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Poor Folk, sometimes translated as Poor People, is the first novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, written over the span of nine months between 1844 and 1845.
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First digital edition 2017 by Anna Ruggieri
MY DEAREST BARBARA ALEXIEVNA,—How happy I was lastnight—howimmeasurably, how impossibly happy! That was becausefor once in your life you had relented so far as to obey my wishes.At about eight o’clock I awoke from sleep (you know, mybeloved one, that I always like to sleep for a short hour after mywork is done)—I awoke, I say, and, lighting a candle,prepared my paper to write, and trimmed my pen. Then suddenly, forsome reason or another, I raised my eyes—and felt my veryheart leap within me! For you had understood what I wanted, you hadunderstood what my heart was craving for. Yes, I perceived that acorner of the curtain in your window had been looped up andfastened to the cornice as I had suggested should be done; and itseemed to me that your dear face was glimmering at the window, andthat you were looking at me from out of the darkness of your room,and that you were thinking of me. Yet how vexed I felt that I couldnot distinguish your sweet face clearly! For there was a time whenyou and I could see one another without any difficulty at all. Ahme, but old age is not always a blessing, my beloved one! At thisvery moment everything is standing awry to my eyes, for a man needsonly to work late overnight in his writing of something or otherfor, in the morning, his eyes to be red, and the tears to begushing from them in a way that makes him ashamed to be seen beforestrangers. However, I was able to picture to myself your beamingsmile, my angel—your kind, bright smile; and in my heartthere lurked just such a feeling as on the occasion when I firstkissed you, my little Barbara. Do you remember that, my darling?Yet somehow you seemed to be threatening me with your tiny finger.Was it so, little wanton? You must write and tell me about it inyour next letter.
But what think you of the plan of the curtain, Barbara? It is acharming one, is it not? No matter whether I be at work, or aboutto retire to rest, or just awaking from sleep, it enables me toknow that you are thinking of me, and remembering me—that youare both well and happy. Then when you lowerthe curtain, it meansthat it is time that I, Makar Alexievitch, should go to bed; andwhen again you raise the curtain, it means that you are saying tome, “Good morning,” and asking me how I am, and whetherI have slept well. “As for myself,” adds the curtain,“I am altogether in good health and spirits, glory be toGod!” Yes, my heart’s delight, you see how easy a planit was to devise, and how much writing it will save us! It is aclever plan, is it not? And it was my own invention, too! Am I notcunning in such matters, Barbara Alexievna?
Well, next let me tell you, dearest, that last night I sleptbetter and more soundly than I had ever hoped to do, and that I amthe more delighted at the fact in that, as you know, I had justsettled into a new lodging—a circumstance only too apt tokeep one from sleeping! This morning, too, I arose (joyous and fullof love) at cockcrow. How good seemed everything at that hour, mydarling! When I opened my window I could see the sun shining, andhear the birds singing,and smell the air laden with scents ofspring. In short, all nature was awaking to life again. Everythingwas in consonance with my mood; everything seemed fair andspring-like. Moreover, I had a fancy that I should fare well today.But my whole thoughtswere bent upon you. “Surely,”thought I, “we mortals who dwell in pain andsorrow might withreason envy the birds of heaven which know not either!” Andmy other thoughts were similar to these. In short, I gave myself upto fantastic comparisons. A littlebook which I have says the samekind of thing in a variety of ways. For instance, it says that onemay have many, many fancies, my Barbara—that as soon as thespring comes on, one’s thoughts become uniformly pleasant andsportive and witty, for the reasonthat, at that season, the mindinclines readily to tenderness, and the world takes on a moreroseate hue. From that little book of mine I have culled thefollowing passage, and written it down for you to see. Inparticular does the author express a longingsimilar to my own,where he writes:
“Why am I not a bird free to seek its quest?”
And he has written much else, God bless him!
