The philosophical cornerstone of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s writing is “egoism,” a consuming self-consciousness with an overwhelming desire to continually express one’s superiority over others. In short, it is an obsessive concern for status. Dostoevsky’s protagonists, especially the “underground man,” are filled with mental snobbery checked by an uncooperative reality, like the narrator of the short masterpiece, “A Gentle Creature” (1876). Here the protagonist cannot comprehend his own folly or the resultant human impact of his delusion: his wife’s suicide by jumping out their apartment window. The narrator’s blinding egoism is also the principal character trait of Donald Trump, a mindset that kills human spirituality.
In “A Gentle Creature,” Dostoevsky’s writing notes show his intent to build a narrator with “immeasurable vanity. His wife cannot fail to notice that he is cultivated, but then realizes, not very much. Every gibe (and he takes everything as a gibe) angers him.” The character “needs to confide himself [to others], which peeps out his terrible misanthropy and ironically insulting mistrust.” Dostoevsky’s notes are an eerily accurate description of Donald Trump in 2016, especially Trump’s reactions to any criticism (even from the Pope).
Dostoevsky uses the pawnbroker profession (usury) to crystalize his narrator’s “egoism.” Money is the principle expression of status during the Golden Age of the 1870s, “a colossal façade” of riches, luxury, and general prosperity, according to Dostoevsky. Obsession with status seeking through money, a lust for admiration, masks the narrator’s strong personal feelings of inferiority. The narrator only sees himself through the capitalist’s lens, refusing to accept other, more human, perceptions outside of this criterion. Trump’s supporters, including many Evangelical leaders, focus with this same limitation. Trump’s overt racism, misogyny, inhumanity, and disregard for facts—repeatedly excused as “political incorrectness”—ignore a much broader human lens to embraces a periscopic assessment: Trump as a successful businessman, a money-maker deserving of respect who will help followers make more money too.
The narrator in “A Gentle Creature” holds the same value system, a Golden Age set of materialist beliefs which drive his marriage. He courts his future wife at the pawnshop, where the narrator pounces upon her financial desperation to secure her hand. In retelling the story, the narrator casts himself as a Romantic hero, yet later reluctantly admits that she took a long time to say “yes.” A power struggle ensues where the narrator believes that any empathy, tenderness, apology or forgiveness on his part will be perceived as weakness or self-doubt. “Admitting her into my house, I desired full respect. I wished that she should look at me worshipfully... and I desired full respect. And I deserved it!”
Instead of bowing down, the wife intensifies a battle of wills to the point where she holds a loaded gun to his head one morning at daybreak. Waking from sleep, the narrator freezes and then closes his eyes again, completely at her mercy. According to the narrator’s account of this horror, it is not the wife’s moral strength, but his own cool possession that saves his life.
After this close encounter, the wife does not even look at her husband again and grows ill. “Believe it or not,” the narrator reports, “I was becoming loathsome to her.” In contrast, the narrator basks in his perceived superiority, his complete victory. “I grew triumphant, and the very knowledge of it proved sufficient to me. Oh, I was content as never before.” Trump would have the same inward elation upon winning the 2016 presidential election. A victory would simply affirm his status and prove that he is a “winner,” not a “loser.” As he has suggested in the past, Trump may even win the election and then resign, because ego fulfillment is his true objective.
In “A Gentle Creature,” the narrator’s psychological triumph leads to an epiphany: He is alone. Desolation results from unending egoism and status-seeking, achieved through beating rather than embracing others. Egoism reaps a harvest of divisiveness. The absence of love is the core of death, an inhuman world, and the antithesis of Christianity (and every other religion). “Man on earth is alone—this is the calamity!” the narrator laments. “Everything is dead, and everywhere—nothing but corpses. Only men, and around them, silence—such is earth. ‘Love each other’—Who said this? Whose covenant is this?”
America may be asking the same questions on Wednesday morning.
Lee Miller graduated from Cornell University and has taught writing for over 13 years at the secondary and post-secondary levels. This column examines current events through the lens of quality literature. To explore his comparison of Clinton to Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men, check out Hillary Clinton and Huey Long.