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DOSTOEVSKY AND THE RIDICULOUS

Roger L. Cox, University of Delaware


Dostoevsky criticism has tended to focus upon the tragic implications of his fiction.
Ivanov's term "novel-tragedy," later adopted by Mochulsky and others, applies very
well to the best of Dostoevsky's work, most of which is better described as somber,
rather than as hilarious or even funny. But this view, though valid in its main
emphasis, has the effect of concealing one very important aspect of Dostoevsky's
writing - namely, his preoccupation with the ridiculous in human experience. And he
exploits this element not merely as "comic relief," but as an important vehicle for
projecting his vision of the human condition. Because he is interested in the entire
range of human behavior and in the psychological states which underlie it,
Dostoevsky does not tend - as some writers do - to make use of the ridiculous purely
and simply for its own sake. Nearly always in his fiction the ridiculous appears in
combination with other elements; and its effect is therefore often muted. Nevertheless,
he is enormously skillful as a comic writer.</sup?1<>
When he felt so inclined, Dostoevsky was perfectly capable of producing a sustained
and fairly large-scale comic narrative. "The Village of Stepan-chikovo" (which
Constance Garnett translated into English under the title "The Friend of the Family 2)
comes to mind as the most obvious example. Written when Dostoevsky was in his
later thirties and published in 1859, this novel sets forth in about two hundred pages
two characters which the author described to his brother as "vast" and "typical" characters that according to Dostoevsky were "completely Russian and until now
poorly portrayed in Russian literature."3 The more interesting of them (and indeed the
central character of the story) is one Foma Fomich Opiskin, who appears to be
directly descended from the "sponge" or "parasite" of Greek and Roman New
Comedy. He also lays claim to being a literary man of some importance; but he
prefers most of the time to leave that sort of thing to men of lesser talent. Moreover,
he never allows anyone to forget that he is immeasurably superior to his fellow human
beings in a moral and religious way though it is by no means clear what this moral
and religious superiority consists of. The second of these "vast and typical" characters
is Colonel Fedor Il'ich Rostanev, the narrator's uncle, who is very generous and
considerate of others, if somewhat unperceptive. As Opiskin's patron, Colonel
Rostanev supports him in comfortable style; and in return, Opiskin gives the entire
family the benefit of his lofty mind and moral rectitude.
The story contains several scenes that are amusing and one or two that

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may be accurately described as hilarious. In the best scene of all, the conflict beween
Opiskin and Rostanev comes to a climax - Rostanev's patience is finally exhausted
when Opiskin accuses him, a respectable widower with two children, of attempting to
debauch the children's governess, an attractive young woman with whom Rostanev is
in fact in love. As a thunderstorm gathers and breaks outside, the colonel seizes
Opiskin and hurls him through a pair of glass doors and down the front steps. Taking
this as a hint that he is no longer welcome in the house, Opiskin apparently flees, but
returns not long afterward soaked with rain and covered with mud. He then manages
to recapture the family's affection by pronouncing a blessing upon the colonel's union
with the governess. In short he succeeds in creating the impression that he alone is
responsible for the happy ending and thus reestablishes himself more firmly than ever
within the Rostanev household.
In "Dostoevsky: His Life and Work," Mochulsky makes three main interpretative
points in connection with "The Village of Stepanchikovo"; and he cites earlier
authorities for two of the three. First, following Alekseev, he asserts that in this story
"Dostoevsky reproduces exactly the subject schema of Molire's Tartuffe'." Secondly,
he affirms Tynjanov's claim, in "Dostoevsky and Gogol", that Foma Fomich is a
parody, a caricature of Gogol himself. And thirdly, he argues that Rostanev is less a
"character" than "the rough sketch of a 'character "; he is, says Mochulsky, "the
author's first attempt to portray a 'positively beautiful individual,' " the attempt which
culminated, presumably, in the creation of Prince Myshkin, in "The Idiot". 4
These interpretative suggestions are helpful to a certain extent, but they distort both
the meaning of the story and its comic appeal. There are of course similarities between
the plots of Molire's "Tartuffe" and Dostoevsky's "Village of Stepanchikovo"; but the
endings are radically different. In "Tartuffe," the protagonist is arrested by the king's
messenger, exposed as a criminal, and carried off to jail. In Dostoevsky's story, Foma
Fomich lives for seven more years in the bosom of the Rostanev family, and "the
reverence for him of the couple he had 'made happy', far from diminishing, actually
increased every day with his caprices." 5 Thus, whatever the similarities between
Moliere's play and Dostoevsky's story, the endings are entirely different; and the
ending is quite possibly the most important single element of any comic plot.
Moreover, if Opiskin is simply a transported Tartuffe, it is difficult to explain why
Dostoevsky should have regarded this character as "completely Russian."
Mochulsky's second point - that the character of Opiskin is primarily a caricature of
Gogol - also requires modification. There are, to be sure, direct and specific references
to Gogol and his works within the story. Some phrases from "Correspondence with
Friends," for instance, are put into Foma Fomich's mouth. But again, at the end of the

