As an adult, Dostoevsky became fascinated with children, but was extremely affected by the suffering they were often forced to endure. As a result, the theme of children became "one of the most important in his portrayal of society" and he became obsessed with the theme of "children on the road to destruction"(p.572, Grossman). The charming children in his novels possess a simple, vulnerable, and innocent nature which highlights the contrasting, cruel society. In dealing with these cruelties, the children must gain strength and learn to sacrifice themselves in order to withstand these burdens; if their purity and fragile innocence is harmed, however, they often chose to put an end to their hardships and commit suicide.
The poverty and hectic environments that children must live in force them to take on certain adult responsibilities and watch in helpless silence as their families struggle to survive. In the Marmeladov household, the ten year old Polenka, must take care of her younger siblings and help her mother with the daily chores. Although she doesn't fully comprehend what is happening around her, she senses that her mother needs support and therefore "always followed her with great wise eyes and drove her utmost to pretend she understood everything"(p.151). She is too young and innocent to understand, but she instinctively sacrifices herself and adopts the role of the second mother in order to take care of her younger siblings. These siblings, however, are not hard to take care of. Their calmness and patience is remarkable considering their age. The little boy often watches silently from his chair, "upright and motionless with a solemn face", while Lida "waits her turn"(p.151).
These children are victims of the world and have gained strength by learning to accept the world of "poverty, rags, death and despair"(p.157) that they live in. This chaos and despair is due to the fact that their father is constantly drunk and uses their money, while the mother is consumptive and always yelling due to stress. When their father is brought in after getting run over by a carriage, the little Lida shrieks and rushes to Polenka for comfort. All of the children are terrified, but can do nothing but accept yet another problem in their lives. When Polenka is sent to find Sonya, the little boy helplessly shouts"run as fast as 'ou can"; and resumes his "silent upright pose"(p.153). It seems that they have become accustomed to waiting in silence for crises to go by. Even the little girl Lida, who is sitting in a corner shivering out of terror watches with "her wondering eyes childishly intent"(p.155). The best thing that these little creatures can is to kneel down in the corner and pray for their dying father.
When Raskolnikov leaves their house, Polya runs after him in order to thank him with "childish cheerfulness"(p.160). She kisses and hugs him with her"thin little match-stick of arms"(p.160) and opens up to Raskolnikov by expressing grief for her father. She then promises Raskolnikov that she will pray for him all of her life. Her innocence and genuine appreciation for his help with her father reflects a maturity and control which is uncharacteristic at such a young age. Her environment and living conditions, however, have given both her and her siblings the strength to endure their lives. Due to poverty and a sick mother, the children in the Snegiryov household must deal with similar hardships. They also sit silently without complaining and do whatever is needed of them. Despite extreme pains in her legs at night, Snegiryov's crippled daughter suffers silently in order not to disturb anyone. Barbara, the other daughter, gives up her money for her family's sake and sacrifices herself;"she is like an overdriven horse with all of us on her back"(Brothers Karamazov, IV/VII). In all of these instances, these children gain strength and sacrifice themselves for the sake of their families.
Dostoevsky also uses examples of physical and sexual abuse to show what children must sometimes hold out against. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan doubts his faith in God due to the suffering of children. Ivan tells Alyosha about an illegitimate child who ends up working for shepherds who don't even allow him to eat the mash for the pigs. They overwork him until he turns into yet another bitter and corrupt being. Ivan continues with a story about a seven year old girl, a "poor, defenseless creature"(Brothers Karamazov, book V/ch.IV) who is constantly beaten by her mother. Another five year old is forced to sleep outside and eat excrement. These injustices are horrible, but the Russian people seem to enjoy being the tormentors. It is then that Ivan questions Alyosha's faith in God:
Can you understand why a little creature, who can't even understand what's done to her, should beat her little tormented breast with her tiny fist in that vile place, in the dark and the cold, and weep her sanguine meek, unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? (Brothers Karamazov, book V/ch.IV)These innocent children become victims of unnecessary torture, but have no choice but to helplessly bear the pain.
In The Devils, Stavrogin reveals the secret about his seduction and destruction of a young girl named Matryosha. Because of her mother's physical abuse, this young victim becomes silent and submissive, and learns to deal with her pain. When her mother accuses her of losing rags or misplacing Stavrogin's pen, Matryosha knows that she can do nothing but wait for the blows to stop; defending herself would be useless. When she is whipped for the penknife incident, this "childlike and gentle" girl "didn't scream from the beating, but gave a strange kind of sob at each blow"(Devils, partII, ch.VIII). Although Stavrogin finds his pen before the beating and knows that Matryosha had nothing to do with it, he does nothing to prevent the beating but rather finds pleasure in watching. Matryosha has become so accustomed to being blamed for things, that "like a child she blamed only herself for her disgrace"(Devils, partII, ch.VIII). When she is left alone with Stavrogin in her home, he watches her innocently poking something with her needle and humming on a bench in room. This innocence and vulnerability seems to attract him, for he approaches her and begins to kiss her hands, face and feet. Although she seems quite disturbed at first, Matryosha gives in to this adult figure and "put her arms around [his] neck and suddenly began kissing [him] wildly"(Devils, partII, ch.VIII). After sleeping with her, Stavrogin abandons her and acts as if nothing happened. She becomes humiliated and blames herself for destroying her innocence and purity. She is so disturbed that she mumbles that she has"killed God"(Devils, partII, ch.VIII). "There was a look of such despair on her face as was almost inconceivable in a child"(Devils, partII, ch.VIII). The world is so cruel and unendurable for her that the only way out of this mental and physical torture is to hang herself.
