Goodreads: The Gambler
In this dark and compelling short novel, Fyodor Dostoevsky tells the story of Alexey Ivanovitch, a young tutor working in the household of an imperious Russian general. Alexey tries to break through the wall of the established order in Russia, but instead becomes mired in the endless downward spiral of betting and loss. His intense and inescapable addiction is accentuated by his affair with the General’s cruel yet seductive niece, Polina. In The Gambler, Dostoevsky reaches the heights of drama with this stunning psychological portrait.
My edition of The Gambler opens with a note that scholars tend to read The Gambler in light of Dostoevsky’s own addiction to gambling, and although the point of the introduction was to suggest moving away from such a reading, I couldn’t help keeping Dostoevsky’s biography in mind as I read. It made reading the book immensely sad. The story would be sad enough on its own, as it depicts a man who throws away any potential in his life to chase the thrill of gambling–determined he can come out on top if he only approaches the activity correctly–but knowing that the psychology and actions of the protagonist are modeled on a real, specific person who had a troubled relationship with gambling really made the book impactful for me.
Interestingly, the protagonist himself doesn’t really start gambling until late in the novel, but the forward momentum works to suggest that his gambling and his addiction to it are practically inevitable. In the meantime, readers are introduced to several other characters who gamble, and none of them get quite what they are hoping or expecting. Though people do win, the message is clear that staking all your financial hopes on gambling is desperate and bound to end in disappointed. It’s an illusion or a fairy tale and nothing more. The only truly admirable character in the novel never gambles at all, though one does wonder why he bother associating with the other, dysfunctional characters.
The apparent “messages” about gambling are, however, colored by the time period in which the novel was written. Gambling (particularly roulette) appears as a novelty. The protagonist (who narrates the book) spend a lot of time explaining how roulette works and how casinos work and then performing some amateur psychoanalysis of the people he observes in the casino. He draws a distinction between the upper classes and the lower classes, for instance, and notes that it is the height of propriety to never look as if you about either winning or losing. One must act as if money is meaningless, even if one loses everything.
Sometimes the novel makes keen observations about gambling and human nature, but sometimes the age of the book makes some of its observations seem dated or just obvious. A book that, in large part, just wants to explain “why people gamble” may not come across quite as perspicuous today, when we have a lot of scientific research that tells us why people gamble (or, well, why people get addicted to anything). There are also odd notes, like the “pro” gamblers insisting a number can’t come up again in roulette because “it came up recently and therefore won’t come up again for several hours.” I can’t imagine a book today making such a claim with any seriousness; things like this just make the book seem as though it was written by someone who is new to gambling (even though Dostoevsky was in the midst of his own gambling problems while writing it).
At any rate, I did find the book interesting, mostly for characterization. The plot of the novel is certainly minimal. It’s a good read for someone looking for a short classic, particularly a short Russian novel.
5 thoughts on “The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky”
Loved your review. I’m reading “The Idiot” right now (My first Dostoevsky) and finding the story intriguing, albeit with a slow pace.
Just wondering, would you recommend few other “short classics”? I’m hearing the term for the first time and in mood for some quick reads.
Great review, Briana! This is a new book (novella?) to me– I will admit, I haven’t read *any* Russian literature. That makes me feel a bit like an uncultured illiterate, but well, c’est la vie. This seems like a good entry into Russian literature, however. Unless you’d recommend a different entry-level text? 😉
This is one of the very few I’ve read actually! I was listening to the audiobook of The Idiot, which I like better than The Gambler, but the book was due at the library and now I have to figure out where I was so I can finish. :p
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Ugh. That’s always the worst! The librarians know that I am one to hold on to my book until I finish it, though. I don’t mind 25 cents a day to finish a book with a HUGE waiting list. 😆
I would definitely pay to finish a book too!
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