The Gambler Dostoevsky Analysis Essay

  1. 08-Feb-2009, 20:33#1
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    Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Gambler

    Last edited by titania7; 08-Feb-2009 at 21:50.
    "All men have the same defect: they wait to live, for they have not the courage of each instant.
    Why not invest enough passion in each moment to make it an eternity?" ~E. M. Cioran
    The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky
    translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett

    "...people not only at roulette, but everywhere, do nothing but try to gain or squeeze something out of one another."

    Alexey Ivanovich, the lead character in Dostoevsky's novel, The Gambler, makes this shrewd if cynical observation. In many ways, it sums up many aspects of this book, which was written in a mere four weeks and is highly autobiographical. To say it deals merely with the compulsion of gambling would be to do it a great disservice. Although it can hardly be ranked with Dostoevky's most famous works, it does deal with some of the same concepts that make books like Crime and Punishment and The Possessed such impressive accomplishments: namely, the dark side of human nature and the tendency towards corruption and wickedness that is in all of us. It's a psychological novel that is deeply Russian, and the narrator's observations about life and those around him are much more penetrating and insightful than those of an English or American narrator might be. The plot is haphazard, and at times the structure of the book is discursive. Minor characters are given nearly as much attention as those who play a pivotal role in the book, and everyone seems to be a mass of contradictions. Early on in the book, the narrator says:

    "It is most charming when people do not stand on ceremony with one another, but act openly and aboveboard."

    The irony in this remark is remarkable as we go on to witness all sorts of duplicitous, cruel, and manipulative behavior take place between all the figures that people this 152-page story. It has been rumored that the character of Polina, the woman whom Alexey both loves and hates, was based on Dostoevsky's mistress, the twenty-two-year-old student, Apollonaria Suslova. Apollonaria (also called "Polina") was dissatisfied by Dostoesky's sexual prowess, and she was openly unfaithful to him. The Polina that inhabits the novel is coldhearted and insensitive, yet Alexey is drawn to her, much as one might be drawn to a museum piece that is behind a glass case. He is well aware of her lack of affection towards him:

    "...the idea that I knew, positively and distinctly, how utterly beyond my reach she was, how utterly impossible my mad dreams were of fulfillment, that thought, I am convinced, afforded her with extraordinary satisfaction; if not, cautious and intelligent as she was, have been on such intimate and open terms with one?...Yes, often she did not regard me as a human being!"

    Nearly all the characters in this novel have self-destructive tendencies, but Alexey is masochistic. He is addicted both to the roulette table and to Polina, and in moments of fury he makes all sorts of insane threats:

    "If ever I do kill you I shall have to kill myself, too. Oh, well, I shall put off killing myself as long as possible, so as to go on feeling this insufferable pain of being without you."

    Then:

    "Do you know something incredible? I love you more every day and yet that is almost impossible."

    Indeed, it seems only a lunatic would love Polina at all. But Dostoevsky's characters are not guided by reason, logic, or common sense. Their instincts and passions are their ruling force, and, in some ways, this makes them very realistic. A writer like Henry James, whose figures oft-times seem to almost magically be capable of repressing their emotions makes Dostoevsky's characters seem downright theatrical. Which writer portrays people in a way that is more true-to-life? That is a matter of opinion, but what I have always found so engaging about Dostoevsky's work is his ability to peel off the masks his characters wear, in order to give us glimpses of the true, often diabolical faces that lurk beneath. In this respect, he is not unlike other Russian writers. They are not inclined towards subtlety or discretion. They rarely make the reader guess at what is transpiring, and so we cannot help but feel a certain kinship with the characters--and yes, with the authors themselves.

    It is impossible not to empathize with Alexey, even though his passion for Polina is inconceivable:

    "Polina was always an enigma to me, such an enigma that now, for instance...I was suddenly struck while I was speaking by the fact that there was scarcely anything positive and definite I could say about our relationship. Everything was, on the contrary, strange, unstable, and, in fact, quite unique."

