Read now the book: The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (pdf)

the gambler book cover


Fyodor Dostoyevsky was not only a great author but also an avid roulette player. At the time he wrote The Gambler we was spending his fortune at the roulette tables of the Baden Baden casino. You can read more about Dostoyevski’s life in Baden Baden here.

The gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky free audio book (complete)

Critical review of the book and comments

Since literature was Dostoevsky’s only source of income, he decided to travel to Moscow over Christmas and offer his next novel to Katkov in return for an advance sufficient to provide for the ceremony and a new establishment. Crime and Punishment, still in the course of publication, continued to hold readers riveted to the pages of The Russian Messenger, and there was good reason to believe that Katkov would be forthcoming with funds. In case of failure, Dostoevsky planned to begin another novel immediately, write a good part of it as rapidly as possible, and then offer it to the first taker; but this might mean postponing the wedding for as long as a year. (The trip to Moscow would also allow Dostoevsky to have a final talk with the despondent Elena Pavlovna, whose ailing husband was still dragging out his life but to whom, nonetheless, Dostoevsky still felt a certain commitment.) Happily, Katkov readily acceded to Dostoevsky’s request and promised two thousand rubles, which would start arriving in installments in January; the date of the wedding was thus set for mid-February. But the first installment of seven hundred rubles instantly vanished in the usual fashion; and after estimating that the wedding would cost between four and five hundred rubles, Dostoevsky prudently entrusted this part of the second installment to Anna for safekeeping. He knew full well that, if left in his hands, it would immediately be disbursed to his importuning relatives.

Dostoevsky’s first marriage had taken place in a miserable little Sibe- rian village, in the most humble and modest circumstances, among peo- ple he scarcely knew, and with the acknowledged ex-lover of his bride as one of the witnesses. His second was celebrated amidst the splendors of the Izmailovsky Cathedral, brilliantly illuminated for the occasion and resounding with the voices of a superb chorus, surrounded by his family and closest friends and, at his side, a radiant young bride who adored and revered him as man and artist. He could hardly believe his good fortune, and when introducing Anna to his friends at the wedding reception in her mother’s home, he kept repeating: “Look at that charming girl of mine! She’s a marvelous person, that girl of mine! She has a heart of
gold!”49 There are few moments in Dostoevsky’s life when we catch him enjoying unalloyed happiness, and this is certainly one of those rare occasions.
Nor were his hopes disappointed or his expectations betrayed; the marriage was to prove a solid and enduring one, with the bonds of affection between the couple only increasing and strengthening with the passage of time. But Anna, as perhaps Dostoevsky was even then uneasily aware, would indeed need “a heart of gold” to cope with and surmount what lay ahead for her in the immediate future, both in Russia and in her life with Dostoevsky abroad.

gambler dostoevski
The house where Dostoevski wrote The Gambler, in Baden Baden, Germany.

With Anna Grigoryevna’s devoted assistance, Dostoevsky was able to win one of the most serious gambles he had ever made in his life: he accomplished the spectacular feat of composing a lengthy novella within a month, met Stellovsky’s deadline, and retained the publication rights to his literary works. In fact, Dostoevsky had long thought of using gambling as a theme for a novella, and he had probably made some preliminary notes for such a story at Lublino during the summer of 1866. The Gambler, originally entitled Roulettenberg, was no doubt more clearly defined in his mind than he may have led Anna to believe in the fall. The result, in any case, was one of the liveliest, brightest, and most amusing of his shorter creations.

The first mention of this theme goes back to the summer of 1863, when Dostoevsky was traveling in Europe with his erstwhile mistress Apollinaria Suslova. Consumed with bitterness and resentment at having just been humiliatingly abandoned by her Spanish lover, a medical student known only as Salvador, she was withholding her sexual favors from Dostoevsky and engaging in a cat-and-mouse game of advance and withdrawal. Dostoevsky was gambling furiously all during this trip, and he thought of recouping his losses by turning them into literature. While in Rome, he wrote to N. N. Strakhov outlining a work for which he hoped Strakhov could obtain an advance. “I have in mind,” he wrote “a man who is straightforward, highly cultured, and yet in every respect unfinished, a man who has lost his faith but who does not dare not to believe, and who rebels against the established order and yet fears it.” The letter then continues:

The main thing, though, is that all his vital sap, his energies, rebellion, daring, have been channeled into roulette. He is a gambler, and not merely an ordinary gambler, just as Pushkin’s Covetous Knight is not an ordinary miser. . . . He is a poet in his own way, but the fact is that he himself is ashamed of the poetic element in him, because deep down he feels it is despicable, although the need to take risks ennobles him in his own eyes. The whole story is the tale of his playing roulette in various gambling houses for over two years.

the gambler book cover

Dostoevsky then compares his projected story with House of the Dead, which “was a portrayal of convicts who had never been portrayed graphically by anyone before.” Similarly, “this story is bound to attract attention as a graphic and very detailed representation of gambling at roulette.”
Aside from the fact that “materials of this type are read with considerable curiosity in our country, gambling at spas, especially where
Russian expatriates are concerned, has some (perhaps not unimportant) significance.”1 This last comment hints that a passion for gambling possesses some sort of symbolic national (that is, Russian) meaning.

