Uncle’s Dream by Feodor Dostoevsky (Book Review) | Dustin Lovell
“This was what distinguished Maria Alexandrovna from her rivals: at critical moments she never allowed any concern about a possible scandal to prevent her from doing something, on the principle that success justifies everything.” – Uncle’s Dream, Feodor Dostoevsky
Feodor Dostoevsky’s first work after being sentenced to Siberia for his participation in an illegal socialist printing scheme, Uncle’s Dream follows the attempts by provincial antiheroine Maria Alexandrovna to secure a marriage for her daughter, Zinaida “Zina” Afanasyevna, to a local aged prince. Drawing on his new experience of the provincial life in Semipalatinsk, where he had been stationed for military service after leaving the labor camp, Dostoevsky wrote Uncle’s Dream as lighter fare that he hoped would let him reenter the mid-century Russian literary scene while not running afoul of government censors. The result is a rare glimpse at Dostoevsky the comedian and a work that introduces several innovations that would become staples of the author’s later work. As such, though often overlooked (if even heard of) among his oeuvre, Uncle’s Dream can offer much to both curious and established Dostoevsky fans.
From the first page we meet the unnamed omniscient gossip narrator, a type Dostoevsky would later use in Demons and The Brothers Karamazov. Dramatizing “the most intimate, direct study of one’s fellow human beings,” that characterized the average provincial, the narrator displays the natural psychology and specialization in human nature that Dostoevsky had begun to observe first in the Siberian prison and then in Semipalatinsk. The narrator’s prescience about the goings on in the provincial town of Mordasov, mixed with his lack of self-awarness about his own role in the promulgation of the very rumors he descries, creates an earnest yet dramatically ironic tone throughout the book. In the words of Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank, such a narrator allows Dostoevsky “to portray his main figures against a background of rumor, opinion, and scandalmongering that serves somewhat the function of a Greek chorus in relation to the central action.”
In the intimate terms of gossip, the narrator—who, though presenting himself as reliable, eschews objectivity—confesses a soft spot for his protagonist, Maria Alexandrovna, who is herself so adept at rumor that she exerts an implicitly threatening influence in her community. Indeed, though (or because) she is at best on the lower end of the landed nobility class, Maria Alexandrovna stands as a kind of Napoleon figure in the book, willing to dispense with good form and respect if it means achieving her ends of rising in society.
She means to do this by audaciously securing a marriage between her daughter Zina and Prince K., who, the narrator is clear to point out, is no mere humorless victim (there are few blameless characters in the book, so consistent is Dostoevsky’s burlesquing of the topics and figures involved). Described as more prosthetic and makeup than man, he is a mix of courtier stuck in the Romantic past and mid-century cipher who, enamored of the manner and ideals of Europe, often adopts the views and words of the last person he spoke to—not to mention, should Maria Alexandrovna pull of her plan, the buffoonish old cuckold from medieval folk literature.
The plot to secure the Prince comprises the book’s main conflict, the tension of which grows the more people Maria Alexandrovna must manipulate others to achieve her ambitions. In so doing she must maintain the balance between her capacity to deter threat via rumor and her own growing vulnerability to it. The results are hysterical, and Dostoevsky’s exploration of the personalities involved—not just that of the provincial gossip, the ambitious herridan, or the pitiful prince, but also of the resentful daughter, the foolish suitor, and the hapless husband—underlays the comedy with that which will later form the best aspects of Dostoevsky’s work.
Foremost among these aspects is the Napoleonic ambition of the main character. The antiheroine’s hyperbolic tendencies are made clear through the way she unscrupulously and consistently tries to control how the other characters interpret her actions. “I wish to present the whole matter to you,” she says when presenting the royal marriage prospects to her daughter, who sees through her mother’s plan from the start, “from a point of view that is completely different from the one you usually adopt, which is incorrect.” Throughout the novel—which lays out the character backstories no less subtly for its being a farce—we learn not only that Maria Alexandrovna’s words here are questionable (Zina is apparently well-experienced in the perspective her mother seeks to push), but that painting a wholistic worldview is no new innovation on her part. Rather, it is through such virtuosic maneuvering that Maria Alexandrovna has achieved her precarious position in her Mordasov, and it is her using it to maintain her position in the province that makes up much of the book’s Falstaffian humor. Indeed, Joseph Frank identifies the tool whereby Maria Alexandrovna creates a closed system regarding her apparently selfless motives to manipulate those around her as “ideology,” which places her at the front of a line of Dostoevsky’s most critically examined characters. Ironically (or revealingly), the ideology Maria Alexandrovna uses is the very literary Romanticism which she so vocally rejects throughout the book.
One point where Maria Alexandrovna’s Napoleonic temperament and her apparent personal cynicism regarding Romanticism meet (not to mention yet one more way Dostoevsky undercuts her seriousness as a character) is the motif of Shakespeare—whom, despite her apparent contempt for his writing, Maria Alexandrovna mentions more than any other character in the book. She consistently references doing away with Shakespeare, whom, readers learn, she blames for her daughter’s romance with her brother’s tutor, whose suffering under tuberculosis is exacerbated by losing Zina (itself a possible lampooning of the much-romanticized-by-Romantics story of Heloise and Abelard, with the predator-prey roles reversed, and bearing obvious Dickensian pathos). “Can you blame me, my dear,” Maria Alexandrovna says to her daughter, “for looking at the whole affair as a romantic dream imbued with that accursed Shakespeare—who is always, as if deliberately, poking his nose in places where he is not wanted?” Shakespeare becomes a touchstone for how Maria Alexandrovna sees the whole of Romanticism, which apparently led her daughter to love against both of their interests.
And yet, despite Maria Alexandrovna’s supposed desire to do away with Romanticism (presumably preferring the Realist-Naturalism then replacing Romanticism in the Russian literary vogue and of which Uncle’s Dream is an example), she is consistently shown as the character most adept at weaving idealized dreams to cajole others into doing what she wants. For all her rejection of Romantic literature, Maria Alexandrovna has apparently read enough of it to draw on the genre’s tropes with skill and alacrity when it suits her—that is, when she can use them to influence others. In so displaying (and burlesquing) the motives of someone who might want to leave Romanticism in the past, Dostoevsky shows an early iteration of his later technique of considering through drama the liabilities of the very ideals (or, here, literary movement) of which he, himself, was a proponent. It also, of course, adds a further layer of humorous irony to an already layered work.Provincial farce though it be—and a work of which the author, himself, apparently didn’t think much—Uncle’s Dream foreshadows a lot of what would make Dostoevsky one of history’s best novelists. In its innovation of the provincial gossip narrator, its identifying the prosaic but domineering Maria Alexandrovna with Napoleon (an early type of the critique of ideology that will later be seen in figures like Raskalnikov and Stavrogin), and its synthesizing the new Naturalism with some of the best elements of Romanticism—which the author was not afraid to mock, despite his being an idealist—this little-known work stands as an essential addition to any library of the Russian prophet’s works. While I’ve previously recommended people curious about Dostoevsky start with Crime and Punishment due to its relatively tight character list and its containing themes that appear in his later masterpieces, I now plan to recommend this hysterical and less heady work, depending on who I’m talking to. The humor is, after all, the main thing that makes the book so enjoyable. There’s hardly a page where Dostoevsky isn’t making fun of somebody with almost Austenian irony, including his own narrator, and what the book lacks in philosophical musings it makes up for in sharp psychological explorations of figures who, despite their banal setting and vaudevillian plot, reveal some of the 19th century’s central questions and conflicts of values.