But tell me, my love—where did you go for your walk thismorning? Even before I had started for the office you had takenflightfrom your room, and passed through the courtyard—yes,looking as vernal-like as a bird in spring. What rapture it gave meto see you! Ah, little Barbara, little Barbara, you must never giveway to grief, for tears are of no avail, nor sorrow. I know thiswell—I know it of my own experience. So do you rest quietlyuntil you have regained your health a little. But how is our goodThedora? What a kind heart she has! You write that she is nowliving with you, and that you are satisfied with what she does.True,you say that she is inclined to grumble, but do not mind that,Barbara. God bless her, for she is an excellent soul!
But what sort of an abode have I lighted upon, BarbaraAlexievna? What sort of a tenement, do you think, is this?Formerly, as you know, Iused to live in absolute stillness—somuch so that if a fly took wing it could plainly be heard buzzing.Here, however, all is turmoil and shouting and clatter. The PLAN ofthe tenement you know already. Imagine a long corridor, quite dark,and by no means clean. To the right a dead wall, and to the left arow of doors stretching as far as the line of rooms extends. Theserooms are tenanted by different people—by one, by two, or bythree lodgers as the case may be, but in this arrangement there isno sortof system, and the place is a perfect Noah’s Ark. Mostof the lodgers are respectable, educated, and even bookish people.In particular they include a tchinovnik (one of the literary staffin some government department), who is so well-read that he canexpound Homer or any other author—in fact, ANYTHING, such aman of talent is he! Also, there are a couple of officers (for everplaying cards), a midshipman, and an English tutor. But, to amuseyou, dearest, let me describe these people more categorically inmynext letter, and tell you in detail about their lives. As for ourlandlady, she is a dirty little old woman who always walks about ina dressing-gown and slippers, and never ceases to shout at Theresa.I myself live in the kitchen—or, rather, in a smallroom whichforms part of the kitchen. The latter is a very large, bright,clean, cheerful apartment with three windows in it, and apartition-wall which, running outwards from the front wall, makes asort of little den, a sort of extra room, for myself. Everything inthis den is comfortable and convenient, and I have, as I say, awindow to myself. So much for a description of my dwelling-place.Do not think, dearest, that in all this there is any hiddenintention. The fact that I live in the kitchen merelymeans that Ilive behind the partition wall in that apartment—that I livequite alone, and spend my time in a quiet fashion compounded oftrifles. For furniture I have provided myself with a bed, a table,a chest of drawers, and twosmall chairs. Also, Ihave suspended anikon. True, better rooms MAY exist in the world thanthis—much better rooms; yet COMFORT is the chief thing. Infact, I have made all my arrangements for comfort’s sakealone; so do not for a moment imagine that I had any other end inview. And since your window happens to be just opposite to mine,and since the courtyard between us is narrow and I can see you asyou pass,—why, the result is that this miserable wretch willbe able to live at once more happily and with less outlay. Thedearest room in this house costs, with board, thirty-fiveroubles—more than my purse could well afford; whereas MY roomcosts only twenty-four, though formerly I used to pay thirty, andso had to deny myself many things (I could drink tea but seldom,and nevercould indulge in tea and sugar as I do now). But, somehow,I do not like having to go without tea, for everyone else here isrespectable, and the fact makes me ashamed. After all, one drinkstea largely to please one’s fellow men, Barbara, and to giveoneself tone and an air of gentility (though, of myself, I carelittle about such things, for I am not a man of the finickingsort). Yet think you that, when all things needful—boots andthe rest—have been paid for, much will remain? Yet I oughtnot to grumble at my salary,—I am quite satisfied with it; itis sufficient. It has sufficed me now for some years, and, inaddition, I receive certain gratuities.
