Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Gambler discussion

Interior of the Gambling House at Wiesbaden
Published in Harpers Weekly, October 7, 1871
Picture source

The text (translated by C. J. Hogarth) can be found at Project Gutenberg.

The Wikipedia page for the book gives more details than what I provide below.

The story behind Dostoevsky writing The Gambler has almost overshadowed the novella itself, which is a shame. This delightful book provides plenty of humor while exploring themes of love and addiction, as well as exploring what is different about the Russian character (at least as Dostoevsky viewed it). While there are many topics in the novella ripe for discussion, I will touch on the ones I believe are central to understanding Dostoevsky's focus.

A quick summary of the story (all spelling and quotes follow the Hogarth translation):
Alexis Ivanovich is a tutor to the children of a widowed Russian general. The General, deeply in debt to the Marquis De Griers, stays in the town of Roulettenberg waiting for news that his ailing, wealthy aunt has died. The Marquis has taken the General’s stepdaughter Polina as a lover, expecting her to receive a windfall upon the aunt’s death. Alexis is slavishly in love with Polina, who appears to mock him and treat him coldly. The elderly aunt appears in Roulettenberg healthy and eager to gamble. She initially wins a great deal of money at the roulette table but then loses everything. Alexis wins big at the roulette table and attempts to buy Polina’s love but she rejects him. Alexis goes to Paris with Mlle. Blanche De Cominges, who was expected to marry the General but loses interest once the aunt is ruined. The mademoiselle spends Alexis’ fortune in a month, using his money to establish herself in Paris society. After roaming through Europe and its gambling halls for about a year and a half, Alexis runs into Mr. Astley, an old acquaintance (and wealthy Englishmen). Mr. Astley had been present in Roulettenberg when all these events happened and has stayed in touch with Polina. Mr. Astley provides Alexis with information about Polina and gives him some money, expecting Alexis to gamble it away.

While elements of the story happened to Dostoevsky, some of the analysis I've seen on The Gambler can get bogged down trying to read the story as autobiography. Instead of focusing on what may or may not have happened to Dostoevsky (which I do find interesting), I'll focus on these two points that helped me in reading The Gambler: Alexis is an unreliable narrator, especially involving Polina, and the differences between Russian and European characters highlight Dostoevsky's focus on the Russian psyche.

For someone in love with Polina, Alexis demonstrates a lot of bitterness and resentment toward her. He suspects her of being under the power of De Griers (which is true) yet he can forgive that. What he cannot forgive, and what colors any comment Alexis makes about Polina, is her (assumed) indifference and haughtiness toward him. He never realizes that his own behavior triggers her reaction. His claims of servitude toward her are painful to watch, leading to bitterness at the alleged power she holds over him. He fails to realize that his inferiority complex colors his outlook toward everyone.

Regarding Polina and her actions, the judgment of other characters toward her stand in marked contrast to Alexis’ claims. She is highly regarded by the aunt and Mr. Astley, the two characters that seem to have a true moral compass in the novella (obviously excluding the aunt's gambling frenzy). In addition to these early clues, Mr. Astley's comments about Polina in the last chapter reveal that Alexis has completely misunderstood Polina and her nature.

Early in the novel, Polina's reaction to Alexis' belligerence intensifies his desire to be obstinate and combative. He wishes to offend those he judges as lesser in intelligence or capability which leads to his provocative outbursts. What follows are some contentious statements about the character of differing nationalities, providing contrasts to his view of the Russian character:

Although the General appeared to be taking stock of me, he said nothing. Yet I could see uneasiness and annoyance in his face. Perhaps his straitened circumstances made it hard for him to have to hear of piles of gold passing through the hands of an irresponsible fool like myself within the space of a quarter of an hour. Now, I have an idea that, last night, he and the Frenchman had a sharp encounter with one another. At all events they closeted themselves together, and then had a long and vehement discussion; after which the Frenchman departed in what appeared to be a passion, but returned, early this morning, to renew the combat. On hearing of my losses, however, he only remarked with a sharp, and even a malicious, air that "a man ought to go more carefully." Next, for some reason or another, he added that, "though a great many Russians go in for gambling, they are no good at the game."

