“Krotkaia. Fantasticheskii rasskaz” (1876), translated as “The Meek One” or “A Gentle Spirit,” [1] is Dostoevsky’s acknowledged late masterpiece. The relevant scholarship is vast, and in what follows, I am only aiming at sketching out a clearer picture of the way some of its already established leitmotifs cohere [2].
1. Writing and the flow of time

Two components of my title triad – time and writing — appear already on the novella’s very first page, in fact, even earlier. In his prefatory note, “From the author,” Dostoevsky discusses the convention of the supposedly synchronous recording of the protagonist’s narration. It is implausible but naturalized through the imaginary figure of a stenographer and a reference to a literary precedent, provided by Victor Hugo “The Last Day of a Condemned Man”:

Now, a few words about <…> the form of the story itself [3]. Imagine a husband whose wife only a few hours earlier has killed herself by jumping out a window; her body now lies on the table before him <…> And so he is <…> telling the story <…> If a stenographer had been able to <…> write down everything he said <…> assumption <…> that I call the fantastic element of my story. Yet <…> Victor Hugo <…> allowed an even greater breach of verisimilitude when he presumed that a man condemned to execution could (and would have the time) to keep a diary <…> even in his last hour <…> literally his last moment of life. But had he not allowed this fantastical element, the work itself <…> would not have existed.

Thus, the author begins by conjoining the themes of “time” and “writing.” Let us first focus on “time.”

The narrative opens with a major temporal shift: the outcome of the plot faces the protagonist and the reader from the start. It is after that that the chain of events leading up to it is reconstructed — gradually brought up to date. This prehistory, in its turn, contains several smaller time loops:

Before proposing to the heroine, the protagonist collects information about her past;

Once they are married, she finds out about his past: his dishonorable discharge, poverty, receiving an inheritance, becoming a pawnbroker;

After the heroine’s suicide, the maidservant describes to the protagonist the way it happened.

The suicide itself comes heralded by the catchy chapter title: “I Was Only Five Minutes Late.” This casts an ironic light on everything that had happened previously, as the protagonist had in every possible way kept relegating to the future the happy life he planned to have with the heroine. The narrative concludes with his groaning over her body in a vain hope to turn time back:

Oh <…> if only she would open her eyes just once! For one instant, only one! If she would look at me as she did a little while ago [давеча], when she stood before me and made a vow to be a faithful wife! Oh, in one glance she would understand it all!

The relevance of “timing” is evident from the narrator-protagonist’s obsession with the chronology of events and the temporal vocabulary, beginning with:

пока она здесь (while she is here), поминутно (every minute), завтра (tomorrow), уже шесть часов (it’s already six o’clock)

and all the way to the end:

всего только пять минут опоздал (I was only five minutes late), мгновение пронеслось бы мимо (the instant would have rushed by), никогда потом (never again), маятник стучит (the pendulum is ticking), два часа ночи (two at night).

To be sure, the order and duration of events are important for the delivery of any plot, but such a strong emphasis on temporal parameters is hardly accidental. The extent of their relevance will become clear if we correlate them with the narrative’s other aspects, especially the financial-commercial ones.
2. Money, usury, numerals, order

The financial vocabulary of “Gentle Spirit” is no less rich that the temporal, given that what happens is largely determined by the characters’ economic relationships. Remarkably, the pawnbroker’s speech is saturated with numerals, which predominate even when his subject is not money, but, say, time:

шесть часов (six o’clock), третий день (third day), три года (three years), сорок один год (forty-one years), пятьдесят лет (fifty years), шестнадцатилетняя (sixteen years old), часов в пять (at about five o’clock), шесть недель (six weeks), пять минут (five minutes), две недели (two weeks), десять минут (ten minutes).

