Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Midweek Dostoevsky: The Meek One

Exploring animus and anima concepts through the Dostoevsky story "The Meek One."

A beautiful painting by William Blake that I feel captures many of the tones of "The Meek One," if not directly than by poetic analogy.  One of my favorite paintings which I will probably discuss again later in one of my "Sundays with William Blake" posts.

Danger!  Spoilers lurking about!

For me, "The Meek One" is one of the most difficult of Dostoevsky's deeply psychological stories.  Told from the perspective of a domineering husband, it explores issues of depression, helplessness and, in a sense, the more mundane touchless torture we inflict on others in our daily lives.

The story opens with the narrator sitting in a room next to the body of his deceased young wife.  Gradually he unveils their story.

His wife was a young girl not quite 16 when he met her selling her last belongings his his pawn shop.  She has no family and is living off the meager goodwill of two aunts.

At first he is mocking, but gradually he decides to marry her.  He learns that she is about to be essentially sold to an abusive grocer who has already lost multiple wives.  The pawnbroker presents himself as an alternate solution, and even spins himself as somewhat educated, although admits he is a cold and unromantic man.

She chooses to marry the pawnbroker, our narrator, over the abusive grocer.  As time passes, she becomes aware of the depth of the pawnbroker's coldness.

He, on the other hand, describes this coldness as a plan to gain respect.  When she is excited and loving he ignores her; when she tries to learn more about him he is silent.  This way, reasons the pawnbroker, he can maintain all the power, an asymmetry he describes as "very sweet."

Gradually she becomes more and more silent as well.  She stops asking him questions or trying to show him affection, and merely performs her job in the pawnshop.

The pawnbroker describes how much he enjoys maintaining dominance over a helpless but proud young woman:

"'I like proud people,' I thought.  Proud people are particularly nice when - well, when one has no doubt of one's power over them, eh?"

She comes to quietly loath him, but he is just as unresponsive towards her loathing as he was to her eager young love.  She finds gossip about him and asks him; he replies by waving away incidents of shame and infamy.  To him, they are points of mild pride that built his character.  One night, she takes his gun and even puts it his his head.  He sees her do this, but shuts his eyes again, unmoved even when the barrel is at his temple.  The girl descends into madness - brain fever - and nearly dies from it.

He remains unmoved externally, although on the inside he is torn by fear and sorrow.  He worries that she will die of her illness, but when she recovers, it's worse: she now ceases to even recognize that he is there.

Suddenly his behavior changes.  Unable to stand being ignored he starts to lavish her with praise and attention.  After a few days of this new man, the young girl steps out an upstairs window and kills herself.


I think it's too easy to take this story as a simple sad love story.  To me, this has more to do with the pain of being helpless, unnoticed and ineffectual than it does about a personal romance.

The pawnbroker is mystified; he doesn't understand why his wife suddenly killed herself.  And yet, viewing it from the outside, her utter inability to influence him, affect him, to have some impact on her world explains her depression and madness quite well to me.

Our ability to impact our environment is called in psychology our autonomy.  It's actually somewhat telling about the depth of Dostoevsky's insight that he could tell such a tactile story about the influence of the lack of autonomy on depression.  It wasn't until more than a century later that experimental psychologists and neurobiologists established this link scientifically.

Returning to the Blake painting and the concepts of anima and animus: I feel that this story, rather than describing two separate characters was describing the same character, the anima and animus of the same individual.  The anima is the ineffectual woman and her response to her situation; the animus is his complete self-control up until he himself was ignored.

Beyond the experimental psychologists, Eric Fromme also describes such relationships quite well, a sadomasochistic, worshipful love of self and other.  The pawnbroker knowingly tortures his victim through completely ignoring her, even to the point where she puts a gun to his head.

In this case, I feel that it was Dostoevsky describing his anima and animus responses to the often mixed response of society.  The czar loved his work, but then imprisoned him, but then spared him.  The public was hot and cold and hot for his written works.  It seemed it wasn't the care or beauty he put into his work, but rather some external, random process that dictated the response of society.  Imho.


  1. . . . or, if you are going to manipulate people, do it towards an achievable endstate . . . .

  2. As an alternate meaning? But if his goal was to keep the girl as his wife, he failed because she escaped him through suicide.