Well good-bye, my darling. I have bought you two little pots ofgeraniums—quite cheap little pots, too—asa present.Perhaps you would also like some mignonette? Mignonette it shall beif only you will write to inform me of everything in detail. Also,do not misunderstand the fact that I have taken this room, mydearest. Convenience and nothing else, has mademe do so. Thesnugness of the place has caught my fancy. Also, I shall be able tosave money here, and to hoard it against the future. Already I havesaved a little money as a beginning. Nor must you despise mebecause I am such an insignificant old fellow that a fly couldbreak me with its wing. True, I am not a swashbuckler; but perhapsthere may also abide in me the spirit which should pertain to everyman who is at once resigned and sure of himself. Good-bye, then,again, my angel. I have now covered close upon a whole two sheetsof notepaper, though I ought long ago to have been starting for theoffice. I kiss your hands, and remain ever your devoted slave, yourfaithful friend,
P.S.—One thing I beg of you above all things—andthat is, that you will answer this letter as FULLY as possible.With the letter I send you a packet of bonbons. Eat them for yourhealth’s sake, nor, for the love of God, feel any uneasinessabout me. Once more, dearest one, good-bye.
MY BELOVEDMAKAR ALEXIEVITCH,—Do you know, must quarrelwith you. Yes, good Makar Alexievitch, I really cannot accept yourpresents, for I know what they must have cost you—I know towhat privations and self-denial they must have led. How many timeshave I not toldyou that I stand in need of NOTHING, of absolutelyNOTHING, as well as that I shall never be in a position torecompense you for all the kindly acts with which you have loadedme? Why, for instance, have you sent me geraniums? A little sprigof balsam would not have mattered so much—but geraniums! Onlyhave I to let fall an unguarded word—for example, aboutgeraniums—and at once you buy me some! How much they musthave cost you! Yet what a charm there is in them, with theirflaming petals! Wherever did youget these beautiful plants? I haveset them in my window as the most conspicuous place possible, whileon the floor I have placed a bench for my other flowers to stand on(since you are good enough to enrich me with such presents).Unfortunately, Thedora,who, with her sweeping and polishing, makesa perfect sanctuary of my room, is not over-pleased at thearrangement. But why have you sent me also bonbons? Your lettertells me that something special is afoot with you, for I find in itso much about paradise and spring and sweet odours and the songs ofbirds. Surely, thought I to myself when I received it, this is asgood as poetry! Indeed, verses are the only thing that your letterlacks, Makar Alexievitch. And what tender feelings I can read init—what roseate-coloured fancies! To the curtain, however, Ihad never given a thought. The fact is that when I moved theflower-pots, it LOOPED ITSELF up. There now!
Ah, Makar Alexievitch, you neither speak of nor give any accountof what you have spent upon me. Youhope thereby to deceive me, tomake it seem as though the cost always falls upon you alone, andthat there is nothing to conceal. Yet I KNOW that for my sake youdeny yourself necessaries. For instance, what has made you go andtake the room which you have done, where you will be worried anddisturbed, and where you have neither elbow-space norcomfort—you who love solitude, and never like to have any onenear you? To judge from your salary, I should think that you mightwell live in greater ease than that. Also, Thedora tells me thatyour circumstances used to be much more affluent than they are atpresent. Do you wish, then, to persuade me that your wholeexistence has been passed in loneliness and want and gloom, withnever a cheering word to help you, nor a seat in a friend’schimney-corner? Ah, kind comrade, how my heart aches for you! Butdo not overtask your health, Makar Alexievitch. For instance, yousay that your eyes are over-weak for you to go on writing in youroffice by candle-light. Then why do so? I am sure that yourofficial superiors do not need to be convinced of yourdiligence!
Once more I implore you not to waste so much money upon me. Iknow how much you love me, but I also know that you are notrich.... This morning I too rose in good spirits. Thedora had longbeen at work; and it was time that I too should bestir myself.Indeed I was yearning to do so, so I went out for some silk, andthen sat down to my labours. All the morning I felt light-heartedand cheerful. Yet now my thoughts areonce more dark andsad—once more my heart is ready to sink.
Ah, what is going to become of me? What will be my fate? To haveto be so uncertain as to the future, to have to be unable toforetell what is going to happen, distresses me deeply. Even tolookback at the past is horrible, for it contains sorrow thatbreaks my very heart at the thought of it. Yes, a whole century intears could I spend because of the wicked people who have wreckedmy life!