Mentions of sums of money pervade the speech of the narrator not only in the context of his pawn-broking activity. He scrupulously gathers and itemizes information about

the fortune squandered by his brother; the inheritance he gets; his plans of accumulation of money; the heroine’s expenditures on ads in newspapers; his bribes to her aunts; the purchase of a separate bed for her (“for three rubles”); the costs of the doctor and the nurse; the двугривенный (twenty kopeck coin) paid to the cab driver; the tickets to Boulogne; the plans of renouncing his fortune (in order “to give everything away to the poor”); and so on.

Consistent with his accountant’s mindset, the protagonist sees the world strictly in terms of figures and categories of property:

I suddenly asked myself whether my triumph over her was worth two roubles;

That evening the shopkeeper came, bringing with him a pound of sweets <…> Luker’ia ran after me <…> and said, breathlessly: “God will reward you [заплатит], sir, for taking our dear young lady;

You see, for instance, young people despise money <…> the heroism of youth was charming, but — not worth a farthing. Why not? Because it costs them so little <…> Cheap heroism is always easy;

[S]he will prize me ten times more and will abase herself in the dust and fold her hands in homage…

At the core of this discourse is, of course, the hero’s usurious nature, intent on (i) imposing exorbitant rates on the customers and (ii) charging them for the very passage of time. Both of these defining features of usury are central to the structure of the tale: the first, for developing Dostoevsky’s favorite theme of a young female victimized by a wealthy older man, the second, for fusing the motifs of “time” and “money” in a convincing way, based on the ready-made, stereotypical figure of the pawnbroker.

A series of loan transactions between, at first, the pawnbroker and the heroine as his customer and, later, between himself as the owner, her as a generous cashier and several needy people as customers sets up the format of relationships premised on timely redemption of pawned items under the threat of transfer of ownership to the lender. In this way the story’s central trope, the equation: “time = money = ownership” is emplotted. The twists of this plot involve the pawnbroker’s attempts to appropriate the heroine, turning her into an object he owns, her struggle for liberation, and the dramatic transformation of the heroine’s would-be owner into her property:

It ended by their [the aunts’] scheming to sell her [to the grocer];

And above all, I looked upon her then as mine;

I kept repeating, “do not answer me, take no notice of me, only let me watch you from my corner, treat me as <…> your thing…

The protagonist’s designs fail consistently throughout the narrative. On the “usury” level, this is the point of the “only-five-minutes-late” motif, which paradoxically inverts the standard situation of the customer’s dispossession because of delayed payment. The archetypal metamorphosis of pursuer into victim takes here the shape of a fatal belatedness of the lender (rather than the borrower), resulting in his losing his most valuable possession.

As a usurer type, the protagonist insists on “order” – on maintaining his stern control over words, things, money and people:

I will simply tell it in order. (Order!)

I keep up a gentlemanly tone with my clients: few words, politeness and severity. “Severity, severity!” [Строгость!].

Quarrels began from her suddenly beginning to pay out loans on her own account, to price things above their worth <…> Discovering it the same day, I spoke mildly but firmly and reasonably <…> I explained calmly that the money was mine.

A graphic manifestation of the protagonist’s power is the control he tries – and fails — to exercise in the territorial sphere: the heroine is forbidden to leave the house, but then rebels, first by stealing away to meet the protagonist’s former fellow officer and in the end by jumping out of a window [4].

She laughed in my face, and walked out of the house. The fact is, she had not the right to walk out of the house. Nowhere without me, such was the agreement before she was married.

…she had already appointed to see him <….> arranged by a <…> widow of a colonel <….>. “It’s to her <….> your wife goes now.”

Efimovitch leapt up. I took her by the hand and suggested she should go home with me <…> I led her by the arm and she did not resist.

She had got on the window and was standing there, her full height, in the open window <….> holding the icon in her hand <….> She <….> took a step forward <….> and flung herself out of window.”

