Poor Folk is an epistolary novel – that is, a tale told as a series of letters between the characters. And oh, what characters these are! Makar Dievushkin Alexievitch is a copy writer, barely squeaking by; Barbara Dobroselova Alexievna works as a seamstress, and both face the sort of everyday humiliation society puts upon the poor. These are people respected by no one, not even by themselves. These are folks too poor, in their circumstances, to marry; the love between them is a chaste and proper thing, a love that brings some readers to tears. But it isn’t maudlin, either; Fyodor Dostoevsky has something profound to say about these people and this circumstance. And he says it very well. When the book was first published a leading Russian literary critic of the day – Belinsky – prophesied that Dostoevsky would become a literary giant. It isn’t hard to see how he came to that conclusion, and in hindsight, he was surely correct.
MY DEAREST BARBARA ALEXIEVNA,—How happy I was last night—how immeasurably, how impossibly happy! That was because for once in your life you had relented so far as to obey my wishes. At about eight o’clock I awoke from sleep (you know, my beloved one, that I always like to sleep for a short hour after my work is done)—I awoke, I say, and, lighting a candle, prepared my paper to write, and trimmed my pen. Then suddenly, for some reason or another, I raised my eyes—and felt my very heart leap within me! For you had understood what I wanted, you had understood what my heart was craving for. Yes, I perceived that a corner of the curtain in your window had been looped up and fastened to the cornice as I had suggested should be done; and it seemed to me that your dear face was glimmering at the window, and that you were looking at me from out of the darkness of your room, and that you were thinking of me. Yet how vexed I felt that I could not distinguish your sweet face clearly! For there was a time when you and I could see one another without any difficulty at all. Ah me, but old age is not always a blessing, my beloved one! At this very moment everything is standing awry to my eyes, for a man needs only to work late overnight in his writing of something or other for, in the morning, his eyes to be red, and the tears to be gushing from them in a way that makes him ashamed to be seen before strangers. However, I was able to picture to myself your beaming smile, my angel—your kind, bright smile; and in my heart there lurked just such a feeling as on the occasion when I first kissed you, my little Barbara. Do you remember that, my darling? Yet somehow you seemed to be threatening me with your tiny finger. Was it so, little wanton? You must write and tell me about it in your next letter.
But what think you of the plan of the curtain, Barbara? It is a charming one, is it not? No matter whether I be at work, or about to retire to rest, or just awaking from sleep, it enables me to know that you are thinking of me, and remembering me—that you are both well and happy. Then when you lower the curtain, it means that it is time that I, Makar Alexievitch, should go to bed; and when again you raise the curtain, it means that you are saying to me, “Good morning,” and asking me how I am, and whether I have slept well. “As for myself,” adds the curtain, “I am altogether in good health and spirits, glory be to God!” Yes, my heart’s delight, you see how easy a plan it was to devise, and how much writing it will save us! It is a clever plan, is it not? And it was my own invention, too! Am I not cunning in such matters, Barbara Alexievna?