In 1846, several decades before his greatest novels were published, Fyodor Dostoyevsky brought out The Double – and unfortunately it did not meet with critical success. It is nonetheless an interesting work.
The author conjures up an alienated low-level civil servant in St. Petersburg – Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin – whose life is utterly futile. He is trapped in an arbitrary bureaucratic hierarchy, denied the company of a woman he can only admire from afar, and defeated at every turn by the malevolence of people around him.
Dostoyevsky casts Golyadkin in a non-stop swirl of delirium and mania, as he lives through one emotional emergency after another, convinced everyone is plotting against him, mocking his inadequacy, humiliating, ridiculing and ostracizing him, and even scheming to throw him out of the civil service once and for all … whereas all he wants is to be valued by his superiors.
Nowadays, we would call this paranoia and anxiety.
As if this weren’t bad enough, things get worse for Golyadkin one dark evening in St. Petersburg, when he meets his exact double – who is a more self-assured, charming, witty and socially better-connected version of himself.
The morning after encountering his double, Golyadkin feels “it was all so strange, so incomprehensible, so weird, so impossible even, that it was extremely difficult to credit any of the whole business. Even Mr. Golyadkin himself was ready to admit that it was all some kind of fantastic raving, some momentary derangement of the imagination or darkening of the mind, had he not known – fortunately for him, from bitter experience of life – to what extremes an embittered enemy can sometimes go to avenge his honour and pride.”
Enemy? The “real” or senior Golyadkin and the “fake” or junior Golyadkin quickly enter conflict as rivals. The “real” Golyadkin is sure his double wants to outshine, undermine, exploit and ultimately destroy him.
Dostoyevsky creates an atmosphere of vertigo, on the knife-edge of existence – “our hero” seems just about to tumble into the abyss at any moment. Everything in The Double is dizzy, whirling, swirling, sweaty, incoherent. Golyadkin is driven along, from one maddening scene to the next, struggling to find some shred of dignity in a vertical, harsh society. Yet, at key points in the story – whenever courage is needed – he retreats into a hiding-place, like a timid mouse scurrying under a pile of lumber, while hundreds of superior hate-filled eyes – a raging, molten mosaic – judge him with contempt.
Is the idea of a double that far from our everyday experience? I know a father who considers his son a more attractive and successful version of himself. I know a woman who considers her husband to be “her creation,” as if he could never have existed without her. I know many people torn between the real self they keep to themselves, and the fictional, glamorous self they project onto the rest of the world. And I know many people who defeat themselves. I remember writing in Robber Baron, my unauthorized biography of Conrad Black, “When Black talked about himself, I had the impression I was hearing the final summing up, as if the moon were beginning to inch across the sun in total eclipse.”
Dostoyevsky lived an either/or existence, rushing back and forth between the good and bad sides of his nature; he acknowledged he was split in two; he was haunted by the rift between what he wished he could be, and the way he really was. Perhaps this is where his doppelgänger comes from.
Unfortunately – and it is a weakness found in many of Dostoyevsky’s works – the female characters are poorly drawn, and have no independent path of their own. They only exist to illustrate the hero’s desires, personal flaws or delirium. They are trapped, secondary characters – who never develop, and have nowhere to go.