Originally posted on Goodreads.com.
“This was what distinguished Maria Alexandrovna from her rivals: at critical moments she never allowed any concern about a possible scandal to prevent her from doing something, on the principle that success justifies everything.”
Dostoevsky’s first work after leaving Siberia for his participation in an illegal socialist printing scheme, Uncle’s Dream follows the attempts by provincial antiheroine Maria Alexandrovna to secure a marriage for her daughter, Zinaida Afanasyevna, to a local aged prince. Drawing on Dostoevsky’s new experience of the provincial life in Semipalatinsk, whence he had been stationed for four years’ military service after leaving the labor camp, Uncle’s Dream provides lighter fare that the author hoped would not run afoul of government censors. The result is a rare glimpse at Dostoevsky the comedian and a work that introduces several things that would become staples of the author’s later work.
From the first page we meet the unnamed omniscient gossip narrator (a type he would later use in Demons and The Brothers Karamazov), whose presentation of events and mixed prescience and lack of self-awarness create a consistently earnest yet ironic tone. Consistently descrying the perniciousness of gossip and rumor in in the intimate terms of gossip and rumor that draw the reader in while maintaining the implicit compliment of dramatic irony, the narrator confesses a soft spot for his protagonist, Maria Alexandrovna, who is herself so adept at gossip and rumor that she exerts an implicitly threatening influence in her community. Indeed, though she is at best of the middling class, Maria Alexandrovna stands as a kind of Napoleon figure in the book, willing to dispense with good form and respect if it means achieving her ends.
This is made clear through the motif of Shakespeare—who, ironically, is brought up by Maria Alexandrovna more than any character in the book. She consistently references doing away with Shakespeare, whom she implicitly blames for her daughter’s romance with her brother’s tutor (a possible lampooning of Heloise and Abelard, with the roles reversed?). Shakespeare becomes a touchstone for how Maria Alexandrovna sees Romanticism, at large; thus Uncle’s Dream shows, if ironically, Dostoevsky’s considering the liabilities of that literary movement, as well as the possible character and motives of some who might want to leave it in the past. And yet, despite Maria Alexandrovna’s supposed desire for Realism, she is consistently shown as the character most adept at weaving Romantic perspectives and dreams to cajole others into doing what she wants.
This is the core conflict of the book: Maria Alexandrovna tries to manipulate others—highest of which being a humorously decrepit prince—to achieve her ambitions, and in so doing she must maintain the balance between her own capacity to deter threat via rumor and her own growing vulnerability to it. The results are hysterical, and Dostoevsky’s exploration of the psychologies involved—not just that of the provincial gossip, the ambitious herridan, or the decrepit prince, but also of the resentful daughter, the foolish suitor, and the hapless husband—underlays the comedy with that which, in my opinion, is best in Dostoevsky.
I’ve previously recommended that people new to Dostoevsky start with Crime and Punishment, but now I might recommend Uncle’s Dream. There’s hardly a page where he isn’t making fun of somebody, including his own narrator, and what the book lacks in philosophical musings by the characters it makes up for in sharp psychological explorations of those who, with almost Austenian irony and despite their banal setting, reveal some of the 19th century’s central questions and conflicts of values.