The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

The Double, Dostoevsky’s second acclaimed novel after Poor Folk, examines the psychological split of clerk Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin. The story opens with a much anticipated and ultimately unsuccessful attempt by Golyadkin to join his superiors from work at a young woman’s birthday party. Walking through the foggy St. Petersburg afterwards, Golyadkin encounters another Golyadkin, his own double. As the story progresses, the protagonist realizes that, far from becoming an ally in his quest for social advancement, his double becomes his main obstacle, especially as he shows himself to be confident, poised, and daring–all the things our Golyadkin wishes he was. With the appearance of “Golyadkin Junior” the narrator increasingly hints that Golyadkin Senior’s interpretations and expectations of his world are unreliable, and that, far from being the hero of his own story, he himself might be something much worse.

The Double includes many elements common to Dostoevsky: an antiheroic clerk, an often self-contradictory St. Petersburg, unexpected meetings in restaurants and bars, and a steady break between a character’s ideal expectations and his reality. Dostoevsky wrote The Double in the middle of the Russian literary milieu’s transition from Romanticism to Realism, and it contains many elements of that transition–especially in the disconnect between Golyadkin’s interpretation of events and their actual significance (or lack thereof). What might have been a legitimate social battle between a virtuous protagonist and his malicious rival fifty years earlier becomes a study in psychological projection and perceptual unreliability, and it’s easy to see early studies of Dostoevsky’s latter characters who become their own antagonist, such as the Underground man and Raskolnikov.

Although one might expect a writer’s early works to lack the depth of their latter masterpieces, The Double stands out as a nuanced and sophisticated work. A major character worth studying (or teaching) in the book is the third person narrator; with his earnest treatment of the mediocre ambitions of his less-than-mediocre protagonist, Dostoevsky’s narrator highlights the absurdities and ironic humor of Golyadkin’s life, as well as of contemporary St. Petersburg as a whole–the daily life and mores of which are displayed throughout the work. Most importantly, the narrator (as well as everything else) makes the work ENTERTAINING, especially when one keeps in mind the unreliability of the narrator’s subtly winking presentation of Golyadkin (reminiscent of Austen’s limited omniscient narrators).

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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