Usurers appear in many of Dostoyevsky’s, but “Krotkaia” is the only one entirely narrated by such a character. Thus it is a unique experiment of as it were combining, in the narrator-protagonist, a Raskolnikov with an Alena Ivanovna the old moneylender.
3. Metatextuality, authorship, performance, zhiznetvorchestvo

Problems of narration concern not only the author but also his main character. The narrator-protagonist’s monologue is part a defendant’s self-exculpating speech before the court, part an inner dialogue with himself, and part a series of metaliterary references. Let us focus on this metatextual strand of his discourse and on his corresponding “life-into-art” strategies (zhiznetvorchestvo).

The protagonist is clearly obsessed with aesthetic issues.

Gentlemen, I am far from being a literary man and you will see that; but no matter, I’ll tell it as I understand it myself.

Have you read Faust? <…> You must read it <…> Please don’t imagine that I’ve so little taste as to try to use Mephistopheles to commend myself to you and grace the role of pawnbroker.

I almost spoke without words, and I am masterly at speaking without words <…> I have passed through whole tragedies <…> without words.

The wittiest author of a society comedy could not have created such a scene of mockery, of naive laughter, and of the holy contempt of virtue for vice.

I ‘ll cut this story [картину, lit. picture] short.

[W]hen we were talking of reading <…> she told me, recalling the scene of Gil Blas and the Archbishop of Granada <…> I was awfully struck, though, by the story of the Archbishop; so she had found peace of mind <…> enough to laugh at that literary masterpiece.

Consider one thing: she did not even leave a note

But the matter is not limited to mere metatextuality. The protagonist sees himself and acts as a fully blown author: creator of a real-life show that he composes and directs and in which he stars in a role written for himself. Dostoevsky’s characters are in general quite verbal, engaged in textual activities, prone to script their own and others’ lives.

In “Krotkaia,” the protagonist’s authorial performance is conceived as a skillful refutation of his usurious essence. In the course of the play performed before the heroine she is supposed gradually but inexorably to understand and therefore appreciate the true merits of the protagonist. Concerned with the success of his play, he pays constant attention to the reactions of the audience, i. e. his wife.

As a result, the narrative becomes a multi-layered superposition of the protagonist’s playacting, the heroine’s reactions and their interpretation by the protagonist. His strategy is to not spell out to her the meaning of the performance but rather to dictate covertly her would-be free reader response. By presenting her with riddles, “speaking to her without words”, he rigorously follows the mimetic principle of art: show, do not tell.

However, like his other manipulative strategies, this one fails too: the heroine reads his “text” differently, not the way he intended her to, all the more so as he often bungles his role-playing. As a result, his “smug author’s” interest in her reactions gradually gives way to his unsuccessful “readerly” attempts to solve her riddle. The poser of riddles turns into their hapless solver.

But by indirect hints, by dropping mysterious phrases, it appeared that it was possible to work upon [lit. bribe] her imagination.…

Indeed, I said as much – I couldn’t resist saying it – and it sounded stupid, perhaps, for I noticed a shade flit across her face.

And her little face was so serious, so serious that even then I might have read it!

I was proud. I wanted her to find out for herself, without my help <…> I wanted her to divine of herself what manner of man I was and to understand him!

And was I a villain in the pawnbroker’s shop? Did not she see how I acted? Did I extort too much?

[I]t was fearfully interesting for me to guess what she was thinking about to herself then.

I quickly closed my eyes and pretended to be still asleep <…> [S]she certainly might have supposed that I really was asleep <…> But she might guess the truth all the same — that thought flashed upon my mind at once.

[S]he said nothing. But I read it all, I read it all.

It is awfully interesting to know: did she respect me or not? I don’t know whether she despised me or not?

The protagonist, so to speak, transfers the missed duel, one that in the past led to his shameful discharge from the army, into his psychological relationship with his wife. Here the weapon is the art of communication: words, silences, mindreading, play-acting, posing and solving riddles.
4. (Anti-)utopia, deferred gratification, manipulation

The motif of the “unfinished duel,” reminiscent of Pushkin’s “The Shot,” plays an important role in the temporal and narrative design of “Krotkaia.” Revenge on society by a disgraced officer, in the guise of first ruining some of its members, and then of sadistic control over the one chosen individual, the heroine, means, by definition, postponing retaliation until a later date. Indeed, in “The Shot,” the first duel is separated from the second by “six years”, during which “not a single day passed without [Silvio’s] thinking of revenge.”