But dusk is coming on, and I must set to work again. Much elseshould I have liked to write to you, but time is lacking, and Imust hasten. Of course, to write this letter is a pleasure enough,and could never be wearisome; but why do you not come to see me inperson? Why do you not, Makar Alexievitch? You liveso close to me,and at least SOME of your time is your own. I pray you, come. Ihave just seen Theresa. She was looking so ill, and I felt so sorryfor her, that I gave her twenty kopecks. I am almost fallingasleep. Write to me in fullest detail, both concerning your mode oflife, and concerning the people who live with you, and concerninghow you fare with them. I should so like to know! Yes, you mustwrite again. Tonight I have purposely looped the curtain up. Go tobed early, for, last night, I saw your candle burning until nearlymidnight. Goodbye! I am now feeling sad and weary. Ah that I shouldhave to spend such days as this one has been. Againgood-bye.—Your friend,
MY DEAREST BARBARA ALEXIEVNA,—To think thata day like thisshould have fallen to my miserable lot! Surely you are making funof an old man?... However, it was my own fault—my own faultentirely. One ought not to grow old holding a lock of Cupid’shair in one’s hand. Naturally one is misunderstood.... Yetman is sometimes a very strange being. By all the Saints, he willtalk of doing things, yet leave them undone, and remain looking thekind of fool from whom may the Lord preserve us!... Nay, I am notangry, my beloved; I am only vexed to think thatI should havewritten to you in such stupid, flowery phraseology. Today I wenthopping and skipping to the office, for my heart was under yourinfluence, and my soul was keeping holiday, as it were. Yes,everything seemed to be going well with me. Then I betook myself tomy work. But with what result? I gazed around at the old familiarobjects, at the old familiar grey and gloomy objects. They lookedjust the same as before. Yet WERE those the same inkstains, thesame tables and chairs, that I had hithertoknown? Yes, they WEREthe same, exactly the same; so why should I have gone off riding onPegasus’ back? Whence had that mood arisen? It had arisenfrom the fact that a certain sun had beamed upon me, and turned thesky to blue. But why so? Why is it, sometimes, that sweet odoursseem to be blowing through a courtyard where nothing of the sortcan be? They must be born of my foolish fancy, for a man may strayso far into sentiment as to forget his immediate surroundings, andto give way to the superfluity of fond ardour with which his heartis charged. On the other hand, as I walked home from the office atnightfall my feet seemed to lag, and my head to be aching. Also, acold wind seemed to be blowing down my back (enraptured with thespring, I had gone outclad only in a thin overcoat). Yet you havemisunderstood my sentiments, dearest. They are altogether differentto what you suppose. It is a purely paternal feeling that I havefor you. I stand towards you in the position of a relative who isbound to watch over your lonely orphanhood. This I say in allsincerity, and with a single purpose, as any kinsman might do. For,after all, I AM a distant kinsman of yours—the seventh dropof water in the pudding, as the proverb has it—yet still akinsman, and at thepresent time your nearest relative andprotector, seeing that where you had the right to look for help andprotection, you found only treachery and insult. As for poetry, Imay say that I consider it unbecoming for a man of my years todevote his faculties to the making of verses. Poetry is rubbish.Even boys at school ought to be whipped for writing it.