story, Opiskin's literary remains include nothing but insignificant fragments - no work
that might even remotely suggest fictional works on a par with "The Overcoat" or
"Dead Souls." One does not caricature an important poli105
tician (whatever his faults) by representing him as someone who never actually held a
position of public responsibility; neither, I think, does one caricature an important
writer by means of a character who never actually wrote anything that the public
could or did take seriously. Or at least if one does so, he runs a very high risk that his
own readers will miss the point completely. It is entirely possible for a novelist to take
sly digs at friends or acquaintances by incorporating the least attractive elements of
their personalities into the characters he creates. But the comic purpose of a caricature
or parody is completely lost if the audience does not recognize the parody and
understand it by reference to the original on which it is based. Anyone who watches
television shows that consist mainly of comic sketches designed as parodies knows
that quite often the sketch will seem hilariously funny if one is familiar with what is
being parodied. If, however, the person or material being parodied is unfamiliar, the
sketch will seem merely pointless and inane. The characterization of Foma Fomich
Opiskin will not, I think, seem either pointless or inane even to a reader that has never
heard of Molire's "Tartuffe" or that may never have read a line of Gogol.
Mochulsky's third point - that Colonel Rostanev is a first attempt to represent a
"positively beautiful individual" - is disappointing because it purports to explain not
how the work succeeds as comedy, but how it fails as characterization. In fact, one
would hardly think, on the basis of Mochulsky's comments, that "The Village of
Stepanchikovo" was even modestly successful as comedy - its plot (or at least its
"subject schema") is stolen from Molire; and of its two main characters, one is a
cruel caricature of Gogol', to whom Dostoevsky owed much, while the other is simply
a failure. The effect of these remarks is especially disconcerting when one realizes that
they come not from a detractor, but from an admirer, of Dostoevsky. Moreover, if the
comedy succeeds no better than this in its relatively pure form, what confusion will it
cause when it is combined, as it usually is in Dostoevsky, with other elements?
The two laughter theories most frequently cited in connection with literary comedy
are the incongruity theory, articulated by Schopenhauer, and the superiority theory,
associated with Thomas Hobbes. According to Schopenhauer, we laugh when we
suddenly perceive "the incongruity of sensuous and abstract knowledge." 6 That is, we
laugh when we see people (including sometimes even ourselves) respond
inappropriately to events and to other people because the particular mind set of an
individual causes him to misinterpret the environment which his eyes and ears convey
(as "sensuous knowledge") to his understanding (or already accumulated "abstract

knowledge"). The person then acts on the basis of a mistaken conception, and his
behavior seems to us ridiculous and often laughable. According to Hobbes, on the
other hand, we laugh primarily because we feel a surge of "sudden glory" when we
encounter examples of other people's failures or our own unexpected successes. Since
most people encounter other people's failures far more frequently than their own
unexpected successes, laughter (at least in this view) is for the most part a
spontaneous expression of derision and is essentially degrading to
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the person whose behavior provokes the laughter.
Mochulsky's comments on "The Village of Stepanchikovo" clearly suggest that he
takes a very Hobbesian view of Opiskin's role in the story. By making the narrator
Rostanev's nephew, Dostoevsky causes the reader to side with Rostanev against
Opiskin even before the reader has had time to form any opinion of his own about the
two characters. He then proceeds, by means of the partisan narrator, to heap scorn
upon Foma Fomich; and uncharitable as this sort of thing may be under any
circumstances, it is particularly so in this case because Opiskin, says our
commentator, is a thinly disguised representation of Gogol, from whom Dostoevsky
had learned a great deal and for whom he ought certainly to have had more respect. I
would argue, in response to his view, that the characterization of Opiskin has its roots
in wo of the stock characters of New Comedy -the parasite and the hypocrite. Even as
hypocrite Opiskin is different from Molire's Tartuffe, who actively tries to seduce his
patron's wife. What makes Opiskin ridiculous is the incongruity, the utter disparity,
between his personality as revealed in confrontations with the other characters and his
conception of himself as a genuinely "noble" human being, deserving and even
demanding to be addressed as "your Excellency." In short, his lack of self-knowledge,
his failure to recognize the difference between what he is and what he thinks he is,
renders him ridiculous and therefore laughable.
The words "ridicule" and "ridiculous" are of course central to most theoretical
conceptions of the comic mode in literature. Northrop Frye observes, for instance, that
"comedy is designed not to condemn evil, but to ridicule a lack of selfknowledge."7 In drama, and for that matter in most fiction, this ridiculing of an
imagined character's lack of self-knowledge often provokes laughter from the
audience because, lacking any real basis for identification with such a character, we
tend to view him with condescension and to feel a kind of "sudden glory" (to use
Hobbes's phrase) as we contemplate his unconscious self-revelation. One thinks, for
example, of Ljagavyj (alias Gorstkin) in "The Brothers Karamazov", who has "a
nasty, thin, red beard." According to Fedor Pavlovich, this Ljagavyj is easy to deal
with in business affairs because "if his beard shakes when he talks and he gets cross,

