The Eternal Husband and Dostoevskian Simplicity

The Eternal Husband is the kind of novel I imagine Fyodor Dostoevsky came up with in a weekend. It could even work as a one-act play with its three basic steps: Take a wife who cheats on her husband, kill her off (before the start of the novel of course), and put the husband in the same room with the adulterer. And oh, nobody’s sure how much the husband knows.

This is the simple plot in Dostoevsky’s short novel(la).* Of course, many of Dostoevsky’s short novels have plots built on simple premises. The Double is about a guy who sees his double, The Gambler is about a guy who gambles, etc. These shorter works also tend to start from the same set-up, focusing on a mentally unstable protagonist who lives in a confined residence in St. Petersburg. Yakov Petrovich Goliadkin of The Double and, more famously, the Underground Man from Notes from Underground come to mind here.**

*I don’t know exactly where the cut-off between short novel and novella is.

**As, of course, does Raskolnikov, but I can’t really call Crime and Punishment a “short work,” can I?

The Eternal Husband is different from its predecessors—it was written in 1870, before only Demons, The Adolescent, and The Brothers Karamazov, none of which really fit the above pattern—in two key ways. First, it is perhaps Dostoevsky’s most economical novel. The secondary characters—you know, the kind that get entire books dedicated to them in The Brothers Karamazov—are, for the most part, negligible. The tertiary and quaternary characters are non-existent. I suppose there are a maid and a little girl who doesn’t talk much, but it isn’t really a Dostoevsky novel without a maid and a little girl who doesn’t talk much.

The Eternal Husband is really about two characters: Pavel Pavlovich Trusotsky, the husband from the title, and Alexei Ivanovich Velchaninov, the man who slept with Trusotsky’s wife, Natalia, during a year-long stay at his friend’s residence nine years earlier. Every scene starts with Velchaninov, and none end before he and Trusotsky come together in some way.

Second, the rest of Dostoevsky’s unstable characters—Goliadkin, Raskolnikov, the Underground Man—are the protagonists of their respective works. We see the world through their eyes and consciences, even if only Notes from Underground is written in the first-person. The Eternal Husband flips that around. It’s Trusotsky who’s a bit unstable here, and we see him from the perspective of Velchaninov. Not surprisingly, this shift in perspective drastically alters our perception of Dostoevsky’s traditional “antihero.” Think of Notes from Underground from the point-of-view of one of the Underground Man’s colleagues, or Crime and Punishment as told by Porfiry Petrovich.

This latter example is particularly resonant given the at times suffocating aspect of the two men’s interactions. The novel in fact starts a bit like The Double, with Velchaninov feeling the ominous presence of a stranger. That stranger just turns out to be his old friend, Trusotsky, who then, in Velchaninov’s eyes, becomes a kind of detective. Just how much does he know about me and Natalia? And why was he lingering outside my door at 3 a.m.?

The novel runs with this dynamic: One minute the two are just old friends reuniting, the next Trusotsky is mourning his recently deceased (of tuberculosis) wife,* then they’re grabbing a drink, and Trusotsky’s drinking too much, and he’s having to stay the night, and he’s staring at Velchaninov in his sleep. There’s an underlying tension to all their interactions—the kind we see only in glimpses between Raskolnikov and Porfiry in Crime and Punishment. Viewing it all through Velchaninov, we, too, closely examine what Trusotsky says and how Trusotsky acts for hints at what he knows. Like Velchaninov, we go over and over his strange response to the death of Natalia’s subsequent affair. Is he sad because he didn’t know? Or is it because he didn’t get to kill him?

*Again, it wouldn’t be Dostoevsky without tuberculosis.

Most of all, seeing all this through Velchaninov’s eyes leads us to one conclusion: We can’t stand Trusotsky. And that dislike almost extends retroactively to those other protagonists from the past: You know what, Raskolnikov, you deserve to be caught. Maybe Goliadkin II wouldn’t have stolen all your friends if you were nicer to begin with, Goliadkin I. And why don’t you chill out with all your self-righteousness, Underground Man.

Of course, since it’s Dostoevsky, it doesn’t stay that straightforward. And here’s where we get into spoilers, and since this is a little-known novel that most haven’t read, I don’t want to go too far. But suffice to say, there’s that little girl who doesn’t talk much to consider, and there’s the matter of what happens to her, and how, and why, and the assumptions our two main characters make, and how the reader responds to these questions will greatly affect the opinions he forms about Velchaninov and Trusotsky the rest of the way. And there’s an ending (or two) that might cause us to change what we thought all along.

The simplest of plots, sure, but as complex a dynamic as any in Dostoevsky’s short literature.

One response to this post.

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