Such postponement of the plot’s denouement sometimes delegates the organization of the narrative to one of the characters. In our story, the protagonist says: “I purposely deferredthe climax [развязку].” However, Silvio only awaits the right moment, without ever trying himself to arrange the life of his opponent in such a way as to create an opportunity for revenge. The protagonist of “Krotkaia,” on the contrary, consistently manipulates the heroine. This distinguishes his aggressive zhiznetvorchestvo, shaped – overdetermined — by the motifs of sadomasochism, financial control, usurer’s skills in dealing with deadlines, claims to authorship, and utopian plans for remaking reality.

His plans are based on the temporal triad: “shameful past — disciplined present — bright future,” characteristic of the capitalistic principles of primary accumulation of wealth, deferred gratification and investment of profits in production, as well as of the Marxist idea of transition from the exploitative pre-history of mankind via socialist revolution and subsequent selfless labor to a happy communist to-morrow. From the perspective of the mature Dostoevsky, both of these westernizing projects were wrong in their lethal hostility to живая жизнь, the living and breathing life as such.

In ”Krotkaia”, the utopian element is seamlessly combined with the protagonist’s usurious nature: he is a man of order and procedure, good at counting time and money, accustomed to setting himself clear-cut tasks, unflinching, to the point of cruelty, in their implementation. As a result, the domestic theater he directs aims not just at an emotional seduction of the heroine, but also at her drastic and systematic re-education, carried out under the conditions of strictness, silence and repression. However, in this respect, as in others, there occurs a reversal unforeseen by the scheming protagonist: she rebels and his plans fall through. One of the ironic twists of this storyline involves the heroine’s preempting and taking over, appropriating, the protagonist’s famed “sternness.”

As it was the day after her “mutiny“, I received her sternly.

But I poured cold water upon all that at once. That was my idea. I met her enthusiasm with silence <…> The first thing was sternness. In fact <…> I framed a complete system.

She had suddenly shown herself a mutinous, aggressive creature <…> regardless of decorum and eager for trouble.

I made up my mind to defer our future as long as possible.

I determined on setting up as a pawnbroker <…>: money, then a home, a new life as far as possible from memories of the past, that was my plan. Nevertheless, the gloomy past <…> fretted me every day.

I needed a friend so much. But I saw clearly that the friend must be trained, schooled, even conquered.

She was everything for me, all the hope of the future that I cherished in my dreams! She was the one person I had been preparing for myself.

But suddenly there was an expression of stern surprise in her eyes. Yes, surprise and stern <…> That sternness, that stern surprise shattered me at once.

There would be sunshine, there our new sunshine,”<…> I suddenly suggested to her giving all our money to the poor except the three thousand <…> and then we would come back and begin a new life of real work.

[W]hy did it never once enter my head <…> that she despised me? I was convinced of the contrary up to that moment when she looked at me with stern surprise.
5. Biography: debts, usurers, deadlines, stenography

Money was a constant problem for Dostoevsky. He was perennially in debt and often dreamed of instant enrichment. One manifestation of this was his passion for gambling. He developed his own “failsafe system,” which he repeatedly failed to follow, he could never stop gambling at the right moment, he gambled again and again, then pawned his wife’s valuables, asked to be sent more money, which he in turn promptly lost. He regularly dealt with usurers and creditors, rarely repaid them on time, and the debts grew.

Occasionally, Dostoevsky also tried to act if not as a lender, then at least as an owner and financial manager — vis-à-vis his relatives and the staff of his magazine. However, despite his resulting partial empathy for moneylenders, they remained for him an embodiment of evil. This perception was aggravated by his susceptibility to the mythologized anti-Semitic stereotype of “the usurer Jew.”

