‘An Honest Thief’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky: Short Story Analysis
Fyodor Dostoevsky is one of the few writers who are credited to have been early existentialists. This is obvious in the author’s books and short stories including this one. ‘An Honest Thief’ shows Dostoevsky’s in-depth knowledge of psychology as well as the mental, social, cultural and political condition of the Russia of his times. There are many instances of this in the story, especially through the inane ranting of Emelian IIyitch ( Emelyan), the main and poignant character in this story when his ‘father benefactor’ Astafi Ivanovich tries to coax him into taking on a job as a tailor. ‘An Honest Thief’ may seem to the general reader as a simple story of Emelian’s downward spiral because of addiction to alcohol,l but it is not so. The story has a lot of deeper sub-plots, hidden messages, and some of the most puzzling descriptions of the mental faculties of the minds of Astafi Ivanovich and Emelian in particular.
There is definitely that important event when a thief brazenly runs off with the first narrator’s short coat that triggers off in the memory of Astafi Ivanovich, the retired soldier, about the honest thief he had encountered in his life by the name of Emelian. At first, if you notice in the story, the hermit like reclusive introverted character is the narrator of this tale but after the robbery, Astafi Ivanovich becomes the narrator of the inner core story. Thus, it is a dual narrator story with the second plot being the main part of the short story. To understand the relationship between Emelian and Astafi Ivanovich is to ponder over the marvelous, surreal and very startling prose of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Emelian, in the eyes of Astafi Ivanovich, is indeed a robber; but it is not only the expensive breeches that Emelian robs to buy himself alcohol that makes him a thief, but the way he is robbing Astafi Ivanovich of his common sense, his sanity, his emotions, his house, his money, et al. There is a certain, dog like affection that Astafi Ivanovich has for this drunkard who follows him to his home and stays there. There are many references to the word ‘dog’ mentioned by Astafi Ivanovich in relation to Emelian which one spots throughout the second part of the story. Emelian truly acts like a creature, not a person. He truly acts like a dog who latches on to a person he adores, for no reason in particular, and then makes himself devoted to the person, in this case Astafi Ivanovich. Astafi Ivanovich is very sentimental about Emelian. He simply is unable to throw him out even though the drunkard has robbed him and he is aware of it. It seems he can’t be parted from Emelian and finds excuses to keep him still with him at home. This is very evocative. It is evocative of the many excuses the Russian peasants and semi-educated classes in Dostoevsky’s time were giving to continue their tormenting existence under their leaders in the 19th century. Astafi Ivanich also keeps on giving excuses just to keep Emelian at his home under his roof. He wants to even ration the food, water, money, et al., to get it all done to fit this useless creature of a man under his roof who is only sponging on Astafi Ivanovich and yet, who adores him all the same. I would even go to the extent of saying that maybe Emelian wanted to take over the personage of Astafi Ivanovich if he had not died at the end of the story ‘An Honest Thief’. When we go back to the text, there are some very unnerving hints that maybe Astafi Ivanovich was really now in Emelian’s shoes, as he too has rented the spare room near the kitchen in the hermit like first narrator’s home. He too sits on the window seat, just like Emelian used to do in Astafi Ivanovich’s home and is busy at tailoring or sewing, a trade which he had tried to coax Emelian into. If you think that is scary enough, there is another theory racking through my head that maybe on the death bed of the cold and hungry Emelian, it was not Emelian who died but maybe Astafi Ivanovich in the sense a complete psychological takeover of some sort? There are many possibilities when one reads about the death of Emelian, because how could he die from only being out in the cold for four days? I admit the winter and cold in Russia is terrible, but Astafi Ivanovich tried to do the best he could, didn’t he? Then what about Astafi Ivanich? He was a broken man, a man who the hermit like narrator mentions ‘worries a great deal over trifles.’ One’s heart tends to bleed at the descriptions of Emelian when he is ranting in a drunken state about the poverty and unfairness in Russia and for that matter in the world, through the eyes of an existentialist. Take note the mention of the baskets of huckleberries and the baron’s money found by two poor and needy muzhiks or Russian peasants. There is a sort of uncomfortable sense of guilt and an overriding guilt complex throughout the story which was evoked from Astafi Ivanovich by the creature like Emelian. It certainly reminds us of how the poor and middle class in Russia were like Emelian, pitied but where it remained as a blind spot to those in power – no one can bear to see the tears of an innocent suffering man. It is a real strategic event in the story when Emelian starts to cry for the first time and Dostoevsky wants us to take note of it. To Astafi Ivanovich, it is mentioned that the love he had for Emelian was like that of a father for his own flesh and blood. This is an obvious indication of the rich vs the poor in Russia. What I want to draw your attention to is the fact that Emelian, through his persona, had literally and metaphorically ‘disarmed’ a once upon a time retired soldier, that is Astafi Ivanovich. It seems that like a faithful dog Emelian would never leave Astafi Ivanovich, but does so ironically when the latter started to lock his trunk before he would go out for work. Take away points from this story are:
• The coincidence of both cases, women housekeepers in attendance in both, the first plot in the hermit like narrator’s home and then in Astafi Ivanovich’s home. Could they have been one in the same person?
• Emelian’s obvious extraordinary capabilities to be robbing Astafi Ivanovich of his very soul and life spirit.
• The psychological game Emelian was playing knowingly or unknowingly with Astafi Ivanovich. That is quite the usual fare when one reads a short story or novel by Dostoevsky.
• Emelian was very dear to Astafi Ivanovich and he treated him like some sort of ‘prodigal son’.
• The allusion to the ‘Good thief’ in the Bible (New Testament) who confesses his sin when crucified on the cross with Jesus the Christ and who gains absolution from the Christ. Emelian also on his death bed confesses to the stealing of the expensive breeches to Astafi Ivanich, who forgives him with all his heart.
• The title of the short story – not only pointing out to the New Testament’s ‘Good thief’, but also the self-righteousness of Emelian to have a spot in Astafi Ivanovich’s life, like the ‘Good thief’ who wanted to be remembered by Jesus the Christ when the Christ would enter his kingdom.
I have always maintained that Fyodor Dostoevsky is one of the finest writers in the world and it’s always intellectually stimulating to read and review his short stories or full-length novels. If you are interested in book reviews, short story analysis and author interviews then visit my blog insaneowl.com. If you want to buy my books then visit my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you this week!
Copyright ©2020 Fiza Pathan
Аудио транскрипция Федора Достоевского «Честный вор»: краткий рассказ на русском языке
Copyright ©2020 Fiza Pathan
This is a great analysis, Fiza. I have not read this book but you have certainly interested me in doing so. Sharing.
It is a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing my post. 🙂
Hello fiza, thanks for this.