A young Fyodor Mikhailovich here pens an ambitious, but profoundly messy, novella that fails–despite its few signs of the greatness that was to come very soon (White Nights, that beautiful novella, was a mere two years away). Many of Dosoevsky’s mature concerns are present here–madness, self-absorption, isolation, an inability to make sense of one’s identity, the difficulties of community. And while these questions receive ever-greater attention as the novella continues (and, as a consequence, the work’s quality also improves), it comes too late and too little to overcome several serious flaws. Poor character development (all of Yakov Petrovich’s colleagues are interchangeable and confusing) exacerbates the problem of an already confused situation and context. The opening chapters seem like so much mania, and the conflicts that fuel Yakov Petrovich’s anxieties and (possible, arguable) madness are ambiguous to the point of absolute frustration. Of course, one could contend that that is part of Dostoevsky’s whole point here; true as this may be, it doesn’t make the novella any more satisfying, and doesn’t lessen the reader’s frustration, as he finds himself constantly flipping to early chapters, trying to see what he missed, as there’s something going on here but, well, he has no idea what it is. Moments of social satire and humor are well-done, but they seem to exacerbate the lack of focus, distracting from, rather than adding to, the work’s meaning and questions. Similarly distracting is Dostoevsky’s shifting of his narrative voice in places, where he breaks the fourth wall for a few moments.
In sum: for a novella that explores the repercussions of madness and belonging, a confused presentation may be appropriate, but it makes for profoundly dissatisfying reading. A young Dostoevsky is here finding his voice, trying on multiple techniques, and aiming at something great. While that is commendable, what we have here is a singularly brilliant craftsman putting forth his final amateur effort. Holding that consideration beside The Double‘s few real successes, the work is an understandable, defensible failure–but still a failure, nevertheless.