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"A Lot Has Built Up": Omission and Rhetorical Realism in Dostoevsky's The Gambler.

The Gambler has one of the strangest openings in the Dostoevsky canon:

I have finally returned from my two-week absence. Our group has already been in Roulettenburg for three days. I thought they would be waiting for me on pins and needles--but I was wrong. The General, looking very self-important, talked to me haughtily and sent me off to his sister. It was clear that they've managed to borrow some money from somewhere. It even seemed that the General was a bit embarrassed to look at me. Marya Filippovna was bustling about and barely talked to me; nonetheless, she took the money, counted it, and listened to my whole report. They were expecting Mezentsov, the little Frenchman, and some Englishman for dinner; as usual, whenever there's money there's a Moscow-style dinner-party. Polina Alexandrovna, seeing me, asked what I had been doing all this time, and without waiting for my answer went off somewhere. Naturally, she did that on purpose. We need to have an explanation, though. A lot has built up. (Dostoevsky 208, my translation)

That paragraph is especially striking in light of James Phelan's contribution to this special issue. Phelan has asked us to think about what he calls redundant telling, situations where without motivation, a homodiegetic narrator tells the narratee something he or she already knows, most commonly as a way to orient the reader by providing background information. In The Gambler, though, we find ourselves at the opposite end of the information spectrum: Aleksey, Dostoevsky's narrator, is disorienting us by omitting information that is crucial to our understanding of what's going on. [1] Who are these people in Roulettenburg? Where has the narrator been? What has built up?

Trying to come to terms with Dostoevsky's technique has led me to two inter connected theoretical conclusions. First, I've been persuaded to rethink my model of audiences, in particular my decision to discard the notion of the ideal narrative audience (Rabinowitz 134-36); second, I've been spurred to expand my definition of realism to include a new type that I call "rhetorical realism." But in order to explain the novel's theoretical consequences, I need first to provide more specificity about why the omission in Dostoevsky's novel is so special.

Gaps in narratives, after all, are hardly uncommon-and at first glance, the opening of The Gambler might appear to be a variant of one or another familiar technique. Yet on closer examination, it turns out to be significantly different from its seeming cousins. Thus, one might be tempted to compare the rhetoric of Dosto evsky's hectic first paragraph-which introduces six characters but makes no effort to clarify their roles or relationships-to that of the second chapter of Wuthering Heights, where we share the narrator's confusion about the true identity of the mem bers of Heathcliff's household. But while, in a general sense, Dostoevsky is also making us share his narrator's disorientation, we are not sharing his specific confu sion. Aleksey may be having trouble grasping the situation (particularly the psycho logical situation) in which he finds himself, but he knows precisely who these characters are and where he has been. Then, too, the confusion in Wuthering Heights, like many such gaps, turns out to be temporary-indeed, much of the effect of the rest of the novel comes from the way Bronte teases us by slowly providing the information necessary to make sense out of that initial situation. In contrast, the gaps in the Dostoevsky are never satisfactorily filled in.

Alternatively, we might be tempted to compare Dostoevsky's paragraph to the opening of James Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice.

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night be fore, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

That was when I hit this Twin Oaks Tavern. (Cain 3)

But here, the missing information is part of an introductory upbeat that gives an extra burst of energy to the start of the story proper. We may be momentarily confused by the allusion to the time in Tia Juana, but the narrative springs into focus with the phrase "That was when," an explicit signal that the arrival at the Twin Oaks marks the point where the story begins. Dostoevsky's novel, in contrast, really begins in medias res. And especially since Dostoevsky firmly believed that one's past is an important component of one's present (think of the elaborate family histories in Brothers Karamazov), it's no surprise that, as in his other novels that start midstream (for instance, The Eternal Husband), the prior events--in particular those clustering around Aleksey's love-hate relationship with Polina--bear heavily on the meaning of the events in the story. But it's not the "textbook model" of in medias res that Paul Debreczeny suggests that it is (1), because those events remain fogged in right through the final paragraph. [2]

