The doppelgängers of German folklore; the mischievous menaechmi in Plautus, or in Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors”; the Martin Guerres of “The Two Dianas”; the Victorian Jekylls and Hydes. The human is always splitting into two, ( a rather conservative number.) “The Double” is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s second novella, ( after “Poor Folk”) and it’s a noticeable forward leap that uses Nikolai Gogol’s deadpan satires “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” as inspirational springboards. The plot, (easy enough to guess) finds a shy, undistinguished clerk named Golyadkin confronted with an identical, though far more assertive, look-alike (Golyadkin Jr.) whose unexplained presence goes unquestioned by all except by our ineffective hero.
“Our hero” is how Dostoevsky sardonically refers to Golyadkin, but this is a hero that undergoes no quest; Dostoevsky as the narrator often demurs that he’s not quite Homer or Pushkin, and this is no epic. Golyadkin Sr. is too much of a nothing to even count as an anti-hero. His typical reaction to the possibility of conflict: “He made up his mind that it was better to keep quiet, not to open his lips, and to show that he was ‘all right,’ that he was ‘like every one else,’ and that his position, as far as he could see, was quite a proper one.”
He frequently fails at this propriety, turning into what in current parlance would be deemed a hot mess: “He felt that if he stammered all would be lost at once. And so it turned out – he stammered and floundered . . . floundering, he blushed crimson; blushing, he was overcome with confusion. In his confusion he raised his eyes; raising his eyes he looked about him; looking about him – he almost swooned.”
Golyadkin is a sketch of the personality type that Dostoevsky would soon examine with considerable less humor in “Notes from the Underground”: socially awkward, mired in constant hesitation, shyness, self-doubt. Here’s the poor clerk’s internal monologue as he tries to crash a cool party:
Mr. Golyadkin saw all this through the little window; in two steps he was at the door and had already opened it. “Should he go in or not? Come, should he or not? I’ll go in . . . why not? to the bold all ways lie open!” Reassuring himself in this way, our hero suddenly and quite unexpectedly retreated behind the screen. “No,” he thought.
He berates himself:
“You silly fool, you silly old Golyadkin – silly fool of a surname!”
I don’t know any Russian beyond “nyet”, “tovarich”, and “sputnik” (thanks a lot, James Bond movies!), but I’m going to guess that the name “Golyadkin” contains some pun the translator, (the ever influential Constance Garnett) doesn’t deal with (something like Mr. Halfaman, perhaps?) No ditz on the late Garnett, (whose epochal translations from the Russian pretty much forced Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov into the Anglo-American consciousness.)
P. S.: “The Double” was turned by Richard Aoyade into a 2013 movie with Jesse Eisenberg. By abandoning plot specifics, Aoyade creates a little story about alienation that is a little too Eastern-Bloc-in-the-70s to say much about the Golyadkins in today’s cubicles, (a lost opportunity) – but still marks Aoyade as one of today’s up-and-coming auteurs. (He’s Moss from “The IT Crowd,” if you didn’t know.)