Neither the protagonist of ”Krotkaia,” a former officer and gentleman, nor Crime and Punishment’s off-putting old moneylender, nor the title protagonist of The Adolescent, hatching out plans of becoming a Rothschild are Jews. However, they exude an unmistakable “Jewish” halo. Thus, Rothschild is a classic image of a Jewish banker who made it, while about Alena Ivanovna the money-lender Raskolnikov overhears that she

is as rich as a Jew, she can give you give thousand rubles and is not above taking a pledge for a ruble <…> But she is an awful old harpy <…> spiteful and uncertain <…> if you were only a day late with your interest the pledge was lost <…> she gave a quarter of the value of an article and took five and even seven per cent. a month and so on… (Crime and Punishment; I, 6).

In Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead, there is a usurer who is Jewish: the author’s prison companion, a slightly comic character,

A Jew named Isaiah Bumstein was at the same time a jeweller and a usurer <…> As a matter of course, he lent money on pledges to the convicts, who paid him heavy interest. <…> He wanted nothing <…> without spending all that he gained, for he saved money and lent it out to the other convicts at interest <…>

[H]e began to examine the rags carefully <…>

“A silver ruble! no; but I will give you seven kopecks <…> With three kopecks for interest; that will make ten kopecks you will owe me,” said the Jew.

There follows then a cartoon-like scene of the Jew’s Sabbath prayer.

However, as has been established by Dostoevsky scholars,

Isai Bumshtein, a tradesman of Jewish origin, was of Russian Orthodox faith <…> But Dostoevsky turns him into a Judaic Jew, who goes to his prayer house on Saturdays and celebrates “his Sabbath coven.” This afforded the writer an opportunity to create a lively, humorous scene with Isai Fomich performing his prayer ritual (see V. A. Tunimanov’s commentary to The House of the Dead).

The quality of Dostoevsky’s humor and the degree of his anti-Semitism are, of course, debatable, but the emphasis on the ethnic stereotype of the moneylender is beyond doubt.

Dostoevsky’s failure to meet his debt deadlines directly affected his creative process: he had to write against the clock. As a result, his relations with creditors, money, time, deadlines and writing entwined in a painful knot. The situation became especially critical in 1866, when having signed a disadvantageous contract with the publisher F.T. Stellovsky, he had either to produce the promised novel in an extremely short time or to find himself in a sort of writer’s bondage for good. The way-out turned out to be the hiring of a helpful stenographer, to whom he managed to dictate, within less than four weeks, The Gambler. In terms of the parameters we have been looking at, this means that to the set: “money-debt-deadlines-contracts-writing” a crucial new component must be added: “stenographer.” The resulting motif cluster is clearly what underlies the author’s prefatory disquisition about the lack of time and a “fantastic” reference to stenography.

The stenographer who rescued Dostoevsky, one Anna Grigor’evna Snitkina, was to become his wife and set in good order his domestic, financial and literary economy. But this would not happen at once: for quite a long time the family life was troubled by conflicts. The parallels with “Krotkaia” are many. In particular, compare:

– Dostoevsky’s marriage proposal, preceded by his literary improvisation about a young girl and a middle-aged artist, with questions asked about Anna Grigor’evna’s possible reaction

the literary overtones of the matchmaking episodes in “Krotkaia” (in particular, the references to Faust and Margarita);

– Anna Grigor’evna’s sympathy for Dostoevsky’s stories about his past hardships

the calculated attempts by the protagonist of “Krotkaia” to earn the respect of the heroine by letting her learn about his past and especially his present behavior;

– the letter Dostoevsky received from a “well-wisher” about the unfaithfulness of his young wife, which was written by Anna Grigor’evna as a hoax and led to a real scene of jealousy,

the quasi-adultery episode involving Yefimovich in “Krotkaia.”