Most commentators tend to view The Gambler in purely biographical terms, as a transcription of Dostoevsky’s tormenting relations with Suslova at this period (as well as an unrivaled portrayal of the onset of Dos-toevsky’s own gambling mania, which has since become a set piece in psychiatric textbooks). Or, focusing on the first sentence of the above quotation, they have tried to force the events into some sort of religious framework.2 But neither of these alternatives is satisfactory: Dostoevsky never wrote a fictional work whose significance was merely auto-biographical; nor can the religious reading, which construes Aleksey’s pathological gambling as the result of a loss of faith in God, be supported by a single line in the text. On the contrary, when Aleksey steps into a
gambling casino for the first time, he writes: “As for my innermost moral convictions, there is no place for them, of course, in my present reasoning about gambling. I’ll leave it at that. I am saying this to relieve my conscience” (5: 218).

Aleksey thus confirms that he retains both his “innermost moral con-victions” and his “conscience”; there is not a trace of any questioning of the accepted moral code or of God, from whom that code derives. More-over, such a religious-metaphysical approach clashes with the tonality of the novella, which is jaunty, bouncy, and full of a certain youthful high spirits (as befits the narrator, despite his unhappy fate). The focus of its theme is on the vagaries of the Russian national character rather than on the results of a loss of faith in God; and the first of these subjects could be treated with a certain levity.

My own view is that, by the time Dostoevsky came round to using the idea outlined in his letter, he had altered his thematic aim. The religious motif had dropped by the wayside, and instead he developed what had been mentioned only as an afterthought-namely, that the gambling of Russian expatriates “has some (perhaps not unimportant) significance.” In the novella, this significance becomes linked to the remark about the gambler being “a poet in his own way,” who “is ashamed of the poetic

How The Gambler was written

The Gambler treated a subject Fyodor Dostoyevsky himself was familiar with—gambling. Fyodor Dostoyevsky gambled for the first time at the gaming tables at Wiesbaden in 1863.[2] From that time till 1871, when his passion for gambling subsided, he played at Baden-Baden, Homburg, and Saxon-les-Bains frequently, often beginning by winning a small amount of money and losing far more in the end. He wrote to his brother Mikhail on 8 September:

“And I believed in my system … within a quarter of an hour I won 600 francs. This whetted my appetite. Suddenly I started to lose, couldn’t control myself and lost everything. After that I … took my last money, and went to play … I was carried away by this unusual good fortune and I risked all 35 napoleons and lost them all. I had 6 napoleons d’or left to pay the landlady and for the journey. In Geneva I pawned my watch.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky then agreed to a hazardous contract with F. T. Stellovsky that if he did not deliver a novel of 12 or more signatures by 1 November 1866, Stellovsky would acquire the right to publish Dostoyevsky’s works for nine years without any compensation to the writer. He noted down parts of his story, then dictated them to one of the first stenographers in Russia and his wife-to-be, young Anna Grigorevna, who transcribed them and copied it neatly out for him. With her help, he was able to finish the book in time.

Excerpt of the plot

“Why that meant that she loved me! . . . she had compromised herself before everybody, and I, I was just standing there, refusing to understand it!” (5: 291).
How he might have behaved is indicated the next day by Mr. Astley, who remarks acidly that Polina “was on her way here yesterday, and I should have taken her to a lady relative of mine, but as she was ill, she made a mistake and went to you” (5: 300). Far from thinking of how best to protect the reputation of his alleged beloved, Aleksey rushes off to play roulette and win the fifty thousand francs neeeded to wipe out de Grieux’s insult. Nothing had changed in their relations, and he still behaved as though it were necessary to “buy her respect.”

At the casino, Aleksey hits a sensational winning streak, playing fran- tically and frenziedly in the “Russian” style-“haphazard, at random, quite without thought” (5: 293). His luck continues to hold, and “now I felt like a winner and was afraid of nothing, of nothing in the world, as I plunked down four thousand on black” (ibid.; italics added). Staking on impossible odds, his usually crushed personality is freed from its crip-pling limits; he is aware of nothing except the intoxication of this release, and he breaks off play only accidentally when he hears the voices of on- lookers marveling at his winnings. “I don’t remember,” he remarks, “whether I thought of Polina even once during all this time” (5: 294).

Just as he had forgotten Polina while gambling, so he becomes aware, on the way back, that what he now feels has little to do with her plight. What dominates his emotions is “a tremendous feeling of exhilaration- success, triumph, power-I don’t know how to express it. Polina’s image flitted through my mind also. . . . Yet I could hardly remember what she had told me earlier, and why I had gone to the casino” (5: 295). When his first remark to her is about the best place to conceal the money, she breaks “into the sarcastic laughter I had heard so often . .. every time I made one of my passionate declarations to her” (ibid.). Polina had sensed the falsity of his so-called passion in the past, and now she sees its bogusness confirmed even more glaringly. It is at this moment, when she realizes that Aleksey’s attitude is not really different from that of de Grieux-both men gauge her most intimate sentiments only in terms of money-that her ulcerated pride and dignity bring on a hysterical crisis. Turning on Aleksey with detestation, she says bitterly: “I won’t take your money. . . . You are giving too much. . . . de Grieux’s mistress is not worth fifty thousand francs” (ibid.). But the true pathos of her condi-tion is then revealed when she breaks down completely, caresses Aleksey in delirium, and keeps repeating: “You love me . . . love me . . . will you love me?” (5: 297).

Aleksey spends the night with Polina in his room, and on waking, “with infinite loathing” (5: 298), she flings the fifty thousand francs in his face.