Laughter in Dostoevsky’s Early Fictions: Social Satire, Spiritual (In)sight

Sharon Lubkemann Allen, State University of New York-Brockport

In his later novels, Dostoevsky famously couches critical truths in the scandalous speech of fools, grants socially awkward and alienated idiots spiritual insight, gives critical authority to paradoxicalists. These figures evoke laughter, often derisive, more than they are figures who laugh. To be sure, the fool consciously provokes this laughter, freely participating in farce, smiling a sideways grin that is more of a grimace. The idiot evokes that laughter more unselfconsciously and, commensurately, evinces a more innocent, childlike laughter. But these characters, like their more cynical underground counterparts, evince essentially serious intentions. Their apparently untimely, untoward, pathetic action and non-action, silences and speech acts, while laughable at some level, are clearly meant to be taken seriously. Critics of the later novels have noted consistently the significance of scandal in Dostoevsky. But the precursors to these later laughable and/or laughing figures found in Dostoevsky’s early fictions are more ambivalent figures, participating in a more grotesque, embodied, carnivalized exploration of social and spiritual contradictions. They represent a range of registers of laughter that become both more muted and more dispersed in Dostoevsky’s masterpieces.

This essay surveys registers, literary and broader socio-cultural sources, and developing satirical and spiritual aspects of laughter in Dostoevsky’s early short fictions. Critically reconsidering the development of Dostoevskian laughter against historical cultural contexts ranging from religious (Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic) conceptions of laughter to Russian and European literary strains of satire (with references to Russian folklore and fictions Chulkov, Pushkin, Odoevsky, Gogol, Saltykov-Schedrin, Sterne, Dickens, etc.), it re-examines questions of stylization and parody delineated in Tynianov’s and Bakhtin’s analyses of Dostoevsky’s earliest novels and farces such as “Khoziaika” (1847) and “Chuzhaia zhena...” (1848), while focusing on more complex strains of laughter resounding in “Gospodin Prokharchin” (1846), “Polzunkov” (1848), “Diadushkin son” (1859) and “Selo Stepanchikova” (1859) as these filter underground.


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