The age difference between Dostoevsky and Anna Grigor’evna was about the same as between the main characters in “Krotkaia,” so that the venerable author felt he was entitled to engage in educating his young wife. In fact, both women, the real and the fictional one, corresponded to Dostoevsky’s favorite type of a defenseless damsel in distress subjected to the courtship/harassment by an older male. And at first, Anna Grigor’evna perceived herself, in her relationship with Dostoevsky, as a “shy girl,” while he called her kiddie [деточка]. In “Krotkaia,” the protagonist talks about the heroine in almost pedophile tones:

She was such a slender [тоненькая], fair little [белокуренькая] thing <…> terribly young, so young that she looked just fourteen. And yet she was within three months of sixteen.

6. Biography: two verbal leitmotifs

In addition to the thematic and storyline parallels between the real author and the protagonist of “Krotkaia,” two verbal affinities are worth noting. The narrative begins with the protagonist’s words about the body of his wife that is lying on the table in front of him, and they are repeated a few more times:

Imagine a husband whose wife’s body lies on the table before him <…>

Oh, while she is still here <…> I go up and look at her every minute <…> Now she is on the table in the drawing-room <…>

[T]he answer is lying on the table and you call it a question!

What does it prove that she is lying there in the outer room?

These reflections over the corpse end up directing the narrator’s thoughts, involuntary and so far unconscious, towards Christ:

“Men, love one another” – who said that? Whose commandment is that? <…> No, seriously, when they take her away tomorrow, what will become of me?”

Something similar is found in the diary note, written by Dostoevsky after the death of his first wife, Mariia Dmitrievna:

16 April [1864].Мasha is lying on the table. Will I see Masha again?

To love another as oneself, according to Christ’s commandment, is impossible <…> The “I” is an obstacle” .

Another leitmotif line of “Krotkaia” is the much quoted “I was only five minutes late.” In Dostoevsky’s own life, it calls to mind not only his missing repeatedly (as debtor and as writer) the various deadlines, but also the words he had to hear from the lips of his unfaithful beloved, the femme fatale Apollinariia Suslova:

She stabs [or reproaches, колет] me with <…> my not having been worthy of her love <…> and she herself meets me in 1863 in Paris with the words: “You came a little late” <…> whereas two weeks ago she still hotly wrote that she loved me. It is not for the love of another that I reproach her, but for these four lines <…> “You came a little late.”

As we can see, the two sentences that frame the death of the heroine of “Krotkaia,” go back to two dramatic moments in Dostoevsky’s relations with the women he loved.


In the above, I proposed to highlight some of the key motifs of “Krotkaia” — temporal, financial, anti-utopian, meta-narrative, zhiznetvorcheskii, autobiographical – and trace their ingenious linkages. I hope this will prove helpful in elucidating the artistic secrets of Dostoevsky’s novella and, in particular, the enigma of its successfully drawn main character, so utterly repulsive and yet so understandable and identifiable with.

[1]. In quoting, I rely, with emendations, on the Constance Garnett version, “A Gentle Spirit. A Fantastic Story” , available online at http://fiction.eserver.org/novels/a_gentle_spirit.html.

[2]. For the purposes of this paper two studies stand out:
Mochizuki, Tetsuo 2000. The Pendulum is Swinging Insensibly and Disgustingly: Time in «Krotkaia» // Dostoevsky Studies (New Series), 4 (2000): 71-82;
Mørch, Audun J. 1997. Dostoevskii’s Krotkaia: A Sacrificial Suicide Celebrating Creativity: Essays in Honour of Jostein Børtnes / Eds. Knut Andreas Grimstad & Ingunn Lunde. Bergen: University of Bergen, 1997. P. 227-236.
For detailed references see the full Russian version of this paper:
Жолковский А. К. Время, деньги и секреты авторства в «Кроткой» Достоевского // Toronto Slavic Quarterly (TSQ) , 40: 23-56.

[3]. The italics in quotations are mine. – A. Z.

[4]. As far as territorial boundaries and their crossing are concerned, ”Krotkaia” offers relevant parallels to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, a classic instance of the “usury” topos; this is a vast topic, in part touched upon in the full version of this paper.