Svidrigaylov is another despicable character who enjoys taking advantage of children's innocence and vulnerability. Despite his fifty years, he finds a sixteen year old to marry. He is attracted to her"childish eyes" and"modesty and tearful shyness"(Crime and Punishment, partVI, ch.IV) and seems to think of the situation as a big joke. He also tells the story of a young thirteen year old girl whom he saw dancing with an expert while the public mocked her; her mother had thought that these were dancing lessons. "The little girl was confused and blushing...and began to cry"(Crime and Punishment, partVI, ch.IV). These humiliating incidents become a great source of entertainment for him and the public; it is this humiliation, however, which ultimately crushes the child.
Svidrigaylov also has a couple dreams which reveal incidents involving young girls which he seems to have violated. His first dream is about a young girl lying in a coffin, with wet hair, and hands folded across her breast; she had drowned herself.
She was no more than fourteen, but that heart had been broken, and had destroyed itself, savagely wounded by the outrage that had amazed and horrified her young childish conscience, overwhelmed her soul, pure as an angel's, with unmerited shame, and torn from her a last cry of despair... (Crime and Punishment, partVI, ch.VI)This passage seems to embody the suffering that these abused children must face. The innocent conscience is not prepared for such corruption and atrocity; children are able to endure some cruelty but when it destroys their self worth, there are no longer any reasons for living. Svidrigaylov's second dream seems to be another indication that his conscience is bothering him. In this dream, he finds a wet girl crouching in a corner and decides to take care of her. This "neglected child" changes into a mocking "French harlot" and laughs a "monstrous and infinitely offensive" laugh (Crime and Punishment, partVI, ch.VI). This change from purity to corruption is almost like the child's revenge on Svidrigaylov's conscience. In all of these instances, the children had once been simple, innocent, and forgiving creatures, but the abuse and cruelty around them destroys their fragile beings and in some cases leads them to suicide.
In Brothers Karamazov, a young boy named Ilyusha sacrifices friends in order to stand up for his father's honor. When he comes across his father getting dragged by the beard, Ilyusha immediately rushes towards the assailant and asks for forgiveness by kissing his hand. This cruel scene becomes a "family record imprinted forever on [his] soul"(Brothers Karamazov, bookIV, ch.VII). Due to his strength and pride, however, Ilyusha is able to sacrifice his own reputation in order to protect his father's. He suffers when he kissed Dmitri Fyodorovich's hand.
At that moment in the square when he kissed his hand, at that moment my Ilyushka had grasped all that justice means, sir. That truth entered into him and crushed him forever, sir. (Brothers Karamazov, bookIV, ch.VII)Because Ilyusha takes the burden onto himself and continues to defend his father, he gets teased and comes home from school beaten. These physical abuses and the psychological scar of the incident become a great burden on the little Ilyusha, but he bears the burden and sobs in his father's arms. Even before his death, Ilyusha thinks about his father and tells him "how sorry I am for you dad!"(Brothers Karamazov, bookX, ch.VII). Although his innocence was never destroyed, the scar from this incident obviously preoccupied him until the last minute of his life.
Kolya, in The Idiot, is another child who looks after his father and tries to protect him from people's mocking laughter. When Nastasya encourages General Ivolgin to tell stories, Kolya realizes that she is taking advantage of his drunken state of mind in order to be entertained. Kolya begs the Prince to help him get him away;"tears of indignation shone in the poor boy's eyes" (The Idiot, partI, ch.IX). The general's stories humiliate Kolya and cause him to weep"with shame and exasperation"(The Idiot, partI, ch.X). Because of his love for his father, Kolya often finds himself in awkward situations. When his father is in need of money and asks Kolya to give the Prince a note, Kolya is humiliated. Although he carries out this commission without complaining, his "face showed how painful it had been for him to carry [it] out"(The Idiot, partI, ch.XI). It seems that in watching over the General, Kolya has sacrificed his innocence in order to adopt the role of father.
Due to the events of his time, Dostoevsky's children are often portrayed as "neglected and maltreated"(p.183, de Jonge). Their innocence ultimately leads to them becoming victims of both mental and physical abuse, and although some children gain strength from theses ordeals, others cannot endure the shame. It is interesting to notice the children's sense of responsibility for situations around them, whether it be taking care of a father or siblings, or taking the blame for a rape. The idea of self-sacrifice, however, seems prevalent in most of these situations. It almost seems that the children are more mature than the corrupt adults around them. The irony to their lives is that it is precisely their charming, innocent characteristics which attract corrupt beings, and which ultimately disrupts or even destroys their pure and angelic characters. It has been said, however, that it is "through the focus of children that the author indulges his sense of hope" (p.182, de Jonge).
1) Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
2) Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime ad Punishment. New York: W W Norton and Company, 1989.
3) Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Devils. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
4) Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. New York: W W Norton and Company, 1976.
5) Grossman, Leonid. Dostoevsky: His Life and Work. New York: the Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1975.
6) de Jonge, Alex. Dostoevsky and the Age of Intensity. London: Secker & Warburg, 1975.