Unable to restrain myself, I have sat down to record this history of my first steps on life’s career, though I could have done as well without it. One thing I know for certain: never again will I sit down to write my autobiography, even if I live to be a hundred. You have to be all too basely in love with yourself to write about yourself without shame. My only excuse is that I’m not writing for the same reason everyone else writes, that is, for the sake of the reader’s praises. If I have suddenly decided to record word for word all that has happened to me since last year, then I have decided it as the result of an inner need: so struck I am by everything that has happened.
I am recording only the events, avoiding with all my might everything extraneous, and above all–literary beauties. A literary man writes for thirty years and in the end doesn’t know at all why he has written for so many years. I am not a literary man, do not want to be a literary man, and would consider it base and indecent to drag the insides of my soul and a beautiful description of my feelings to their literary marketplace. I anticipate with vexation, however, that it seems impossible to do entirely without the description of feelings and without reflections (maybe even banal ones): so corrupting is the effect of any literary occupation on a man, even if it is undertaken only for oneself. The reflections may even be very banal, because something you value yourself will quite possibly have no value in a stranger’s eyes. But this is all an aside. Anyhow, here is my preface; there won’t be anything more of its kind. To business; though there’s nothing trickier than getting down to some sort of business–maybe even any sort.
I begin, that is, I would like to begin my notes from the nineteenth of September last year, that is, exactly from the day when I first met . . . But to explain whom I met just like that, beforehand, when nobody knows anything, would be banal; I suppose even the tone is banal: having promised myself to avoid literary beauties, I fall into those beauties with the first line. Besides, in order to write sensibly, it seems the wish alone is not enough. I will also observe that it seems no European language is so difficult to write in as Russian. I have now reread what I’ve just written, and I see that I’m much more intelligent than what I’ve written. How does it come about that what an intelligent man expresses is much stupider than what remains inside him? I’ve noticed that about myself more than once in my verbal relations with people during this last fateful year and have suffered much from it. Though I’m starting with the nineteenth of September, I’ll still put in a word or two about who I am, where I was before then, and therefore also what might have been in my head, at least partly, on that morning of the nineteenth of September, so that it will be more understandable to the reader, and maybe to me as well.
I am a high-school graduate, and am now going on twenty-one. My last name is Dolgoruky, and my legal father is Makar Ivanovich Dolgoruky, a former household serf of the Versilov family. Thus I’m a legitimate, though in the highest degree illegitimate, son, and my origin is not subject to the slightest doubt. It happened like this: twenty-two years ago, the landowner Versilov (it’s he who is my father), twenty-five years of age, visited his estate in Tula province. I suppose at that time he was still something rather faceless. It’s curious that this man, who impressed me so much ever since my childhood, who had such a capital influence on my entire cast of mind and has maybe even infected my whole future with himself for a long time to come–this man even now remains in a great many ways a complete riddle to me. But of that, essentially, later. You can’t tell it like that. My whole notebook will be filled with this man as it is. He had become a widower just at that time, that is, in the twenty-fifth year of his life. He had married someone from high society, but not that rich, named Fanariotov, and had had a son and a daughter by her. My information about this spouse who abandoned him so early is rather incomplete and lost among my materials; then, too, much about the private circumstances of Versilov’s life has escaped me, so proud he always was with me, so haughty, closed, and negligent, despite his moments of striking humility, as it were, before me. I mention, however, so as to mark it for the future, that he ran through three fortunes in his life, even quite big ones, some four hundred thousand in all, and maybe more. Now, naturally, he hasn’t got a kopeck. . .
He came to the country then, “God knows why”–at least that was how he put it to me later. His little children were, as usual, not with him but with some relations; that was what he did with his children, legitimate and illegitimate, all his life. There was a significant number of household serfs on this estate; among them was the gardener Makar Ivanovich Dolgoruky. I will add here, to be rid of it once and for all: rarely can anyone have been so thoroughly angered by his last name as I was throughout my whole life. That was stupid, of course, but it was so. Each time I entered some school or met persons to whom I owed an accounting because of my age, in short, every little teacher, tutor, inspector, priest, anybody you like, they would ask my last name and, on hearing that I was Dolgoruky, would inevitably find it somehow necessary to add: “Prince Dolgoruky?” And each time I was obliged to explain to all these idle people: “No, simply Dolgoruky.” This simply began, finally, to drive me out of my mind. I will note with that, as a phenomenon, that I do not recall a single exception: everybody asked. Some of them seemingly had no need at all to ask; who the devil could have had any need of it, I’d like to know? But everybody asked, everybody to a man.