Indeed, the closer one looks, the clearer it becomes that the gaps in Dostoevsky's paragraph are significantly different from those one normally encounters in any realist fiction; [3] and to make sure that we experience the full force of the disorientation, Dostoevsky heightens the effect by twisting both rules of notice and rules of configuration. Thus, with regard to notice: being the first named character in a 19th-century text is a (mildly) privileged position-but the holder of that honor here (Marya Filippovna) turns out to be an incidental character who soon departs from the novel (in fact, her departure is the only noteworthy action she takes). More striking, the second named character, Mezentsov, is never even mentioned again in the text. As for configuration: if Cain's "That was when" signals that the past events can be safely ignored, Dostoevsky's "A lot has built up" does precisely the opposite, encouraging us to expect that the past events are critical to the novel's progression and will therefore eventually be narrated. But as I've said, the mystery behind Aleksey's trip remains unresolved, as he jumps around among other, more immediately pressing issues. Indeed, Polina's first gesture--asking a pregnant question and walking off "somewhere" without waiting for an answer-turns out to be typical not only of their relationship, but also of Aleksey's narration of that relationship: his cryptic references to it taunt us more than they inform us. Much of the novel's rhetorical flavor comes from our sense that we are outsiders to the action, and particularly to the conversations. [4]

Of course, one can explain Dostoevsky's refusal to explain by pointing out that it's a "realistic" gesture that reminds us that redundancy, while sometimes necessary for clarification, is also artificial. The Gambler, after all, takes the form of excerpts from a diary (the subtitle is "From the Notes of a Young Man"). [5] And since Aleksey is writing for himself, it would unrealistic for him to explain things that he already understands, especially since (like many gamblers but unlike most of Dostoevsky's narrators) he is fixed on the present.

But when I thought about Dostoevsky's technique in terms of the definition of realism that I've generally worked from, The Gambler seemed recalcitrant. That definition grew out of my model of audiences, which, in its most recent form, distinguished three primary positions that a reader inhabits while reading a fictional text: (1) the actual audience, the flesh-and-blood reader with her own background of knowledge and beliefs; (2) the authorial audience, the hypothetical audience the author has in mind as she makes rhetorical choices, and which recognizes the text as an artistic invention; (3) the narrative audience, the imitation audience for whom the narrator (implicit or explicit) is writing, and which accepts what it is reading as more or less "real." The narrative audience may appear to be just another term for the narratee--but whereas the narratee is a position, often dramatized, within the text, the narrative audience is a position that we, as readers, pretend to take in the act of reading.

Working from this model, I'd defined realism as a characteristic of texts where the overlap between the authorial audience and the narrative audience facilitated the move from one world to the other. But The Gambler, on the face of it, rejects that kind of realism. Here, entry into the world of the novel is ostentatiously blocked. Or is it? We are clearly having trouble joining some audience, but what audience exactly is it?

It's the pursuit of this line of thought that has led me to the two theoretical conclusions I mentioned earlier. First, I'd probably abandoned the ideal narrative audience too quickly. That term, part of the original model of audiences, refers to the audience the narrator believes, expects, or hopes he is addressing. Often (for instance, in Browning's "My Last Duchess") the ideal narrative audience seems to coincide with the narratee; but the two are not in principle the same. In the story-within-a-story in Chekhov's "Gooseberries," for instance, Ivan Ivanich tells Burkin and Alekhin about his brother's decline into moral insensitivity; but neither of these dramatized narratees appreciates it as he wants them to.

Since I had originally developed the category to account for irony, I had zeroed in on situations where the narrative audience was in some sense superior to the ideal narrative audience. In "Gooseberries," for instance, the narrative audience is more appreciative of Ivan Ivanich's pain than Burkin and Alekhin are, but also sees through Ivan Ivanich's own moral failings in a way that he does not intend. And in the end, it seemed a cumbersome analytic tool to explain structures and effects that could be explained more economically in other ways. But by framing my analysis in terms of irony, I had underestimated the flexibility of the concept. Phelan has already demonstrated its usefulness in analyzing second-person narrative (Narrative 135-53); and The Gambler shows that it has explanatory power when applied to certain first-person rhetorical situations, too. For in Dostoevsky's novel, the ideal narrative audience knows more than the narrative audience does, and that difference in epistemological positioning produces far different effects from those found in works like Ring Lardner's "Haircut" or the Jason section of Faulkner's Sound and the Fury.