it's all right... But if he strokes his beard with his left hand and grins - he is trying to
cheat you.8 Later, when Dmitrij Fedorovich confronts the man, not only is he dead
drunk but he "strokes his beard importantly," 9 and Drnitrij's attempt to do business
with him is a complete fiasco.
More often, however, Dostoevsky complicates matters by leading the reader to
identify himself in some way with the character whose behavior might otherwise seem
completely ridiculous. This identification comes about partly through Dostoevsky's
ability to make the reader empathize with the character in question and partly by
technical devices, such as the representation by a first-person narrator of his own
ridiculous behavior. The narrator of "Notes from the Underground" witnesses a fight
with billiard cues as he passes a pool hall, sees a man thrown out of the
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window, and tells the reader, "I could not help feeling envious of the fellow who had
been thrown out of the window."l0 He enters the pool hall in the hope of provoking
another fight and being thrown out of the window himself. Instead, one of the players,
whose shot he is intentionally blocking, just picks him up as though he had not even
noticed him and moves him out of the way. "I could have forgiven him," says the
narrator, "if he had given me a beating, but I could not forgive him for having moved
me from one place to another as if I were a piece of furniture. I would have given
anything at that moment for a real, a more decent, and a more, so to speak, literary
quarrel!"11 Here the reader's laughter is at least slightly inhibited because it is "to me"
that the ridiculous incident occurs; and humiliation of this sort is for most people no
laughing matter - at least not when they are the ones being humiliated. In so far as
literary comedy has an authentic didactic purpose, that purpose is achieved by making
the reader aware of the tension between his inclination to laugh at the ridiculous
behavior of others and his equally strong tendency to behave in a way which others
may very well find laughable. In this sense, the function of comedy is not simply to
"ridicule a lack of self-knowledge" in others, but to nudge the reader into a somewhat
greater knowledge of himself.
According to the philosopher Kant, laughter is "an affection arising from the sudden
transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. 12 In the case just described, the
narrator had entered the pool hall expecting to provoke a fight. "But," says he,
"nothing happened," and the comic effect is muted by the reader's unconscious and
hesitating identification with the narrator. The same sort of thing is represented,
though on a much larger scale, in "The Possessed" ("Besy"). Despite the narrator's
flippant and sarcastic tone, apparent even in the first pages of the novel, the reader
identifies strongly with Kirillov and Stavrogin. When the fantastic projects to which
they devote so much time and thought finally collapse into the nothingness of death

(by murder and suicide), the stakes are too high and the reader's identification with
them too strong for anyone to laugh at these events; and the result is a kind of "black
comedy" or "gallows humor" that appals rather than amuses.
This analysis of Dostoevsky and the ridiculous began with the suggestion that the
comic element in his fiction is not merely peripheral, that it functions not simply as
"comic relief." There are plenty of characters in Dostoevsky who are represented as
deliberately "playing the fool"; and of course there are some who appear to do so less
deliberately - Marmeladov in "Crime and Punishment", Lebedev in "The Idiot", and
Fedor Pavlovich in "The Brothers Karamazov" come to mind as obvious examples.
But there is another kind of "fool" in Dostoevsky, another kind of "ridiculous man,"
who far from being the object of the author's ridicule actually emerges as an authentic
hero. According to Mochulsky, Colonel Rostanev in "The Village of Stepanchikov" is
a first draft of that hero, a "first attempt to portray a 'positively beautiful individual' ".
The colonel is of course ridiculous in so far as he allows himself to be gulled by the
parasitic and hypocritical Foma Fomich; but in the long run he is far less
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concerned about seeming gullible than about establishing the general happiness of his
household. A more reasonable man would not tolerate the oppressive behavior of an
Opiskin; and Rostanev seems foolish to the reader to the same extent that his conduct
is guided by something other than reason.
Near the beginning of his little book entitled "Laughter," Henri Bergson observes that
"the comic demands something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart." Its appeal,"
says Bergson, "is to the intelligence, pure and simple." 13 Though it would be an
overstatement to say that the terms "irrational" and "ridiculous" mean the same thing,
their meanings do overlap in a highly significant way. In English, for instance, the
word fool means both "one deficient in judgment or sense" and "professional jester or
clown." Also, we use the phrase "theater of the absurd" to refer to certain modern
plays in which the writers achieve their comic effects by exploiting the irrationality of
human experience. But irrationality takes various forms. It may be used to designate
the condition of a madman, who has lost his reason and who is unable to replace it
with anything at all. It may, on the other hand, refer to a person who has discovered
the limitations of reason and who has, therefore, replaced it with something else. This
"something else" may of course take the form of an obsession which has no relation to
reality. (Obsessional characters abound in Dostoevsky; and obsessional characters are
by their very nature comic.) But it may also take, as it sometimes does in Dostoevsky,
the form of a vision - a vision in which reality is transformed and illuminated in a way
that goes beyond the scope of mere reason. To the reader whose heart is thoroughly
anesthetized, to borrow Bergson's phrase, this vision will seem ridiculous or even