    Everyone's relationship in this book could be described this way. There is Mlle Blanche, who is described as having hair "as black as Indian ink" and "lips (that) are always painted." At twenty-five, she is engaged to a general who is thirty years her senior. The narrator observes:

    "Possibly she is not even intelligent; but, on the other hand, she is striking and she is artful. I fancy her life has not passed without adventures."

    Mlle Blanche and her fiance are waiting for the death of the General's grandmother, so that they'll have enough money to get married. At seventy-five, Granny is a wealthy old landowner, who has been without the use of her legs for over five years. However, she arrives at the hotel that Alexey is at and displays a level of vitality that is extraordinary:

    "...she had arrived and was, as always, alert, captious, self-satisfied, sitting upright in her chair, shouting in a loud, peremptory voice and scolding everyone.

    Granny's commanding and authoritative appearance as she was carried up in the chair was chiefly responsible for the sensation she caused. Whenever she met anyone fresh she scrutinized him inquisitively and questioned me about him in a loud voice."

    Dostoevsky took pains to create a fully realized character in Granny, which makes you wonder whether or not one of the distinguising marks of a master writer is his or her ability to build layers on minor characters that lesser authors might depict as mere paper-dolls.

    Another trademark of Dostoevsky's writing is refusal to be half-hearted about anything. When he explores gambling, it is not a mere addiction--it is an overwhelming compulsion that possesses its victims' minds, bodies, and spirits. Even Granny is hooked on the game. For, as Alexey assures us:

    "When once anyone is started upon that road, it is like a man in a sledge flying down a snow mountain more and more swiftly."

    Alexey's passion Polina is like gambling, though rather than money he is putting his heart on the roulette table. He continues to imagine that the two of them will have a future together, even though she never promises him anything--not even her love, which is what he craves beyond all else.

    "...I wanted her to come to me and say: 'I love you,' and if not that, if that was senseless insanity, then...well, what was there to care about? Did I know what I wanted? I was like one demented: all I wanted was to be near her, in the halo of her glory, in her radiance, always, forever, all my life. I knew nothing more."

    It's easy to empathize with Alexey on every level because Dostoevsky paints him in such a way that, in spite of seeming dramatic, he is nevertheless utterly genuine. He doesn't pretend to be anything he isn't--and he doesn't necessarily seem to be asking for the reader's understanding as he relates all the events that have taken place in his life. He continually makes it obvious that he is incapable of understanding the motives behind the behavior of other people, and the fact that he knows every bit as little as we do about what is really transpiring lends an aura of both mystery and authenticity to this novel.

    I'll be honest. I did not expect The Gambler to be a masterpiece. Dostoevsky is a writer whose oeuvre of work is formidable, and his "big" novels are in a class all to themselves. To have high expectations of a small novel that is not generally associated with Dostoevsky's body of work would be naive. However, The Gambler is a diamond in the rough--a gem that ought to be appreciated in all its unpolished glory. It's smart, witty, and in many ways a work of genius. And it surely gives you a clear-cut idea of why Dostoevsky went on to become one of the most renowned and respected writers in the history of world literature.

    If you haven't read Dostoevsky before, The Gambler wouldn't be a bad place to start. It can be finished in a day, and it will leave you aching for more of this Russian master's work.

    The Gambler was written in-between Dostoevsky's work on Crime and Punishment. With the help of a stenographer, Dostoevsky completed it in twenty-six days, finishing it on October 30, 1866. It is set in the imaginary German town of Roulettenberg.

    At age seventeen, Dostoevsky wrote, in a letter to his brother, Mikhail, words that turn out to be prophetic of the themes he explored in his writing:

    "Man is a mystery. It must be brought to light, and, if one puzzles over it all one's life, let it not be said that one is wasting one's time. I am studying this mystery, for I wish to be a man."

    Gender constructs aside, the passage from this missive is very telling. Dostoevsky indeed seem to use his work as a vehicle through which to explore the contradictions within men and women, and the enigmatic facets of human nature.

