‘The Little Orphan’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky: Short Story Analysis
This short story was published by Dostoevsky in 1887. It’s very much similar to Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale ‘The Little Match Girl’ or ‘The Little Match Seller’. Andersen’s story was published earlier in 1845. I shall review Andersen’s story tomorrow, but today I will be analyzing Dostoevsky’s ‘The Little Orphan’. This short story is set in a big bustling city in Russia of the late nineteenth century, probably St. Petersburg. It’s Christmas Eve, a day when ‘Light’ came down from heaven to Earth in the form of the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, Christmas eve normally is symbolized with light. However, for one six-year-old street urchin, this day will be the day of his mother’s death, his own death as well as the death of that notion we have in our heads that Christmas means joy for everyone because it doesn’t. ‘The Little Orphan’ is Dostoevsky trying to show us the pitiable lives of little children born to poverty in Russia before the twentieth century. In this story, like Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Match Girl’, the little orphan boy encounters realistic visions of the splendor of Christmas in the homes of the privileged. Unlike the Match Girl who sees visions in the form of hallucinations, the orphan boy sees real images that symbolize the clichéd ideas about European Christmas time.
The orphan boy lives in squalor and filth in a tenement. His mother has passed away, and he is the first to see her dead and not moving. Notice in the story how he is stuck on the word ‘cold’. Not only was his mother’s dead body cold, but he was also feeling bitterly cold. Also, on Christmas Eve, the world of the ‘haves’ are ‘cold’ to the ‘have nots.’ It seems like Christmas has only come to the privileged few in the big city. Thus, Dostoevsky shows us that people have not understood the true meaning of Christmas. If the orphan boy would have survived and not died of the cold, he would have been sent to the streets to beg, in a year or two. This shows the hardships of the life of nineteenth-century Russia which have been brought out in this story. The three sights the orphan boy sees is through window panes. The first three are about the grandeur of the rich during the season of Christmas. Outside on the cold streets in certain areas, there is not enough light to light up the roads but homes are blazing with lights from stoves, Christmas trees, clothing, bright faces, and so forth. Indirectly, Dostoevsky is criticizing the elite Christians in this story who have not grasped the fact that Christmas is about the poor and unprivileged. But they do not want to be reminded of this. The people in the second house even push the little orphan boy out with a coin when he enters in innocently. They do not want to be reminded of poverty, hardships, and inequality when they are enjoying themselves. Dostoevsky shows us in this story, with the death of the orphan boy and his mother, that the world has perhaps forgotten what Christmas symbolizes, but not Jesus Christ. He has made a special Christmas place for a never-ending Christmas time for all children who have had no Christmas tree, food, parties of their own, and who have died because they just happen to have been born into poverty. The whole story is ironic. It is an irony about the reality of Christmas which has nothing to do with cakes, dinners, lighted Christmas trees, dancing girls, pretty clothes and so much more. I want to draw your attention back to the third scene the orphan boy sees in the window. He sees a set of pretty dolls which makes him laugh. This is symbolic of reality laughing at Christmas because Christmas is all about ‘pretty dolls’ which has nothing to do with reality; it is devoid of everything that Christmas is supposed to mean. So, when looking at those dolls, the little orphan is ‘reality’ laughing at us and our complacent nature towards people who are suffering while we rejoice. Towards the end of the story, a whole paragraph is dedicated to the hardships of life in Russia which are:
- Children dying in the cold.
- Newborn unwanted babies abandoned at the doors of public functionaries.
- Children who have died because of not being breast-fed by their mother.
All these children have been given the benefit of an everlasting Christmas in Jesus Christ’s kingdom. Those dolls in the third window also made the little orphan laugh because they were not human beings just the way the elite are not ‘human’ enough when they deal with the poor and needy. They then seem to be, in their complacency and stone-heartedness, nothing but dolls, and the little orphan boy laughs at them. The hunger and cold kill the little orphan boy reuniting him with his mother giving the story a supernatural element as well as a sad but overall pleasant conclusion to the tale. This whole story is very similar to Andersen’s story which takes place on New Year’s Eve rather than Christmas eve. Many symbols and props are used even in that story to bring out a lot of irony about the whole Christmas season and the season of advent. It would be nice if you can buy or download on your Kindle these two stories, ‘The Little Orphan’ and ‘The Little Match Girl’ as we study their similarities and differences tomorrow. A few takeaways from ‘The Little Orphan’:
- The mother is mentioned by Dostoevsky to be ‘cold as a wall’ which also could be indicative of the high wall between the rich and the poor. This is also indicative of Dostoevsky’s ideas of socialism.
- The clues mentioned in the story which make us realize that soon the little orphan boy was going to die because of the cold.
- The Match Girl in Andersen’s story dies from the cold in an alleyway while the little orphan boy dies from the cold in a courtyard behind a pile of wood.
I have mentioned before that I am always ready to analyze anything written by Dostoevsky. I hope to analyze more short stories and books by him shortly. To read him is to read into the mind, soul, and heart of Russia. If you are interested in more book reviews, short story analysis, poems, essays, and other bookish articles then you can visit my blog insaneowl.com. If you want to buy my books then you can check out my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you always!
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