Money can’t buy you love, according to some beloved millionaires who were full of crap. Fyodor Dostoyevsky knew better, and his very first novella, 1846’s “Poor Folk”, painfully points out that it may only take a lack of a few kopecks to tear two lovers apart.
“Poor Folk” is a simple little epistolary exchange between Barbara, (a young orphaned woman whose reputation has been compromised and is living in reduced means) and Devushkin, (an aging copy clerk who is very much in love with her and spends what little he earns on charming her with gifts.) Although they live across from each other, (a symbolic gap separates their opposing windows) Devushkin and Barbara have a sweetly platonic relationship, which we see grow through their messages of daily expressed devotion. They’re not separated because they’re of different ages, or distantly related: In Dostoyevsky’s time, an old civil servant could hardly find a more propitious match than a younger second cousin, and vice versa. Instead, they’re separated by the unspoken awareness that he can’t afford to provide for her. Eventually, a man with money shows up, and Barbara, who after all likes to eat, goes away to become his mistress. The love letters end.
The simplicity of “Poor Folk” is what makes it engaging. Plot-wise, we know exactly where the story has to go, because we know how reality works. But the 24-years-young Dostoyevsky already has the ambitious need to show off: masterfully switching between the differing psychologies of his characters; inserting poetic interludes that contrast the idylls of the country with the harshness of the city; paying homage to Gogol and Pushkin; and introducing funny parodies of Russian writers that probably resonated a lot more at the time. (Devushkin has a neighbor who earns HIS money as an “author.” We’re treated to excerpts from the neighbor’s awful imaginary novel, and it HAS to be a parody of some lesser luminary I can’t quite identify, not being all that well-read on bad Russian lit of the 1800s.)
Why write more? Dostoyevsky conveniently inserted what can double as a perfectly good review of “Poor Folk” INSIDE “Poor Folk”:
“It is wonderful to think that one may live and yet be ignorant of the fact that under one’s very nose there may be a book in which one’s whole life is described as in a picture. Never should I have guessed that, as soon as one begins to read such a book, it sets one to remember and to consider and to foretell events. Another reason why I liked this book so much is that, though, in the case of other works (however clever they be), one may read them, yet remember not a word of them (for I am a man naturally dull of comprehension, and unable to read works of any great importance), one reads this one as easily as though it had been written by oneself, and had taken possession of one’s heart, and turned it inside out for inspection, and were describing it in detail as a matter of perfect simplicity. Why, I might almost have written the book myself! Why not, indeed? I can feel just as the people in the book do…”