    Rating:


    ~Titania
  2. 09-Feb-2009, 12:20#2
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    Re: Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Gambler

    i do love your inept revisions of novels. but you know that.

    this book is one of my favourites by him.
  3. 09-Feb-2009, 23:18#3
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    Re: Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Gambler

    "All men have the same defect: they wait to live, for they have not the courage of each instant.
    Why not invest enough passion in each moment to make it an eternity?" ~E. M. Cioran
    Boki,
    As you will see, I have already sent you a pm about your remarks on this thread. However, I am perplexed at your calling my review of The Gambler "inept," when you've had such positive things to say about my reviews before.

    Such as:

    http://www.worldliteratureforum.com/...ns-memoir.html

    I am waiting for enlightenment as I am really quite confused. Moreover, I
    would love it if you wrote a review of The Gambler, since it's one of your favorites, dear.

    ~Titania
  4. 09-Feb-2009, 23:22#4
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    Re: Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Gambler

    titania! so sorry, i meant "in depth" rather then inept. my simple english has failed me once again. i meant that your write your reviews in a acuteness thats rare to find, though i tried to simplify that, and used a word i had the wrong meaning of.

    sorry darling.
  5. 09-Feb-2009, 23:26#5
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    Re: Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Gambler

    "All men have the same defect: they wait to live, for they have not the courage of each instant.
    Why not invest enough passion in each moment to make it an eternity?" ~E. M. Cioran
    Boki,
    I'm so glad you've clarified what you meant! Many thanks for doing so with such expedience, darling. I'm delighted that you consider that I write my reviews with both depth and acuity. The gracious words are most appreciated...indeed, more so than words can express.

    ~Titania
    Originally Posted by Boki
    titania! so sorry, i meant "in depth" rather then inept. my simple english has failed me once again. i meant that your write your reviews in a acuteness thats rare to find, though i tried to simplify that, and used a word i had the wrong meaning of.

    sorry darling.
  6. 11-Feb-2009, 16:39#6
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    Re: Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Gambler

    Last edited by lionel; 12-Feb-2009 at 11:24.
    Yes, Titania, this is a very generously sized review, as readers have come to expect from you. Much to your credit, you put the name of the translator right at the top there where it belongs.

    As I've only read Crime and Punishment (and that many years ago) and Notes from Underground much more recently, I obviously can't comment on the book as such, so I'm mainly keeping to universals here. You say

    Ummm. This suggests something animalistic. Isn't this tempered by any human characteristics?

    Ah! So characters are more believable if they let their superego, their inner cop, rule, maybe? Or maybe not:

    OK

    Yes, I think it's about the same length as Notes from Underground, which I've never heard you mention. That's quite a devastating representation of alienation which I'd fully recommend if you've not read it, although I won't go into the circumstances that took me – albeit briefly – back to Dostoevsky as it would bore you to death.

    Good un!

    This is great stuff, Titania. Now what about The Withered Root? It needs to be tended to.
    Originally Posted by titania7
    The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky
    translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett
    Originally Posted by titania7
    Their instincts and passions are their ruling force, and, in some ways, this makes them very realistic.
    Originally Posted by titania7
    A writer like Henry James, whose figures oft-times seem to almost magically be capable of repressing their emotions makes Dostoevsky's characters seem downright theatrical. Which writer portrays people in a way that is more true-to-life?
    Originally Posted by titania7
    That is a matter of opinion, but what I have always found so engaging about Dostoevsky's work is his ability to peel off the masks his characters wear, in order to give us glimpses of the true, often diabolical faces that lurk beneath. In this respect, he is not unlike other Russian writers. They are not inclined towards subtlety or discretion. They rarely make the reader guess at what is transpiring, and so we cannot help but feel a certain kinship with the characters--and yes, with the authors themselves.
    Originally Posted by titania7
    If you haven't read Dostoevsky before, The Gambler wouldn't be a bad place to start. It can be finished in a day, and it will leave you aching for more of this Russian master's work.
    Originally Posted by titania7
    "Man is a mystery. It must be brought to light, and, if one puzzles over it all one's life, let it not be said that one is wasting one's time. I am studying this mystery, for I wish to be a man."