"I think that roulette was devised specially for Russians," I retorted; and when the Frenchman smiled contemptuously at my reply I further remarked that I was sure I was right; also that, speaking of Russians in the capacity of gamblers, I had far more blame for them than praise—of that he could be quite sure.

"Upon what do you base your opinion?" he inquired.

"Upon the fact that to the virtues and merits of the civilised Westerner there has become historically added—though this is not his chief point—a capacity for acquiring capital; whereas, not only is the Russian incapable of acquiring capital, but also he exhausts it wantonly and of sheer folly. None the less we Russians often need money; wherefore, we are glad of, and greatly devoted to, a method of acquisition like roulette—whereby, in a couple of hours, one may grow rich without doing any work. This method, I repeat, has a great attraction for us, but since we play in wanton fashion, and without taking any trouble, we almost invariably lose."

"To a certain extent that is true," assented the Frenchman with a self-satisfied air.

"Oh no, it is not true," put in the General sternly. "And you," he added to me, "you ought to be ashamed of yourself for traducing your own country!"

"I beg pardon," I said. "Yet it would be difficult to say which is the worst of the two—Russian ineptitude or the German method of growing rich through honest toil."

"What an extraordinary idea," cried the General.

"And what a RUSSIAN idea!" added the Frenchman.

I smiled, for I was rather glad to have a quarrel with them. "I would rather live a wandering life in tents," I cried, "than bow the knee to a German idol!"

"To WHAT idol?" exclaimed the General, now seriously angry.

"To the German method of heaping up riches. I have not been here very long, but I can tell you that what I have seen and verified makes my Tartar blood boil. Good Lord! I wish for no virtues of that kind. Yesterday I went for a walk of about ten versts; and, everywhere I found that things were even as we read of them in good German picture-books—that every house has its 'Fater,' who is horribly beneficent and extraordinarily honourable. So honourable is he that it is dreadful to have anything to do with him; and I cannot bear people of that sort. Each such 'Fater' has his family, and in the evenings they read improving books aloud. Over their roof-trees there murmur elms and chestnuts; the sun has sunk to his rest; a stork is roosting on the gable; and all is beautifully poetic and touching. Do not be angry, General. Let me tell you something that is even more touching than that. I can remember how, of an evening, my own father, now dead, used to sit under the lime trees in his little garden, and to read books aloud to myself and my mother. Yes, I know how things ought to be done. Yet every German family is bound to slavery and to submission to its 'Fater.' They work like oxen, and amass wealth like Jews. Suppose the 'Fater' has put by a certain number of gulden which he hands over to his eldest son, in order that the said son may acquire a trade or a small plot of land. Well, one result is to deprive the daughter of a dowry, and so leave her among the unwedded. For the same reason, the parents will have to sell the younger son into bondage or the ranks of the army, in order that he may earn more towards the family capital. Yes, such things ARE done, for I have been making inquiries on the subject. It is all done out of sheer rectitude—out of a rectitude which is magnified to the point of the younger son believing that he has been RIGHTLY sold, and that it is simply idyllic for the victim to rejoice when he is made over into pledge. What more have I to tell? Well, this—that matters bear just as hardly upon the eldest son. Perhaps he has his Gretchen to whom his heart is bound; but he cannot marry her, for the reason that he has not yet amassed sufficient gulden. So, the pair wait on in a mood of sincere and virtuous expectation, and smilingly deposit themselves in pawn the while. Gretchen's cheeks grow sunken, and she begins to wither; until at last, after some twenty years, their substance has multiplied, and sufficient gulden have been honourably and virtuously accumulated. Then the 'Fater' blesses his forty-year-old heir and the thirty-five-year-old Gretchen with the sunken bosom and the scarlet nose; after which he bursts, into tears, reads the pair a lesson on morality, and dies. In turn the eldest son becomes a virtuous 'Fater,' and the old story begins again. In fifty or sixty years' time the grandson of the original 'Fater' will have amassed a considerable sum; and that sum he will hand over to, his son, and the latter to HIS son, and so on for several generations; until at length there will issue a Baron Rothschild, or a 'Hoppe and Company,' or the devil knows what! Is it not a beautiful spectacle—the spectacle of a century or two of inherited labour, patience, intellect, rectitude, character, perseverance, and calculation, with a stork sitting on the roof above it all? What is more; they think there can never be anything better than this; wherefore, from their point of view they begin to judge the rest of the world, and to censure all who are at fault—that is to say, who are not exactly like themselves. Yes, there you have it in a nutshell. For my own part, I would rather grow fat after the Russian manner, or squander my whole substance at roulette. I have no wish to be 'Hoppe and Company' at the end of five generations. I want the money for MYSELF, for in no way do I look upon my personality as necessary to, or meet to be given over to, capital. I may be wrong, but there you have it. Those are MY views."

