Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gentle Spirit (as titled by translator David McDuff, also known as A Gentle Creature) is remarkable, like so much of his work, for the way in which it engages with the psychology of its main character and narrator. The story takes the form of a monologue, as the character attempts to make sense of his wife’s suicide, which has taken place just hours before, a stream of consciousness which Dostoyevsky discusses in a brief introduction:
“If a stenographer had been able to eavesdrop on him and write down all the words, the result might have been a little rougher, somewhat less trimmed than what I have managed to produce; but I do not believe I am wrong in claiming that the psychological sequence would probably have been the same.”
The story is explicitly the narrator’s attempt to understand why his wife has killed herself:
“I spend all the time pacing about, trying to make sense of it all. I’ve been trying to do that for the last six hours, yet I still can’t get my thoughts into focus. The trouble is I keep pacing, pacing, pacing…”
As the narrator re-examines their relationship we learn that she was a frequent customer of his services as a pawnbroker, a young girl selling her meagre belongings in order to pay to advertise her services as a governess. Her desire for escape is all the more understandable when he discovers that she lives with two “disreputable aunts” who intend her to marry a “fat storekeeper” who has already outlasted two previous wives. The narrator offers to marry her instead:
“I knew that the fat storekeeper was more repugnant to her than I, and that as I stood there at her front gate I appeared as her liberator.”
The narrator’s only surprise is that she does not decide immediately. “Oh I understood nothing back then! Nothing, nothing at all did I understand!” (A frequent refrain that seems to cover his own motives and intentions as well as hers). The marriage encounters difficulties when they disagree about the business, the narrator feeling that she has treated a customer too kindly, against his explicit wishes. Following this, she begins to spend her days away from the apartment. Soon the narrator is building a separate bed for her to sleep in. However, in the days before the suicide there seems to be something of a rapprochement in their relationship, making her death even less explicable.
The Gentle Spirit has the intensity of a short story but the complexity of a novel. While other stories this month have made me want to read more by that writer, The Gentle Spirit simply demands to be read again. At its heart is the unknowability of any other person, perhaps one reason why both characters remain nameless. When the narrator speaks of them becoming “terrible strangers to each other during the winter” we cannot help but feel that is all they have ever been.