Why do you write thus about “comfort” and“peace” and the rest? I am not a fastidious man, norone who requires much. Never in my life have I been so comfortableas now. Why, then, should I complain in my old age? I have enoughto eat, I am well dressed and booted. Also, I have my diversions.You see, I am not of noble blood. My father himself was not agentleman; he and his family had to live even more plainly than Ido. Nor am I a milksop. Nevertheless, to speak frankly, I do notlike my present abode so much as I used to like my old one. Somehowthe latter seemed more cosy, dearest. Of course, this room is agood one enough; in fact, in SOME respects it is the more cheerfuland interesting of the two. I have nothing to say againstit—no. Yet I miss the room that used to be so familiar to me.Old lodgers like myself soon grow as attached to our chattels as toa kinsman. My old room wassuch a snug little place! True, its wallsresembled those of any other room—I am not speaking of that;the point is that the recollection of them seems to haunt my mindwith sadness. Curious that recollections should be so mournful!Even what in that room used to vex me and inconvenience me nowlooms in a purified light, and figures in my imagination as a thingto be desired. We used to live there so quietly—I and an oldlandlady who is now dead. How my heart aches to remember her, forshe was a good woman, and never overcharged for her rooms. Herwhole time was spent in making patchwork quilts withknitting-needles that were an arshin [An ell.] long. Oftentimes weshared the same candle and board. Also she had a granddaughter,Masha—a girl who was then a mere baby, but must nowbe a girlof thirteen. This little piece of mischief, how she used to make uslaugh the day long! We lived together, a happy family of three.Often of a long winter’s evening we would first have tea atthe big round table, and then betake ourselves to ourwork; thewhile that, to amuse the child and to keep her out of mischief, theold lady would set herself to tell stories. What stories theywere!—though stories less suitable for a child than for agrown-up, educated person. My word! Why, I myself have satlistening to them, as I smoked my pipe, until I have forgottenabout work altogether. And then, as the story grew grimmer, thelittle child, our little bag of mischief, would grow thoughtful inproportion, and clasp her rosy cheeks in her tiny hands, and,hiding her face, press closer to the old landlady. Ah, how I lovedto see her at those moments! As one gazed at her one would fail tonotice how the candle was flickering, or how the storm was swishingthe snow about the courtyard. Yes, that was a goodlylife, myBarbara, and we lived it for nearly twenty years.... How my tonguedoes carry me away! Maybe the subject does not interest you, and Imyself find it a not over-easy subject to recall—especiallyat the present time.
Darkness is falling, and Theresa is busying herself withsomething or another. My head and my back are aching, and even mythoughts seem to be in pain, so strangely do they occur. Yes, myheart is sad today, Barbara.... What is it you have written tome?——“Why do you not come in PERSONto seeme?” Dear one, what would people say? I should have but tocross the courtyard for people to begin noticing us, and askingthemselves questions. Gossip and scandal would arise, and therewould be read into the affair quite another meaning than the realone. No, little angel, it were better that I should see youtomorrow at Vespers. That will be the better plan, and less hurtfulto us both. Nor must you chide me, beloved, because I have writtenyou a letter like this (reading it through, I see it to be all oddsand ends); for I am an old man now, dear Barbara, and an uneducatedone. Little learning had I in my youth, and things refuse to fixthemselves in my brain when I try to learn them anew. No, I am notskilled in letter-writing, Barbara, and, without being told so, orany one laughing at me for it, I know that, whenever I try todescribe anything with more than ordinary distinctness, I fall intothe mistake of talking sheer rubbish.... I saw you at your windowtoday—yes, I saw you as you were drawing down the blind!Good-bye, goodbye, little Barbara, and may God keep you! Good-bye,my own Barbara Alexievna!—Your sincere friend,
P.S.—Do not think that I could write to you in a satiricalvein, for I am too old to show my teeth to nopurpose, and peoplewould laugh at me, and quote our Russian proverb: “Whodiggeth a pit for another one, the same shall fall into ithimself.”
MY DEAREST MAKAR ALEXIEVITCH,—Are not you, my friend andbenefactor, just a little ashamed torepine and give way to suchdespondency? And surely you are not offended with me? Ah! Thoughoften thoughtless in my speech, I never should have imagined thatyou would take my words as a jest at your expense. Rest assuredthat NEVER should I make sport ofyour years or of your character.Only my own levity is at fault; still more, the fact that I am soweary of life.
What will such a feeling not engender? To tell you the truth, Ihad supposed that YOU were jesting in your letter; wherefore, myheart was feeling heavy at the thought that you could feel sodispleased with me. Kind comrade and helper, you will be doing mean injustice if for a single moment you ever suspect that I amlacking in feeling or in gratitude towards you. My heart, believeme, is ableto appraise at its true worth all that you have done forme by protecting me from my enemies, and from hatred andpersecution. Never shall I cease to pray to God for you; and,should my prayers ever reach Him and be received of Heaven, thenassuredly fortune will smile upon you!
