Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Book Review: The Christmas Tree and the Wedding, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1848)

I won't lie to you, this story sort of disgusted me.  I'm sure that was the purpose.  Imagine seeing a cute little 11 year old girl.  Then imagine planning to marry her.  I shouldn't use the word "plan".  Scheme would be better.  Connive.

Having a narrator was just a way of telling the story, he plays no part in the story except as an observer.  He went to a Christmas party, got bored with no one to talk to, and watched some children play.  One of them was a pretty little 11 year old girl.  It came out that the father had already set aside a large amount of money for her dowry.

A loathsome guest heard about the dowry and immediately plotted to marry the little girl when she came of age.  That would be age 16.  I won't bore you with my telling of it, but I will spoil the ending so stop reading if you don't want to know.  Skip ahead five years and the narrator came upon a wedding, you can guess the bride and groom.  And the description of the pathetic, scared 16 year old girl was heartbreaking.

Now, let's talk about this for a moment.  Fyodor Dostoyevsky understood perfectly well the bond between parents and children, especially between a father and a daughter.  In Notes From Underground, he wrote of the affection - almost adoration - a man can have for his daughter.  So naturally, the thing to do is award her with a rich dowry so she'll attract a good husband, right?

That's the problem.

To take such an interest in her happiness throughout her childhood years, and then punish her by forcing her to marry someone she doesn't love, doesn't even like, in fact doesn't even know...how is that helping her?  How is that doing anything except being cruel to her?

Today, people in this country usually marry for love.  Even when it's not love, it's still not normally a marriage arranged by the parents.  We think of that as old fashioned.  So what was wrong with people in the olden days?  Were they stupid?  Were they crazy?  Why would they force a 16 year old girl to marry someone that was obviously loathsome?  How could the parents not see the man for what he was?  Or did they know and just not care?

It was all about money and position.  That's the bottom line.  In Russian society in the 1800s when you met someone, you were interested in those two things only.  That's one bit of information I've picked up so far in reading other Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy works.  That's how things played out.  I know, I know, things weren't that different in Britain at the time.  In fact, pretty much the same.  But there was a certain harshness about it that comes out more in the writings of Dostoyevsky than in Dickens.

Being poor was a sin.  In both British and Russian society, it was a sin.  The little girl's playmate is the example.  He's the poor kid at the party, the son of the governess.  He gets less presents than the others, the boys won't play with him, the guests look down on him, and the loathsome man dismisses him as a bug.  The host was looking to place the boy someplace - at a school or as an apprentice or something - and he was counting on the loathsome man to help him.  The loathsome man tried to get the poor boy to leave so he could talk to the little girl, but the boy didn't because the kids were scared.  For that, the loathsome man despises the boy and refuses to help him.

The description of the loathsome man is wonderful.  He's a despicable man who is well thought of because he has money and position.  And those are the two qualities he respects in other people.  Dostoyevsky describes similar people in other works, so I believe he is drawing from real life.

Instead of just being an interesting tale, this short story makes me want to explore this whole concept further.  I could never imagine forcing my daughter to wed a wealthy landowner just to help my own position.  There's not much I wouldn't do and not much I wouldn't give up for her happiness.  But I'm not much different than all the other fathers out there.  So what the hell was wrong with the father in this story?  It's creepy.  It's obscene.  To marry off your little girl as soon as she turned 16 to someone who only wanted the money is bizarre.  To not understand the man only wanted the money is also bizarre.

Good story that gives us a glimpse of life at that time and place.  I hope it helped bring some sort of social change in its time.

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