Second, there are two different ways of thinking about realism which, if inextricably related, are nonetheless analytically distinct. In conceptualizing realism as a technique where the gap between the authorial and narrative audiences is minimized, I had been concerned primarily with what I've now come to call mimetic realism, which is founded on the overlap between the features of the story world and the features of the world of the authorial audience, and the consequent ease of movement from one to the other. Thus, for instance, we can use our authorial-audience knowledge about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia to understand the events in War and Peace, just as we can use what we learn about these events from the novel to bolster our real-world knowledge. But Dostoevsky's novel engages in an aggressive form of what we might call rhetorical realism, founded on a parallel between the ,narration in the fictional world and narration in our own.

Rhetorical realism comes in a number of forms, and I am not prepared to offer a taxonomy here. I can, though, describe the particular variant that Dostoevsky uses in this novel. To put it technically: if mimetic realism is based on a two-term equation that matches up the authorial and narrative audiences, The Gambler's rhetorical realism involves a four-term equation: this text is realistic because the gap between the actual and authorial audience is paralleled by the gap between the narrative and the ideal narrative audiences. In other words, the rhetorical realism of this text stems from the fact that the difficulties that any actual reader has in joining the authorial audience of any text (fictional or nonfictional)-or, more generally, the difficulties that we have coming in in the middle of any situation or overhearing any conversation to which we are not a party-are paralleled, in the fictional world, by the difficulties we have, as narrative audience, coming to terms with our narrator.

What interpretive consequences do these theoretical observations have for The Gambler? At first, it may seem as if my approach to the novel would privilege narrative reflexivity by suggesting that narration itself trumps all of the novel's other concerns. But that's not the case. True, Dostoevsky was absorbed by the dynamics of storytelling; and while Aleksey is not as severe a distorter as the narrator of Notes from Underground, much of The Gambler's interpretive interest is tied to issues of the accuracy of his perceptions and representations. Still, The Gambler is not primarily "about" narration or "about" the difficulties of the act of reading. More immediately, it's about gambling, about the entanglements of sex and money, about the fate of Russians transplanted to Europe (Frank 170-83), about the "Woman Question" (for a good feminist analysis, see Straus 37-52), about the paradoxes of humiliation and self-destruction as means to freedom. Still, as I read it, the novel grounds its claims about those subjects not in the transparency of its representation, but in the interpretive opacity we face; not in its overlaps, but in its gaps; not in its ease, but in its difficulties. In other words, the narrative difficulties are not a philosophical end here, but a rhetorical ploy. The novel's truths come to seem "true" in part because they come to us the way significant truths come to us in the world outside the text: as in the "real world," we have to struggle to get at them-specifically because, as so often in the real world, we are aware of another, superior audience that we need to strive to join.

Phelan's distinction between the difficult ("recalcitrance that yields to our ex planatory efforts") and the stubborn ("recalcitrance that will not yield") (Narrative 178) is especially useful here. Much poststructuralist criticism (examples by J. Hillis Miller and Paul de Man come to mind) seems quick to turn instances of the difficult into the stubborn and then to thematize them into global conclusions about the impossibility of interpretation. Dostoevsky, whose works celebrate the hard-won (sometimes even fatal) truths discovered by such characters as Raskolnikov, Myshkin, and Alyosha Karamazov, would be unsympathetic to such nihilist resignation in the face of long odds. Yes, the difficulty of his book is intended to make us work, both in the fiction and (by analogy) in the real world; but it's not intended to make us despair, no matter how many things have built up.

