An Accidental Family – Dostoevsky’s “Fathers and Sons”

Monday, October 10th, 2005

Published 12 years ago -


An Accidental Family – Fyodor Dostoevsky

10 October 2004

Dostoevsky’s An Accidental Family is probably the
least known of his long novels. It is a first-person narrative, presented as
the private “notes” of a twenty-year old bastard, Arkady Dolguruky. Arkady
writes about the momentous events of his 19th year, when he came to
know his biological father, Versilov. Arkady possesses the letter of a young
widow, who stands to lose her inheritance if this letter is made public, and
the plot centers around this document, which Arkady has sewn into the lining of
his jacket.

An Accidental Family concerns the breaking down of the
traditional Russian family, especially as depicted in novels such as War and
Peace
. The various families portrayed in An Accidental Family
contain illegitimacy, but also other dislocations as the old landed nobility is
supplanted by the new mercantile class: money replaces title.

Arkady is defiant about his own illegitimacy. His father,
Versilov, impregnated his mother, Sofya, who was the young wife of an older
man, a gardener-mystic named Dolguruky. Dolguruky is a largely illiterate
Christian holy man, a familiar figure in Dostoevsky’s novels, who allows
Versilov to live in common-law marriage with his wife; he had only married her
as a promise to her dying father anyway, and almost certainly never consummated
the marriage. At the time, Versilov was a dashing young estate owner, already a
widower, and Sofya was a serf on his estate. So there is an economic dissonance
in union of Arkady’s parents to begin with. Further embittering his sense of
illegitimacy is his name, Dolguruky, a princely name associated with the
founder of Moscow. During introductions, people invariably ask Arkady, “Prince
Dolguruky?” Arkady not only denies this but perversely informs them he is a
bastard.

The novel begins with Arkady arriving in St. Petersburg,
where he is to stay with his family for the first time. He had been raised in
boarding schools. He thirsts for a real father, and Versilov, whom he had met
only on one extraordinary occasion when he was twelve, occupies his
imagination. He longs to know, and to impress, his father.

Their common link is Katerina Nikolaevna, the beautiful
young widow, daughter of Versilov’s friend, old Prince Sokolsky. Arkady
happened to acquire a letter from Katerina to the family lawyers in which she
asks about the steps required to have the old Prince committed. (The Prince had
been engaging in erratic behavior, and also buying expensive housewares.)
Katerina lives in anxiety that the letter will surface, and suspects that
Arkady knows its whereabouts. Arkady falls in love with her. His father,
Versilov, had fallen in love with her two years prior when they met abroad, and
seemed on the brink of asking for her hand in marriage despite his own
common-law marriage to Arkady’s long suffering wife, Sofya. Hence the father
and son, whose growing relationship dominates the novel, share a passionate
attraction for the same woman.

An Accidental Family consists largely of great scenes
of dialogue, as characters speak with the precision and insight that only
characters in 19th century novels seem capable of. Arkady becomes
the unlikely center of the maelstrom concerning Katerina’s foolish letter to
the family lawyers, as well as young Prince Seryozha’s riotous living, and his
half-sister Anna Andreevna’s proposal to old Prince Sokolsky. Along the way,
Arkady develops relationships with his father, mother, sister Liza, half-sister
Anna, Katerina, old Prince Sokolsky, and even his auntie Tatya Pavlovna.

Despite the plot of the Katerina’s inheritance, the novel is
largely episodic. Its readability depends largely on the likeability of Arkady,
who presents a three-dimensional self-portrait. He prides himself on his intelligence,
and yet his youthful volubility is uncontainable. In many scenes, he is unable
to contain himself and insights, and the characteristic Dostoevskian melodrama
ensues. Both Arkady’s inner and expressed emotions are described and
dramatized, and Arkady strikes us as one of the greatest portrayals of an
adolescent in Western literature.

Yet Arkady is only one of many strong characters. Versilov
is a memorable character, a forerunner of Fyodor Karamazov, a man of great
passions, but also of surprising intellect and insight. Versilov even has
religious leanings. He can charm nearly everyone he meets, and his friends and
family remain devoted to him despite the suggestions of his philandering, and
the fact that he has run through several inheritances. At times, Versilov seems
like a great man, and claims to be one of only one thousand in all Russia who
represent the old Russian nobility. Versilov (and Dostoevsky) believe that
Russia, especially in its higher types including the pure peasant, has much to
teach the rest of Europe and the world. Versilov, is at any rate, a fascinating
conversationalist, and we marvel at the way he holds his world together despite
other’s knowledge of the baser side of his personality.

An Accidental Family feels like many other
Dostoevskian works, with its St. Petersburg setting, the familial melodrama,
the distinct voice of each character, the gambling scenes. Its relative neglect
by scholars is somewhat surprising.  The
novel has been translated before with other titles, including A Raw Youth
and The Adolescent. Translator Richard Freeborn decided his title should
reflect the familial aspect of the novel. Dostoevsky wrote an essay wherein he
stated that the families of Tolstoy’s War and Peace could only be set in
historical fiction, and that the Russian family of his day was “accidental.”
This observation will seem familiar to contemporary Americans, who have
witnessed the supposed decline of the “nuclear” family. The theme of fathers
and sons was explored in many of Dostoevsky’s great works, including The
Devils
, The Brothers Karamazov, and also An Accidental Family.

10 October 2004

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