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  Philologica 2 (1995)  


(Towards an Exegesis of “The Landlady”)


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This article is devoted to an analysis of one of the young Dostoevskij’s most enigmatic works, The Landlady: the story of the misunderstanding of this tale is now almost one hundred and fifty years old.

In The Landlady, the author emphasized for the first time the theme which later came to predominate in his creative work: the cultural and religious schism in Russian society, and the critical view of official religion in both the popular and intellectual milieux. In connection with this Dostoevskij turned to a topical phenomenon called “the heresy of skopchestvo“. In the 1840s the skopcy (lit. ‘eunuchs’: a sect practising castration) were persistently prosecuted by the authorities: arrests and the criminal investigation took place in Petersburg. Apparently this is the reason why Dostoevskij had to disguise his keen interest in the sectarians: throughout the story the heresy is not openly named, but a variety of specific signs makes it possible to understand that the author had precisely this in mind.

The textual analysis of The Landlady reveals that Dostoevskij, without question, knew the everyday life of the skopcy well, and was familiar with the most important elements of their rituals as well as the symbols of their belief system. The author tells the story of the intellectual protagonist, Ordynov’s, meeting with the fanatical sectarians, of his wish to penetrate the special features of their way of thinking, his striving to understand the causes of the schism in the church and society, and of his attempt to overcome the abyss which divided the higher and lower classes. In Dostoevskij’s coded text eloquent details are scattered around, and allow the reader to discern a hidden ideological conflict beneath the surface plot (i. e. beneath the story of love and of criminal adventure) as well as to see a far-reaching elaboration of the problem of sectarianism, brought into correlation with the history of social and religious attitudes in Russia. Everything is full of meaning here: the choice of setting (the Moskovskaia chast’ of Petersburg where, in Kabinetskaia Street, the skopcy’s “ark” was situated in the 1840s); the symbolism of colour; the specific attributes of the religious ritual; the description of the psychic and physical state of the sectarians; the idiomatics of discourse; the poetics of proper names; and so on.

Turning to the theme of skopchestvo, Dostoevskij tried to clarify the fundamental problems in the social and historical life of Russia. The theme of the schism and sectarianism, which roots the narration in the ethnographic reality of the 1840s, creates at the same time a fantastic atmosphere which is permeated with religious and mythological symbolism. This atmosphere organizes the ideological subtext, links contemporaneity with history, and appeals to the pre-Petrine Age, thus accumulating a whole complex of questions which, during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were more than once raised as being the “patrimonial” and “radical” problems of Russian life. An understanding of the “skopchestvo” constituent of the plot and imagery of The Landlady makes Dostoevskij’s tale much more comprehensible and definite.


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