mad; and it is to this reader that Dostoevsky, as comic writer, makes his most direct
and meaningful appeal.
Consider, for instance, the opening sentences of "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man"
which Dostoevsky wrote nearly twenty years after "The Village of Stepanchikovo": "I
am a ridiculous man. They call me a madman now. That would be a distinct rise in my
social position were it not that they still regard me as being as ridiculous as ever.'14
The undercurrent of humor is present from the very beginning of this story, which is
surely as earnest and as heart-felt as any that Dostoevsky wrote. Or consider the
situation of Zosima's dying brother in the "Russian Monk" section of "The Brothers
Karamazov": " 'Don't cry, mother,' he would answer, "life is a paradise and we are all
in paradise, but we don't see it, if we would, we should have heaven on earth the next
day.' " Such pronouncements as this one, coupled with the claim that "we are all
responsible for all" prompt the attending physician to tell the sick boy's mother, "Your
son cannot last long.... The disease is affecting his brain." 15 Such characters as Colonel
Rostanev, the narrator of "The Dream," Zosima's brother, and of course Prince
Myshkin - all of them ridiculous fellows and perhaps even "idiots" - occupy a position
of primary importance in Dostoevsky's fiction. They are, in a sense, his most authentic
heroes.
Dostoevsky's ability, reflected in "Notes from the Underground" and "The
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Possessed", to represent the ridiculous in terms that make one shudder in his capacity,
manifested in "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man," "The Idiot," and "The Brothers
Karamazov," to risk linking his most precious vision of the world with human illness
and even madness - these are among the elements which make the writing of
Dostoevsky so appealing to twentieth-century readers. In his fiction we find one of the
earliest examples of a genuinely modern novelist who captivates by presenting a
comprehensive vision of human experience that is both impishly humorous and
profoundly serious.
NOTES
1. Vyacheslav Ivanov, "Freedom and the Tragic Life", trans. Norman Cameron
(New York: Noonday Press, n. d.), pp. 7-23. See also Konstantin Mochulsky,
"Dostoevsky: His Life and Work", trans. Michael A. Minihan (Princeton:
Princeton Univ. Press, 1967), p. 180 et passim.
2. (New York: Macmillan, 1951), pp. 1-205. (This volume also contains
"Nyetocka Nyezvanov".)

3. Mochulsky, p. 173.
4. Ibid., pp. 173-174, 176 & 178.
5. "The Friend of the Family", p. 200. 6 Arthur Schopenhauer, "The World as Will
and Idea" (Vol. I, No. 13), in Theories of Comedy", ed. Paul Lauter (Garden
City, N. Y.: Anchor-Doubleday, 1964), p. 355. For an analysis of Hobbesian
theory see D. H. Monro, "Argument of Laughter" (Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ. of
Notre Dame Press, 1963), pp. 83-94.
6. "The Argument of Comedy," in Lauter, pp. 450-460. (See p. 452).
7. Fyodor Dostoevksy, The Brothers Karamazov" (New York: Modern LibraryRandom House, 1950), p. 329.
8. Ibid., p. 459.
9. "The Best Short Stories of Dostoevsky", trans. with an introduction by David
Magarshack (New York: Modern Library-Random House, n. d.), p. 153.
10.Ibid., p. 154.
11. Monro, p. 147.
12.Reprinted in "Comedy", ed. Wylie Sypher (Garden City, N.Y.: AnchorDoubleday, 1956), pp. 61-190. (See pp. 63-64.)
13."The Best Short Stories of Dostoevsky", p. 297.
14."The Brothers Karamazov", pp. 343-344.