‘Bobok’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky: Short Story Analysis
‘Bobok’ was penned by Dostoevsky in the year 1873. ‘Bobok’ means two things: ‘a small bean’ and ‘nonsense’. This is a philosophical story told in the nonsense style to bring to mind several aspects of intellectual thought but in a humorous way. It is essentially the story of the narrator Ivan Ivanovitch, a complacent and multi-tasking writer, who one day spends his time in a cemetery, and crashes onto a conclave of ghosts. These ghosts represent different emotions, forms of thought, cultural aspects in society, social classes, Russian clichés, et al. They all are spending the afterlife for a while together and the core idea of this story is the topic of depravity. Now, ‘depravity’, as we know is moral corruption, which is the inner corruption or perversion of the mind. It also is indicative of the ‘external corruption’ of the body when a person dies. Hence, this story, especially the latter portion, is all about moral corruption which is coupled with the external corruption of the dead bodies of the spirits or souls that Ivan sees in the cemetery. ‘Bobok’ is a setting for the philosophical thoughts in the latter years of Dostoevsky’s literary career.
The story is divided into two parts:
- The literary but wayward life of the failed writer Ivan Ivanovitch.
- The cemetery episode among the souls of the departed.
The first part of the story is very much a preparation for the second part. It alludes right in the beginning to Ivan’s insanity or insane behavior as noted by the painter of his portrait. His picture is described as the ‘morbid face suggesting insanity’. This is the foundation for us for the scene in the cemetery, for only a person who may have lost his mental faculties could see the things Ivan saw and heard that day in the cemetery. Ivan is a failed author who is ready enough to admit that he is a fool, out of humility. You will notice that the spirits in the cemetery are totally insane. There is not ‘a Bobok’ or bean seed of intellectual material in their absurd conversation but this is only on the surface level. I love that part when Ivan mentions that people shut up the so-called ‘fools’ in madhouses to make themselves seem wise. At the end of the day, we tend to wonder, who is ‘mad’ and who isn’t? We keep on coming to the topics of insanity, realism, and depravity in this story. The writing style of Ivan is described by critics as:
- A parenthesis of a parenthesis.
- Underlying meanings in ‘brackets’ or social cages, and so forth.
I’m sure this is the firsthand experience of the ever-cynical Dostoevsky coming to the forefront. How true he is to note that all analyses of books, writings, art, etc., at the end of the day are based on the vague subjective reasonings of people who deem to be wise but when they open their mouths to pass on knowledge, we realize them to be mere fools.
I do know of these
That therefore only are reputed wise
For saying nothing, when I am very sure
If they should speak, would almost damn those ears
Which, hearing them, would call their brothers fools.
– William Shakespeare
‘The Merchant of Venice’ Act 1, Scene 1: Line 95-100
In the first part of ‘Bobok’, Ivan even mentions that people from different vocations in life like to still comment about other diagonally opposite vocations and ideas of thought that they know least about. Hence, a civilian looking to comment on the life of a field marshal, and an educated engineer to comment on philosophy and political economy. Ivan goes for a funeral but doesn’t go to the funeral dinner or get-together. He unnaturally lies down in the cemetery on a marble tombstone and then starts hearing voices. If it were not for the description of the hilariously varied life of Ivan at the beginning of ‘Bobok’, then we as readers would have been on the edge at the entry of the ghosts. On the contrary, thanks to the excellent prose of Dostoevsky, we find the whole situation hilarious. There are many ghosts mentioned in the cemetery. I note them down for your reference:
- Major-General Vassili Vassilitch Pervoyedov.
- The Lower Court Councilor, Lebeziatnikov.
- The Shopkeeper.
- A confused Young Man.
- Avdotya Ignatyevna, the pretentious lady of high standing.
- Tarasevitch, the privy councilor.
- Katchie, a young girl of sixteen years of age.
- Baron Pyotr Petrovitch also called Klinevitch.
- The Philosopher, Platon Nikolaevitch.
- The Engineer.