Today I am not well. By turns I shiver and flush with heat, andThedora is greatly disturbed about me.... Do not scruple to comeand see me, Makar Alexievitch. How can it concern other people whatyou do? You and I are well enoughacquainted with each other, andone’s own affairs are one’s own affairs. Goodbye, MakarAlexievitch, for I have come to the end of all I had to say, and amfeeling too unwell to write more. Again I beg of you not to beangry with me, but to rest assured ofmy constant respect andattachment.—Your humble, devoted servant,
DEAREST MISTRESS BARBARA ALEXIEVNA,—I pray you, mybeloved, to tell me what ails you. Every one of your letters fillsme with alarm. On the other hand, in every letter I urge you to bemore careful of yourself, and to wrap up yourself warmly, and toavoid going out in bad weather, and to be in all things prudent.Yet you go and disobey me! Ah, little angel, you are a perfectchild! I know well that youare as weak as a blade of grass, andthat, no matter what wind blows upon you, you are ready to fade.But you must be careful of yourself, dearest; you MUST look afteryourself better; you MUST avoid all risks, lest you plunge yourfriends into desolationand despair.
Dearest, you also express a wish to learn the details of mydaily life and surroundings. That wish I hasten to satisfy. Let mebegin at the beginning, since, by doing so, I shall explain thingsmore systematically. In the first place, on entering this house,one passes into a very bare hall, and thence along a passage to amean staircase. The reception room, however, is bright, clean, andspacious, and is lined with redwood and metal-work. But thescullery you would not care to see; it is greasy, dirty, andodoriferous, while the stairs are in rags, and the walls so coveredwith filth that the hand sticks fast wherever it touches them.Also, on each landing there is a medley of boxes, chairs, anddilapidated wardrobes; while the windows have had most of theirpanes shattered, and everywhere stand washtubs filled with dirt,litter, eggshells, and fish-bladders. The smell is abominable. Inshort, the house is not a nice one.
As to the disposition of the rooms, I have described it to youalready. True, they are convenient enough, yet every one of themhas an ATMOSPHERE. I do not mean that they smell badly so much asthat each of them seems to contain something which gives forth arank, sickly-sweet odour. At first the impression is an unpleasantone, but a couple of minutes will suffice to dissipate it, for thereason that EVERYTHING here smells—people’s clothes,hands, and everything else—and one grows accustomed to therankness. Canaries, however, soon die in this house. A navalofficer here has just bought his fifth. Birds cannot live long insuch an air. Every morning, when fish or beef is being cooked, andwashing and scrubbing are in progress, the house is filled withsteam. Always, too, the kitchen is full of linen hanging out todry; and sincemy room adjoins that apartment, the smell from theclothes causes me not a little annoyance. However, one can growused to anything.
From earliest dawn the house is astir as its inmates rise, walkabout, and stamp their feet. That is to say, everyone whohas to goto work then gets out of bed. First of all, tea is partaken of.Most of the tea-urns belong to the landlady; and since there arenot very many of them, we have to wait our turn. Anyone who failsto do so will find his teapot emptied and put away.On the firstoccasion, that was what happened to myself. Well, is there anythingelse to tell you? Already I have made the acquaintance of thecompany here. The naval officer took the initiative in calling uponme, and his frankness was such that he toldme all about his father,his mother, his sister (who is married to a lawyer of Tula), andthe town of Kronstadt. Also, he promised me his patronage, andasked me to come and take tea with him. I kept the appointment in aroom where card-playing is continually in progress;and, after teahad been drunk, efforts were made to induce me to gamble. Whetheror not my refusal seemed to the company ridiculous I cannot say,but at all events my companions played the whole evening, and wereplaying when I left. The dust and smoke in the room made my eyesache. I declined, as I say, to play cards, and was, therefore,requested to discourse on philosophy, after which no one spoke tome at all—a result which I did not regret. In fact, I have nointention of going there again, since every one is for gambling,and for nothing but gambling. Even the literary tchinovnik givessuch parties in his room—though, in his case, everything isdone delicately and with a certain refinement, so that the thinghas something of a retiringand innocent air.
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