Dostoevskij’s “Poor Folk” and the Traffic in Women

Brian R. Johnson, University of Wisconsin, Madison

The title of this paper stems from Gayle Rubin’s article “The Traffic In Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” The paper will compare Rubin’s understanding of male-female relationships being based in a financial construct, a construct in which men purchase women, with two relationships in “Poor Folk.”

On the surface, the relationships in “Poor Folk” appear to follow Rubin’s general rule of the “man purchases woman” financial construct. Devuškin rather clumsily courts Varvara Alekseevna with gifts of flowers and candy, which are symbols of wealth insofar as the objects themselves hold no practical value for Varvara Alekseevna. Also, although no direct evidence is given, Bykov apparently successfully purchases Varvara Alekseevna’s services in the capacity of a prostitute. Yet Dostoevskij complicates the straightforward financial construct by including external forces and characters in his plot and reversing the expected gender roles of his characters. For example, Bykov is not the only character who “gains” from the prostitution of Varvara Alekseevna. Although he does in a sense purchase her, it is a woman, Anna Fedorovna, who profits financially from the transaction. This complicates a straightforward interpretation by not only splitting the purchaser into client and profiteer, but also the expected gender dynamic of the transaction, insofar as a woman is profiting by selling a woman to a man. The expected gender dynamics of a relationship are also reversed in the relationship between Devuškin and Varvara Alekseevna, wherein she, as poverty-stricken as she is, eventually ends up supporting the destitute Devuškin. The financial construct remains, but its ends are shifted: whereas Devuškin was attempting to buy Varvara Alekseevna’s hand, Varvara Alekseevna attempts purchase respect for her tarnished name by maintaining the physical existence of her closest relative.

I have chosen the work “Poor Folk” to explore Dostoevskij’s treatment of the role of money in male-female relationships over other works where the theme is even more overt, such as “The Gambler,” The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov, not only because it is short and thus more easily explored deeply within the timeframe of a conference presentation, but also because, as Dostoevskij’s first work, it demonstrates that Dostoevskij was concerned with this theme from the very beginning of his career. Almost without fail, relationships in all of Dostoevskij’s works in some sense revolve around money. The persistence of this theme, its presence from the very start of Dostoevskij’s career, and its continual development and redevelopment in his works lead me to believe that Dostoevskij was not simply portraying social ills or a proto-feminist viewpoint in his relationships, but rather making a broader statement about the nature of human relationships. Thus, this paper and its examination of the relationships in “Poor Folk” will serve as a springboard for a larger project wherein the relationships in Dostoevskij’s works as a whole will be explored into order to understand how Dostoevskij construes physical love, spiritual love, money, and sacrifice within the matrix of his relationships.