As you can see, they are tongue twister names and belong to different social backgrounds in Russian society. This cacophony of several depraved spirits starts conversing with each other, the new arrivals to the old spirits in the cemetery. The women, Avdotya and Katchie are shown to be frivolous, fickle minded, sexually depraved, and ready to ‘get naked’ at the slightest hint. This a very stark portrayal, but the other men are even worse. The Philosopher hardly speaks, and if he does, it is to say something without any meaning or relevance to the current situation. The Lower Court Councilor is suave and practices his manners in social status protocol even in death which Klinevich finds very useless and banal a task. Klinevitch comes out as the main speaker in this crowd of ghosts. The Shopkeeper is looked down upon by the pretentious lady but he also seems to have a ‘so-called’ self-dignity. He is quite sure that he would never ‘lay down’ beside the pretentious lady for any sum of money if he was alive; it is a pity that in his death he has to reside near her, a sexually starved and obsessed woman. The pretentious lady is the clown of the show. She wants to ‘lay down’ with practically everybody. Thus, Dostoevsky shows us the reality of Russian nobility and the affluent. Even the General who seems the most dignified of the lot was once pulled out from under a married couple’s bed by a manservant. The General seems the least keen to jump into the extremes of ‘sexual depravity’ even in death by ‘getting naked’ and having a sexual supernatural orgy with the whole congregation of these hilarious personalities. It is Klinevitch who suggests the sexual orgy in the first place. He was a baron who loved a perversity of the ‘truth’. To him, being alive meant to lie for one’s whole life. He wants to live life to the fullest now and wishes to ‘get naked’, even if it means to practice pedophilia where the giggling girl Katchie is concerned. You will notice the unseemly appetizing prospect of the male ghosts in ‘Bobok’ who are very keen to become pedophiles. The sexual innuendoes in this story are clear and brave for the Russia of the nineteenth-century. Although the Philosopher says very little it is he, through the words of the Councilor, that mentions that the dead souls could smell the stench of decay mainly because of the ‘moral stench of the soul’ in the grave. It is the last ‘mercy’ that is given to the depraved dead. If you are wondering how they all can communicate with each other, it is because of their souls being governed by inertia as well as being concentrated in the consciousness which makes them stuck for some time on the Earth. Notice the use of the word ‘inertia’ by Dostoevsky; it’s very important. ‘Inertia’ means a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged. These depraved souls were never going to change and so they were stuck here in the cemetery attached to their graves. This is, as per the Councilor, their version of the ‘Vale of Jehoshaphat’ as mentioned in the Old Testament, in the book of the Prophet Joel:
Let the nations be wakened, and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat; For there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations. -Joel 3:12
It is the realm of God’s final judgment for these crazy mixed bunch of Russian society. There is a line where the Councilor tries to justify their depravity by saying that life was so full of suffering and torment where we have so little to make up for it. This is the existential element mentioned in the story along with several others. The sword of the General is a symbol of the erect penis as well as the symbol of the rich male power in the Russian hierarchy. Even if the General’s ‘sword’ cannot do anything worthwhile, it is still called by him ‘a sword of honor’. All talk comes to a standstill once Ivan sneezes, bringing all back to reality. The ghosts stop talking and seem to disappear. Ivan believes in his heart that they are hiding a secret from mortals which he is keen to find out by visiting more cemeteries. He vows to find something reassuring someday:
- To calm his heart for the afterlife.
- To find material to write about.
- To find the source and reason for the corruption not only of the human body but also of the human soul.
‘Bobok’ is one of my favorite Dostoevsky stories and it was a pleasure to analyze it. A deeper analysis is called for but that is for another time. If you are interested in more book reviews, short story analysis, poems, essays, and other bookish content, then you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you want to buy my books then you can visit my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you this weekend!
Copyright © 2020 Fiza Pathan
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Graydon Miller says
Thank you for this profound detour from the shallow review of other postings which was not easy to interrupt. But so glad that I did. Dostoevsky is eternally contemporary.- Graydon Miller, the Wizard of Fiction.
Thank you Sir. Honored. 🙂