Dostoyevsky’s first novel, Poor Folk, published when he was just twenty-four years old, is completely composed of the letters exchanged between a young woman, Varvara Dobroselova, and her older relation, Makar Dyevushkin. Although the two distant cousins live just across the alleyway from each other in the back streets of St Petersburg, they share their thoughts through letters. Both Varvara and Makar are impoverished, through circumstances of bad luck and unhappy birthright. Although they dream of better days, they are often overcome with the futility of trying to better their lives. As Varvara writes to Makar, “All my life I shall be in suffering, thanks to the wicked people who have ruined me.”
The only comfort or happiness either find in their lives is provided through the letters they send back and forth to each other. “I have never spent my days in such joyfulness,” writes Makar, referring to their correspondence, “Why it is as though God has blessed me with a home and family of my own, my child, my pretty!” Not only can they enjoy a relief from their sorrows through words, but they can share whatever hopes remain, without threat of being scorned: “Be a fine man, steadfast in misfortune, remember that poverty is not a vice,” Varvara writes to Makar. “And why despair? It is all temporary! Please God, it will all be set right…”
Why do they not simply visit each other, and forego the letter writing? Because the rules of propriety – and the neighbors’ delight in cruel rumor-mongering and teasing – demand that Makar and Varvara keep their relationship private. They have discovered that the best way to protect their privacy while sharing their feelings freely is through the writing of letters. And Dostoyevsky uses the device of the letters to give us his readers the insider view, building an entire novel – character, plot, and resolution – out of letters. We are as involved in the lives of the characters as if the letters were written to us – and we grow to care very much about Makar and Varvara’s profound losses, their small and infrequent joys, and their long-buried dreams of security and comfort.
What is so marvelous about Dostoyevsky’s use of letters is how authentically he creates the written exchanges. The letters include much that is repetitive and even sometimes boring – just as in real letters! — but alongside the mundane and monotonous, Varvara and Makar describe the nitty gritty details of their lives, allowing us chilling glimpses of the misery that surrounds them in their St Petersburg slum: “At first it [the smell] makes an unfavorable impression, but that is of no consequence …. you begin to smell bad yourself, your clothes smell, your hands smell, and everything smells – well, you get used to it.”
The novel closes with the termination of correspondence between Varvara and Makar. Varvara has sought to improve her lot by marrying an older man. Now she is leaving St. Petersburg with him to live on his estate in the Steppes of Southern Russia. Makar is left all alone, still writing desperately to Varvara but with no chance of ever hearing back from her again. The correspondence has ended and the lifeline of communication is closed down, for good.