as he had with Poor Folk, “White Nights,” and The Double.
However, as in those stories, he nonetheless incorporated several other aspects into his writing. “In each case,” says Joseph Frank in The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, “he took a form that had become outmoded and attempted to revitalize it with a new, contemporary significance.” In NN, Dostoevsky continues his investigation of the psychology of the Romantic, articulating both the circumstances that lead to one adopting and the effects that might result from the overly Romantic view of the world—”МЕЧТАТЕЛЬНОСТЬ,” “mechtatelnost,” “star-gazing,” “reverie”— which does not balance the internal life with external reality. As with his previous works, NN consistently maintains a tension between the high and uplifted vision of the characters and the squalor of their everyday lives, and it further develops the balance between the virtues he saw inherent in the Romantic vision and the vices made possible by the overly-internal character (see his later Raskalnikov, among others).
While his previous stories more or less dealt with adults, here he examines both the tragic and ennobling aspects of mechtatelnost as it pertains to the life of a child. Born into squalor and raised by a step-father whose dreams and fantasies soothe and distract his own ego from the fact that he has squandered his talent as a violinist, Netochka shows what may be Dostoevsky’s earliest (certainly his youngest) iteration of what would later be termed existentialism, and, thrown as she is into a life and family she does not understand, she stands as an implicit rejection of the “tabula rasa” perspective of human life and childhood.
Or does she? While she, herself, certainly doesn’t start from a place of neutral being (she is already deeply into her experiences—themselves a result of Chapter 1’s backstory of her step-father’s fantastic madness—before she awakens into awareness at age nine), her character often stands as a blank slate or mirror onto which other characters project their own inner pathologies. While her real name is Anna/Annetta, her nickname, which she carries through the whole book, is “Netochka Nezvanova”—”nameless nobody.” While she does eventually (indeed, triumphantly) develop her own character and will despite the deterministic elements of her nurturing (or lack thereof), Netochka nonetheless stands as a cipher for those around her, and her at times empathetic, at times naive, willingness to go along with those she loves causes her to become what those around her need her to be, for good or ill.
“Everything started turning into the fairy tale my father frequently told me and which I interpreted as reality.” Thus Netochka, describing how her step-father’s consistent weaving of his narrative of how despite his talent he has been put upon by the world, articulates the familiar motif of the Romantic vision’s ability to both alleviate and distort one’s and others’ views of the world. However, in NN it’s more pitiful, vicious, and suspenseful because in the first two of the book’s three episodes the young Netochka doesn’t know any better. Despite her heightened perceptiveness for a child (itself perhaps more a symptom of her step-father’s relying on her as “a fellow sufferer” than a natural aptitude), one can see several places where Netochka is drawn into the perceptions of others. This often reveals more about them than her, and as in the advances and evasions in previous works, it serves as a brilliant means of Dostoevsky exploring new ways to develop his characters within old forms.
Principal of the characters who develop a co-dependent, projective relationship with Netochka is her step-father, Efimov, whose backstory must first be described for one to understand Netochka’s story. With Efimov Dostoevsky articulates to the fullest extent yet the psychology of the pathological dreamer, and he uses the erstwhile musician to present the Romantic “hero” in the Naturalistic context popular in Russian literature of the time. In Joseph Frank’s words, Efimov “is possessed by the demon of the old-fashioned Romantic conception of art, which was indeed largely a glorification of the ego of its creator” (Seeds). This is apparent from the story’s beginning:
“‘…this man, with his complete impotence and totally inadequate knowledge of musical technique, had nevertheless such a deep and lucid—one might even say instinctive—understanding of art. He had such intense feeling and appreciation for it that it is hardly surprising if he confused himself in his own mind and mistook himself for a genius, a high priest of art rather than a sympathetic, natural critic.'”
Spoken by Efimov’s less talented but more practical and dedicated—and thus more consistently employed—foil, the fellow violinist B., these lines reveal how Efimov’s delusions, though attractive to people, have blinded him to his own inability to merit them. Having earlier quitted a reliable position in a local landowner’s orchestra, Efimov has been virtually unemployed for six years, all the while enduring “‘a feverish contest taking place between a violently over-strained will and inner impotence.'” Seen through the eyes of a friend who understands the value of both the Romantic view of art and the need to understand oneself as they really are, Efimov is a man who has not contained and focused his passion in beneficial ways but has instead spent his resources (usually lent to him by friends like B.) on drunken dissipation.