Peter J. Rabinowitz divides his time between music and narrative theory. He is the author of Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation and coauthor, with Michael Smith, of Authorizing Readers: Resistance and Respect in the Teaching of Literature; he is also coeditor, with James Phelan, of Understanding Narrative. His published articles cover a wide range of subjects, from Dostoevsky to Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, from detective fiction to the ideology of musical structure, from Mahler to Scott Joplin. A professor of comparative literature at Hamilton College, he is also an active music critic, and serves as a contributing editor of Fanfare.


Thanks to John Farranto, Emma Kafalenos, Deborah Martinsen, Ellen Peel, James Phelan, and Nancy Rabinowitz, whose commentary on earlier drafts helped tighten the argument. Thanks, as well, to Irina Reyfman for her suggestions with regard to translation, to Sergei Sychov for his research assistance, and to Katheryn Doran and Rick Werner for steering me away from some dangerous philosophical paths.

1. For a somewhat different way of describing this rhetorical situation in terms of two tracks of character narration, see Phelan, "Redundant Telling" (210).

2. For a radically different perspective, see Jackson's claim that the novel moves "from accumulated mystery and complication... through tension and expectation to release and disclosure" (215-16). But it's hard to take the novel's final "disclosures" as any less provisional than the dozens of similar disclosures earlier in the text.

3. Dostoevsky's gaps here are not euphemisms like the textual blanks that "represent" Anna Karenina's explanation of birth control to Dolly or, for that matter, Aleksey's sexual encounter with Polina. What ever has been left out of the opening paragraph, it has not been because Dostoevsky was culturally for bidden to mention it explicitly; nor are there agreed upon cultural signals that would allows us to draw the right inferences. Even less are the gaps riddles like the one in Nabokov's "The Vane Sisters," a trick story which has a single solution to reward the industrious and clever reader. The nagging sense that we're missing "a lot" of what has built up gives Dostoevsky's gaps a rhetorical impact quite different from those of much science fiction, too, where the unexplained scientific discoveries are often simply part of the givens that the audience is expected to accept.

4. In this regard, Prokofiev's streamlined operatic version, even harder to fathom than Dostoevsky's original, remains true to the novel's spirit.

5. The diary does, like Pechorin's in Hero of Our Times, break at the climactic moment, to be followed by a retrospective coda written some time later. Many critics have pointed to the shift, and Prokofiev decided to leave the final section out altogether. It's not quite right, though, to speak of a shift from "diary form" to "memoir form" as Debreczeny, following Bem, does (4), for two reasons. The final chapters speak of the present (that is, the time of narration) as well as the past; and the narration ends, as it began, in the middle. The final words of the novel refer to the future: "Tomorrow, tomorrow, everything will be finished!" (318).


Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Edited by Linda H. Peterson. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Cain, James. The Postman Always Rings Twice. 1934. In Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s, edited by Robert Polito, 1-95. New York: Library of America, 1997.

Chekhov, Anton. "Gooseberries" In Anton Chekhov's Short Stories, edited by Ralph Matlaw, 185-94. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.

Debreczeny, Paul. "Dostoevskij's Use of Manon Lescaut in The Gambler." Comparative Literature 28, no. 1 (Winter 1976): 1-18.

Dostoevsky, F[edor] M[ikhailovich]. Igrok (The Gambler). In Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii v Tridtsati tomakh (Conmplete Works in Thirty Volumes), Volume 5, 208-318. Leningrad: Izdatel'stvo "Nauka," 1973.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1971. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1995.

Jackson, Robert Louis. The Art of Dostoevsky: Deliriums and Nocturnes. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1981.

Phelan, James. Narrative as Rhetoric: Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1996.

----. "Redundant Telling, Preserving the Mimetic, and the Functions of Character Narration." Narrative 9 (2001): 210-216.

Rabinowitz, Peter J. "Truth in Fiction: A Reexamination of Audiences" Critical Inquiry 4, no. 1 (Autumn 1977): 121-41.

Straus, Nina Pelikan. Dostoevsky and the Woman Question: Rereadings at the End of a Century. New York: St. Martin's, 1994.
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Author:Rabinowitz, Peter J.
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:May 1, 2001
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