    Gender constructs aside, the passage from this missive is very telling.
  7. 26-Feb-2009, 21:46#7
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    Re: Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Gambler

    Interesting, I completely bounced off Crime and Punishment, a sub-200 page work is actually very tempting as I'd like to give Dostoevsky a try but I'd rather not restart with the one work of his I struggled with before. This sounds perfect.

    Great review by the way.
  8. 01-Mar-2009, 09:44#8
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    Re: Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Gambler

    "All men have the same defect: they wait to live, for they have not the courage of each instant.
    Why not invest enough passion in each moment to make it an eternity?" ~E. M. Cioran
    Max,
    I'm so delighted you happened upon this thread! The Gambler truly is every bit as stupendous as I said. I was quite pleasantly surprised, and I feel altogether certain that you will be, as well. I can't wait to hear what you think of it. I don't blame you for not wanting to re-start Crime and Punishment. Sometimes merely the idea of trying to get back into a book we've struggled with before creates a psychological barrier, doesn't it?
    I think The Gambler will more than answer your needs.

    Thank you so much, Max. Your complimentary words mean a great deal to me. If my review has prompted you to get a copy of The Gambler, then I know I must have said or done something right!

    Best wishes always,

    Titania

    PS In answer to an inquiry you made on the "Recently Finished" books thread, Max, I don't have a thread at the WLF for Hamsun's Mysteries.
    But you can find my full review at SpinozaBlue.
    Originally Posted by Max Cairnduff
    Interesting, I completely bounced off Crime and Punishment, a sub-200 page work is actually very tempting as I'd like to give Dostoevsky a try but I'd rather not restart with the one work of his I struggled with before. This sounds perfect.
    Originally Posted by Max
  9. 01-Mar-2009, 20:21#9
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    Re: Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Gambler

    I loved this book. This one sat unread on my bookshelf for roughly 8 years. It quietly watched many of the author's other novels read. Finally, in a desperate attempt to get away from another book (I can't even remember what it was) I picked up The Gambler due to a lack of anything else short and unread on the shelf with little expectation to actually finish it. Well finish it I did. I loved it! The story flew off the page and very much reflected the speed at which it was written. Not to call Crime and Punishment laborious to read, but I wasn't expecting a real page turner. Anyway, this was one of my more pleasant literary surprises in the last year. A very underrated book by a revered writer. Did I mention I liked this novel?
  10. 04-Mar-2009, 09:42#10
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    Re: Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Gambler

    Dear Titania:

    Thanks for the wonderful review!

    As to the differences between impact of "C&P" and "The Gambler", maybe that's because the former was dealing more with an idea, and the second with something more privately felt and experienced...

  11. Re: Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Gambler

    I finished it and it is indeed a fantastic book. The characters are exquisite, enjoyed them immensely. Probable my favorite was the Russian Old Lady and her frankness to all of her relatives who wanted her death. Polina is also a very intriguing character. I guess my predilection was the female characters for this book. It was a great re-entry into Dostoyevskly. I'll try read more of him in 2012. Probably White Nights will sneak in this year.
  12. 15-Dec-2011, 12:37#12
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    Re: Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Gambler

    It's one of my favourites from Dostoevsky. I don't remember all the details because I read it many years ago, but I recall it had a wicked sense of humor about the follies of men. I loved the old lady who arrived to rescue her relative only to become addicted to gambling, going on to squander all her fortune.
  13. 03-Apr-2012, 15:37#13
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    Re: Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Gambler

    Last edited by Hamlet; 03-Apr-2012 at 15:45. Reason: typos
    I read The Gambler a very long time ago.

    If I think of this book now it's mainly in relation to Dostoevsky's involvement with a shyster publisher who signed him up to an oppressive publishing contract -complete on time, or I've got you for nine years!

    Having scribbled away like a maniac he made the deadline and gained a wife, Anna Grigorevna, his stenographer. I wonder if the story behind the story of The Gambler has ever been adapted into a short story or play?

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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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