Efimov’s engaging in greater self-delusions as he becomes more and more degraded (indeed, at times he seems to masochistically enjoy his degradation) would be at least dismissable did he not marry a woman and become step-father to her daughter. In the book’s second chapter we finally meet Netochka, whose first memories involve fear of her mother and pity for her father. Having seen how Efimov uses the pity of those around him, we can easily see a home life like a latter Tennessee Williams play, with each family member’s actions provoking the very actions they hate in others. A woman who had been brought in by Efimov’s Romantic language (solely for her 1,000 kopek dowry) before being summarily disillusioned, Netochka’s mother ironically becomes the antagonist to the girl’s childlike perspective. “How did I develop such cruel feelings towards a creature who suffered so eternally as my mother?” the older Netochka asks, recounting her childhood. Much of the answer lies in her becoming the participant in fantasy that Efimov wants in order to garner his approval. The co-dependency made possible by the arrangement is easy to imagine, and it produces much of the book’s initial tension and dramatic irony. Ending in Netochka’s mother’s death and Efimov’s being, like The Double‘s Golyadkin, pushed to madness by the presence in St. Petersburg of a truly great violinist to whom even his delusions cannot convince himself of his superiority, Netochka Nezvanova‘s first episode lays the psychological groundwork out of which the book’s heroine must rise in order to become not only her own character but a psychologically healthy one. Because it is his psychological influence which Netochka must rise out of as much as the poverty of which he is the source, Efimov is implicitly present throughout the story.
For those who have read Dostoevsky’s later works, his earlier pieces like Netochka Nezvanova are troves for hints of what would make those later works so great; such is the case for any canonical (or non-canonical) writer. Signs of Crime and Punishment’s Marmeladov can be seen in Efimov (though Marmeladov is arguably redeemable due to his knowing he is a degenerate, whereas Efimov never acknowledges the extent of his pathology, nor its effect on his step-child), as well as, in a more implicit and sinister way, Svidrigailov and even Stavrogin. Princess Katya’s impetuousity can, at times, remind one of Liza Khokhlakov, Dostoevsky’s basing much of that character on his later first wife notwithstanding. Furthermore, Dostoevsky’s choice of a poor female protagonist who rises out of literal and psychological poverty is an early example of his later consistent focus on put-upon female characters.
More than the characters, one can find early iterations of Dostoevsky’s later style and choice of subject in NN. Both Efimov’s unconscious manipulation of the helpless (because young) Netochka and the conscious manipulation of the same by the girl’s mother out of resentment for her listless husband will be recognizable foreshadows of Dostoevsky’s latter home lives. This, of course, provides the central conflict of the book: that between Netochka’s early misperception of the world and reality. Reading through NN‘s later two episodes, I found myself watching Netochka’s narration critically, trying to spot where her earlier trauma may have warped her subsequent interpretation of her experiences. For example, rather than read it as a 19th century trope of the closeness and purity of children, I often read her overly-passionate (at several times erotic) relationship with Princess Katya as both a repeat of and an opposite reaction to Efimov. That Dostoevsky understood the dramatic potential of the psychological backgrounds of his characters so early in life is both amazing and yet, considering his later work, unsurprising.
Simultaneously his first envisioned long-form novel and his last work before his sentence to Siberia, Netochka Nezvanova takes a special place in Dostoevsky’s canon. It culminates several of Dostoevsky’s early trends, not the least of which is his engaging in the Romanticism-Naturalism debate taking place in Russia at the time. In Frank’s words, “With this work, Dostoevsky was endeavoring to steer a middle way between the discredited Romantic glorification of art on the one hand, and the temptation to discard the values of art entirely in favor of the utilitarian and the practical on the other.” In this book one can see a greater confidence than in any of his earlier nonetheless excellent work. His time in prison would ultimately sift and solidify his perspectives in ways that relegate any early questioning or immaturity to the past, and while it’s a pity Dostoevsky did not resume the work after his time in prison (it ends right when it seems to get going!), the book contains many elements he would later utilize in his masterpieces.