(from Chapter 4)

So...does Alexis really believe that or was he just trying to be provocative? Judging by other actions and comments, he seems to believe there are behavioral traits inherent in differing nationalities. Alexis reveals some underlying characteristics he (and Dostoevsky?) sees as essential to the Russian psyche. Actions are not taken to satisfy long-term interests such as the long-suffering German stereotype in the quote. For the Russian, actions are taken in order to satisfy something intrinsic to their nature (Alexis' outburst providing Exhibit A to that argument). Roulette provides a means to satisfy desire, not for the money that can be won but in other areas that gambling gratifies. Does Alexis’ characterizations hold during the rest of the book?

The elderly Aunt threatens to steal the book. Her entrance, just as everyone hopes to hear of her demise, provides the first of many disappointments she dishes out. She already has plenty of money so winning at roulette isn’t necessary. What she excels in and desires the most is control and power. Used to having her orders promptly obeyed, she bosses the hotel and casino staff around as if they were part of her retinue. The awe and reverence she receives from displaying such an attitude only reinforces her behavior. Her first visit to the casino provides her with easy winnings but it is not the money that draws her back to the casino. It is the need to impose her will on everything around her that seals her doom. When the roulette wheel refuses to cooperate with her wishes, her ability to control falters. Alexis refuses to assist in the anticipated calamity, causing her to fall prey to crooks and to eventually lose everything.

Alexis’ gambling episodes in Roulettenberg are often praised for their depiction of a gambling addict, but I want to look how his gambling episodes fit into his declaration about the Russian character. Early in the novel, Alexis provides a foretaste on how gambling alters his desires. At the casino to play roulette for Polina, Alexis initially accumulates significant winnings. Even though he realizes he should leave, something in his psyche takes control. “[T]here arose in me a strange sensation as of a challenge to Fate—as of a wish to deal her a blow on the cheek, and to put out my tongue at her.” Alexis forgets he was playing roulette to help Polina, using gambling as a means to overcome Fate…the Fate that subjugates and belittles him (at least as he sees it). The experience excites him even though he loses Polina’s stake. Here, and in the subsequent monumental win, we see Alexis completely lose control of any rational thought as he concentrates solely on the sensations and gratification he receives from gambling. Where the Aunt used roulette to extend her control, Alexis uses gambling to counter the deficiencies he feels. In either case, gambling provides satisfaction to these Russian characters outside of the money they might win. After the fact, Alexis sees the money he won as a means to ‘buy’ Polina’s love even though he says he can’t remember if he ever thought of her during his frenzy. In the last chapter, Alexis has become a wandering gambler, trying to win simply to “prove himself” yet again.

I know I’ve spent too much time on this point but I think Dostoevsky’s ambivalence about the Russian character and what makes that psyche different are the keys to understanding The Gambler. There are many other items within the novella that reward exploration. How does the Russian character compare to those of other nationalities, and what does it say about any Russian who feels the need to imitate others? Where does Polina fit in this analysis, especialy when her despair is relieved? A study of any central character provides plenty of opportunity to delve within the stereotypes presented by Alexis, the exceptions proving as interesting as the rule. For a short novel, the many parallel storylines that echo and foretell each other make it feel like a much fuller work. Fortunately Dostoevsky’s gamble in writing this book paid off handsomely for him and for the reader.

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