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Why Conservatives Should Read Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky's first novel is a short but powerful reminder that life in the United States is pretty great.Портрет_Ф.М.Достоевского_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Fyodor Dostoevsky is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of all time. The 19th-century Russian novelist is best remembered today as the author of Crime and Punishment. Many of his masterpieces, including The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, Demons, and Notes from Underground, remain broadly read, but his lesser-known works are rarely discussed outside of literary circles and academia. This is a shame, for Dostoevsky’s writings have a nearly peerless ability to change how a person thinks about the world and their place in it.

One such work is Poor Folk (also sometimes translated as Poor People). While all literature lovers ought to read Poor Folk, the text holds particular value for contemporary conservatives for two interconnected reasons. The first is that the novel convincingly depicts impoverished Russians in mid-19th-century St. Petersburg. Immersing oneself in a time and place very different from our own is an intrinsically valuable task for conservatives, as it can illuminate what is truly unique, and thus worth conserving, about American society. The second is that Poor Folk causes readers to reflect on life with a newfound appreciation for the unparalleled superiority of 21st-century America, something conservatives frequently fail to do despite our patriotism.

Published in 1846, Poor Folk was Dostoevsky’s first book. Structurally, it is an epistolary novel; the entire story is presented as a series of letters between the two main characters, Makar Dievushkin and Barbara Dobroselova (note that different translations may contain different spellings and names). Because the story is presented this way, everything the reader learns, from the plot’s events to the characters’ internal struggles, is revealed in the context of Makar and Barbara’s odd relationship.

The utility of the epistolary style can be seen in an episode where Barbara confronts Makar about a story she heard of him humiliating himself while blackout drunk. In a July 27th letter, Barbara writes that Makar “had been discovered drunk in the street and taken home by the police.” While it is noteworthy that a main character had a run-in with the law, the real impact of this revelation stems from how it is presented. Though nothing like this has happened in the story thus far, the news doesn’t come until midway through the lengthy letter. Barbara spends the first half chastising Makar for spending too much money on her. Makar is broke and “looks depressed,” and only after noting these things does she mention the drunken episode.

The epistolary style emphasizes, in a way first or third-person narration cannot, how everything in the characters' lives occurs under a shadow of misery. While the letter ostensibly reveals important plot information, the more relevant effect is how Dostoevsky paints a picture of 19th-century Russian life. We see a world of material poverty, social insecurity, and psychological torment. Life is dreary and sad, and the reader is forced to pity these poor people. This effect is by no means limited to Barbara’s July 27th letter—every exchange reveals new problems, suffering, and pain in this society.

This sense of pity is core to the reading experience. 19th-century St. Petersburg is unlike the 21st-century United States (thank God). Reading Poor Folk serves as a much-needed reminder that society generally, and our lives in particular, could be much, much worse. Without reading about and entering the mind of people who lived in different times and places, it is exceptionally hard for contemporaries to appreciate how good we truly have it.

This reminder—that it is an inestimable blessing to live in the modern-day USA—is in and of itself a major reason why conservatives ought to read Poor Folk. Conservatives today spend much of our time critiquing American society because our government is too big, our institutions are too woke, and our culture is too decadent.

Such critiques are accurate and necessary, but it is far too easy to lose all sense of proportion. These trends, while troubling, do not negate the fact that the United States of America remains the greatest country in the history of the world. Poor Folk, in its depiction of the vicious, poverty-stricken lives of 19th-century Russians, forces the contemporary reader to step back and appreciate that Americans have it pretty damn good.

Conservatives need to remind themselves of this reality from time to time, as it can serve as a powerful corrective against undue gloom and catastrophizing. If conservatives inadvertently portray our situation as worse than it actually is, then we are liable to embrace radical ideas and reactionary tactics that are bound to backfire. Such is the case when the Republican Party nominates candidates that appeal to a passionate base of supporters but ultimately lose general elections. These non-traditional candidates embody the mantra of “desperate times call for desperate measures,” but all they do is alienate moderate conservatives and independents, which is precisely what happened in the 2022 midterms.

Despite all this, some conservatives may remain skeptical that Poor Folk should be included as essential reading in Conservatism 101. A critic might rightly claim that nothing described here makes Poor Folk a particularly unique novel. It is not Dostoevsky’s best book by any account, and plenty of great works can lead their readers to appreciate the fantastic world the United States has produced. One could also argue that Poor Folk does not contain a particularly conservative or even political message in the way that something like George Orwell’s 1984 or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged does.

Given all this, why devote so much attention to Poor Folk? The answer lies in a crucially important yet rarely raised consideration: the book is easy to read.

At roughly 43,000 words, the book is brief, making it easy for a busy person to finish it in a reasonable time. For comparison, the same source estimates Crime and Punishment to be 138,000 words, over three times longer. This puts Poor Folk in the company of popular works like The Great Gatsby and Fahrenheit 451.

Brevity and accessibility are undervalued in literature, but such considerations are essential if you want people to actually read the text in question. It is wishful thinking to expect most conservatives to read all of Dostoevsky’s great works; such a task would take months at a minimum. It is far better for people to get some exposure to his rich writing through a short, pleasant book than to try and tackle wonderful beasts like The Brothers Karamazov or Demons.

The case for Poor Folk made here is narrowly confined to its ability to help modern-day American conservatives better appreciate life in the United States. The work’s various literary virtues go unaddressed but are nonetheless integral to the reading experience. Indeed, the feeling of reading Poor Folk is perhaps best described by Dostoevsky himself. To paraphrase Barbara in her June 1st letter:

New thoughts, added to new impressions, will come pouring into your heart in a rich flood; the more emotion, the more pain and labor it costs you to assimilate these new impressions, the dearer they will become, and the more gratefully will your soul be stirred to its very depths.

If you also wish for your “whole being to become lost in wondrous chaos,” why not give Poor Folk a try?

A free version of Poor Folk can be accessed via Project Gutenberg.


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