Comparisons have been drawn between Dickens and Dostoevsky frequently enough to make them seem at times like spiritual brothers who chanced to be born in different countries. The similarities between the two of them can be plentifully enumerated: the superabundant moralistic fervor, their mutual concern for the downcast, the odd asymmetries of temper, the horror of revolution, the pathos that sometimes curdles into mushiness-these are common to both men, each of whom wore his affections and resentments openly, and without any shred of reservation. Lovers of understatement, of fine shades of moderate expression, of subtlety in general-for readers like these, neither of these two great novelists can ever really be a close companion.
These and a few other thoughts occurred to me recently upon finishing Dostoevsky’s short story The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree. It is a minor work: not, I think, often read, and easily overlooked in A Writer’s Diary, the curious jumble of a book in which it was first published. Dostoevsky himself, in the opening paragraph, tosses out a hint that he is offering his reader a trifle, a bagatelle: “I am a novelist, and I suppose I have made up this story. I write ‘suppose’, though I know for a fact that I have made it up”, etc. The master makes no pretence that he has crafted a masterpiece.
This does not mean that the story is not touching. In fact, it reminds us that Dostoevsky is one of the handful of truly great literary giants to be not at all ashamed of the emotion of pity. Acknowledging the long list of his twisted misfits, his murderers, his pitiless nihilists, there still remains to be accounted for Prince Mishkin, Sonya the prostitute, and Alyosha Karamazov. Dostoevsky opens his story in that familiar 19th century setting, a decaying tenement house for widows and orphans. The first few sentences are enough to remind one that Dostoevsky is perhaps of all our great novelists the one most impatient of lengthy physical descriptions. Briefly he tells us that the boy wakes up “in a cold damp cellar”, and that “he was dressed in a sort of little dressing-gown and was shivering with cold”. The boy’s mother is sleeping on a mattress “as thin as a pancake”. Apart from these few details, the surroundings and associations of poverty are mostly left to the reader to picture for himself. Here is a difference between the Russian and the Victorian Englishman: Dickens would almost certainly have given us a more exhaustive report of the broken-down furniture, the accumulations of debris in the room’s corners, and the distressed features and eccentric mannerisms of the dwelling’s inhabitants. Dostoevsky, concerned with circumstances other than the physical, simply puts a boy in a room and sets him in motion.
The story is one of unrelieved poignancy: the boy, suffering from the severity of the winter and desperately hungry, leaves the tenement where he and his mother have spent the night, and goes out into the city in search of food. He comes upon a great house whose front window displays a tree, festive ornaments, “apples and little dolls and horses”. He tries to enter by the front door, and is driven away by those inside. From there he passes on to a nearby toy-shop and admires the arrangement of merchandise for sale. Once more he is driven away, and takes refuge behind a stack of wood in a private courtyard. Growing delirious from the cold, he imagines himself invited to a Christmas celebration in a Heaven of perfect warmth, where hospitality is at last not denied, and even a vagrant like himself is welcome by the fire. The guests in this visionary festival are, like himself, poor children, orphans and beggars. Here again we can easily imagine Dickens concluding the same tale in this sweet, not to say saccharine, context, but Dostoevsky takes care to remind us (to borrow a title of one of Orwell’s best essays) of How the Poor Die: “And he found out that all these little boys and girls were children just like himself…some had frozen to death in the baskets in which they had as babies been laid on the doorsteps of well-to-do Petersburg people, others had been boarded out with Finnish women by the Foundling and been suffocated, others had died at their starved mothers’ breasts (in the Sahara famine), others had died in the third-class railway carriages from the foul air…” It is giving little away to say that the boy and his mother are both dead from the cold at the story’s end. The author’s voice shifts finally from third into first person and he states that “all this may have really happened”.
We have our own concerns on which we choose to spend our sentiment, and these are different from those of the men and women of 1876, of whatever nationality. It is not that we care nothing at all about the misery of the poor, but we don’t think of them as Christ’s poor as did Fyodor Dostoevksy and (in his unorthodox way) Charles Dickens. The poor, in our eyes, are either a set of people who have simply been unlucky, a class doomed to suffer for its own ignorance, laziness, and lack of hygiene, or the innocent victims of plutocratic injustice. The spiritual, as opposed to the sociological, implications of poverty are interesting to almost none of us. Dickens and Dostoevsky would have been perplexed at this, or, what is more probable, deeply alarmed. Neither of them was an economist or a social planner (both men distrusted such types as these), and neither would be anyone’s first choice to organize a parish relief program or community food drive. Even so, at Christmas we might pay the tribute of a passing thought to these two writers’ ability to see in the poor something other than a problem requiring a solution or a mass of inconvenient humanity that needs to be managed for its own good by the well-educated and the well-heeled. These will of course be waiting for them and for us after the holidays with their calculators, regulations, and paltry relief checks. So let us ignore them for a moment.