The Moral Idea In Dostoevsky’s The Double

Lonny Harrison, University of Toronto

Despite the wealth of scholarship on Dostoevsky’s second short novel Dvoinik (The Double, 1846 & 1866), research has led me to conclude that this complex work merits further investigation into the ethical dimensions of the problems facing its protagonist. Approaches to the novella vary widely: sociocultural analyses highlight Dostoevsky’s adaptation and subversion of Russian social realism of the 1840s; textological studies trace the wider variety of source texts incorporated by the author and describe the interplay of narrative modes he employs; psychological readings recognize a case study of madness and a pioneering work of psychoanalysis; structural approaches foreground the mythopoeic structure of the work, bringing Western cultural myths of ontological dualism and synthesis to light.

No study of this vital work, however, has given due attention to the theme that creates its towering importance among Dostoevsky’s early œuvre. While issues of moral culpability have been thoroughly appraised in the works of Dostoevsky’s post-exile period, it is my contention that the intersection between ego-centred motivations and moral awareness is a focal point of Dvoinik that has gone largely unexamined. Using the doppelgänger motif as a narrative strategy, Dostoevsky has plotted the moral question of the individual in society on a matrix with two axes: the good-evil dichotomy and the dynamics of subject-other intersubjectivity. At their point of intersection rests the delicate balance of personal identity and psychic harmony.

The protagonist Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin is no moral crusader. It is not a moral quest, but rather the hero’s moral confusion that the novella describes. His plight is one of confused moral perspectives without definite parametres nor any clear path to resolution, a desperate but vain striving that Dostoevsky paints as a kind of madness. But the psychological dimension of this story is a symptom, a by-product, or even in some sense an analogy of the hero’s ethical confusion rather than its cause. Golyadkin’s psychological illness is the consequence of a moral sickness – a metaphor for the moral indictment of his age Dostoevsky would use repeatedly throughout his mature works. Later it will take the form of illness spurred by delusional ideological intoxication in portrait types drawn from the Russian intelligentsia (cf. principally, the Underground Man, Raskolnikov, Stravrogin, Ivan Karamazov). His characters of the 1840s are precursors of these, but the common view is that they are ill for different reasons – broken down from trying to sustain the struggle of assserting themselves in their crushing social environment. But is this the entire problem for Golyadkin? Ultimately, the issue is further reaching. The interplay of his conflicting visions of self – presented via the literal division of the hero into two separate beings – is a tool in the ontological experiment to test the makeup of Golyadkin’s moral awareness.