Hearing that I was simply Dolgoruky, the asker ordinarily measured me with a dull and stupidly indifferent look, indicating thereby that he did not know himself why he had asked, and walked away. My schoolmates were the most insulting. How does a schoolboy question a newcomer? A lost and abashed newcomer, on the first day he enters school (no matter what kind), is a common victim: he is ordered around, he is teased, he is treated like a lackey. Some hale and fat boy suddenly stops right in front of his victim and looks at him point-blank for several moments with a long, stern, and arrogant gaze. The newcomer stands silently before him, looks askance, if he’s not a coward, and waits for whatever is coming. “What’s your last name?” “Dolgoruky.” “Prince Dolgoruky?” “No, simply Dolgoruky.” “Ah, simply! Fool!” And he’s right; there is nothing stupider than to be called Dolgoruky without being a prince. I drag this stupidity around on my back without any guilt. Later on, when I began to get very angry, to the question “Are you a prince?” I always answered, “No, I’m the son of a household servant, a former serf.” Then, when I got angry in the last degree, to the question “Are you a prince?” I once answered firmly, “No, simply Dolgoruky, the illegitimate son of my former master, Mr. Versilov.”
I had already thought that up when I was in the sixth class in high school, and though I quickly became convinced beyond doubt that it was stupid, all the same I did not stop being stupid at once.I remember that one of my teachers–though he was the only one–found me “full of a vengeful and civic idea.” Generally they took this escapade with a sort of offensive thoughtfulness. Finally, one of my classmates, a very sarcastic fellow, with whom I spoke only once a year, said to me with a serious air, but looking somewhat askance: “Such feelings, of course, do you honor, and you undoubtedly have something to be proud of; but all the same, if I were in your place, I wouldn’t celebrate my illegitimacy so much . . . you sound like a birthday boy!” Since then I stopped boasting that I was illegitimate. I repeat, it’s very difficult to write in Russian: here I’ve scribbled a whole three pages on how I’ve spent all my life being angry over my last name, and meanwhile the reader has surely concluded that I’m angry precisely because I’m not a prince, but simply Dolgoruky. To explain again and justify myself would be humiliating for me.
And so, among this household, of whom there were a great many besides Makar Ivanovich, there was a girl, and she was already about eighteen years old when the fifty-year-old Makar Dolgoruky suddenly showed the intention of marrying her. Marriages between domestics, as is known, were concluded in the time of serfdom with the permission of the masters, and sometimes even on their orders. There was an aunt about the estate then; that is, she wasn’t my aunt, she was a landowner herself; yet, I don’t know why, but all her life everybody called her aunt, not only mine, but in general, in Versilov’s family as well, to which she was in fact almost related. This was Tatyana Pavlovna Prutkov. At that time she still had thirty-five souls of her own, in the same province and the same district. She didn’t really manage Versilov’s estate (of five hundred souls), but supervised it in a neighborly way, and that supervision, as I heard, was worth the supervision of some educated manager. However, I really don’t care about her knowledge; I only want to add, setting aside all thought of flattery and fawning, that this Tatyana Pavlovna is a noble and even original being. Now, she not only did not decline the marital inclinations of the gloomy Makar Dolgoruky (they say he was gloomy then), but, on the contrary, for some reason encouraged them in the highest degree.
Sofya Andreevna (the eighteen-year-old serf girl, that is, my mother) had been an orphan for several years already; her deceased father, also a household serf, who had an extraordinary respect for Makar Dolgoruky and was obliged to him for something, as he was dying six years earlier, on his deathbed, they say even a quarter of an hour before his last breath, so that if need be it could have been taken for delirium, had he not been legally disqualified anyway as a serf, summoned Makar Dolgoruky, in front of all the servants and with a priest present, and spoke his will to him loudly and insistently, pointing to his daughter: “Bring her up and take her to wife.” Everybody heard it. As for Makar Ivanovich, I don’t know in what sense he later married her, that is, with great pleasure or only to fulfill his responsibility. Most likely he had an air of total indifference. This was a man who even then already knew how to “show himself.” He was not exactly a Bible reader or literate man (though he knew the whole church service and especially the lives of certain saints, but more from hearsay), nor exactly a sort of household reasoner, so to speak; he simply had a stubborn character, sometimes even recklessly so; he spoke with pretension, judged irrevocably, and, in conclusion, “lived deferentially”–in his own amazing expression.
That is how he was then. Of course, he achieved universal respect, but they say everyone found him unbearable. It was quite a different matter when he left the household: then people never referred to him otherwise than as some sort of saint and great sufferer. That I know for certain. As for my mother’s character, Tatyana Pavlovna kept her around herself until she was eighteen, despite the steward’s urgings to send her to Moscow for an apprenticeship, and she gave her some education, that is, taught her to cut and sew, to walk in a ladylike way, and even to read a little. My mother never could write passably. In her eyes this marriage to Makar Ivanovich had long been a decided thing, and she found all that happened to her then excellent and the very best; she went to the altar with the calmest air possible on such an occasion, so that Tatyana Pavlovna herself called her a fish then. All this about my mother’s character at that time I heard from Tatyana Pavlovna herself. Versilov came to the estate exactly six months after the wedding.
I only want to say that I never could find out or make a satisfactory surmise as to precisely how it started between him and my mother. I’m fully prepared to believe, as he assured me himself last year, with a blush on his face, even though he told about it all with a most unconstrained and “witty” air, that there was not the least romance, and that it all happened just so. I believe it was just so, and that little phrase just so is charming, but still I always wanted to find out precisely how it came about with them. I myself have hated all this vileness all my life and hate it still. Of course, here it’s by no means only shameless curiosity on my part. I will note that until last year I hardly knew my mother; from my infancy I had been handed over to other people, for Versilov’s comfort, but of that later; and therefore I’m quite unable to imagine what her face could have been like at that time. If she was not really so good-looking, then what in her could have attracted such a man as Versilov was at that time? This question is important for me in that it highlights the man from an extremely curious side.
That is why I ask it, and not out of depravity. He himself, this gloomy and closed man, with that sweet simpleheartedness he took from devil knows where (as if out of his pocket) when he saw it was necessary–he himself told me that he was quite a “silly young pup” then, not that he was sentimental, but just so, he had recently read Anton the Wretch and Polinka Sachs–two literary works that had a boundless civilizing influence on our then rising generation. He added that it was perhaps because of Anton the Wretch that he had come to the estate then–and he added it extremely seriously. What form could the beginning between this “silly pup” and my mother have taken? It has just occurred to me that if I had at least one reader, he would probably burst out laughing at me, as at a most ridiculous adolescent who, having preserved his stupid innocence, barges with his reasonings and solutions into things he doesn’t understand.
Yes, indeed, I still don’t understand, though I confess it not at all out of pride, because I know how stupid this inexperience at the age of twenty can be; only I will tell the gentleman that he himself does not understand, and I will prove it to him. True, I know nothing about women, and I don’t want to know, because I’ll spit on that all my life and I’ve given my word. But nevertheless I know for certain that one woman attracts you by her beauty, or whatever it is, from the first moment; another you have to chew over for half a year before you understand what’s in her; and to make her out and fall in love with her, it’s not enough to look and simply be ready for anything, on top of that you have to be somehow gifted. I’m convinced of that, even though I know nothing, and if it were otherwise, then all women would have to be reduced at once to the level of simple domestic animals and kept around only in that guise. Maybe a lot of people would like that.(Note: Refer to printed book for end notes.
Excerpted from The Adolescent by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Copyright © 2003 by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.