From unrepentant confessors and tellers of tall tales to embodied chroniclers, Dostoevskii’s narrators have long been a focus of critical attention (Grossman, Jackson, Miller, Bakhtin Problems, Matlaw, Coetzee, Moore, Egeberg, Jones ‘Narrator’, Martinsen, Young Ethical Foundations, Ruttenburg, Stromberg, Barsht). Exhibiting every variety of unreliability, these narrators are fundamental to the instability and ambiguity of Dostoevskii’s fictional world. The stylistics associated with Dostoevskian ambiguity have been examined by Arutiunova, whose analysis of the ‘seemingness’ (kazhimost’) of subjective impressions focuses on the use of kak by (‘as if’), alongside indefinite pronouns and adjectives of uncertainty in Brat’ia Karamazovy (The Brothers Karamazov, 1880). More recently, Barros García, assessing the complex interplay of real and unreal elements in Dostoevskii’s narrative, has identified ‘as if’ phrases (both kak by and kak budto),1 used in conjunction with ‘suddenly’ (vdrug), as fundamental markers of ambiguity that catch the characters mid-thought and embed the creative process in the text (Dostoevskii i ego sposoby). Yet if, in itself, ‘art is an as if’ (Blanchot 19), and the ‘as if’ introduces a fantastic or unreal element (Todorov 79–80), then it is far more than simply a textual marker; ‘as if’ represents the mode of story-telling itself. The aim of the present article is to show how Dostoevskii integrates ambiguity, hesitation and the unreal in his own artistic development through the use of ‘as if’ phrases. It argues that his first-person narrators’ lack of knowledge of events and of the inner lives of the characters introduces a process of imaginative reconstruction without which their story cannot be told. As such, it addresses the implications of the unreal in shaping the narrative voice. Focusing on less-discussed early works that nevertheless represent important stages in the shaping of Dostoevskii’s mature novelistic voice, it proposes a connection between the type of story-telling introduced by ‘as if’ and the development of Dostoevskian self-consciousness, to advance a new understanding of the author’s ‘fantastic realism’.

Extrapolating from what is seen to how it is interpreted, and substituting concrete knowledge with analogies, ‘as if’ phrases become routes into the imaginary for both narrators and characters. They centralize questions of perception and doubt and seek solutions beyond the so-called objective realm. Hans Vaihinger’s The Philosophy of As If, written towards the end of Dostoevskii’s lifetime but not published until 1911, posits ‘as if’ (als ob) as the necessary fictionalization used to construct knowledge and access truth indirectly, primarily by analogy. He defines fictions as ideational constructs that are ‘not only in contradiction with reality but self-contradictory in themselves’ (Vaihinger 29–30, 16).2 The relationship this proposes between ‘as if’ and the non-real worlds of fiction more generally has been explored by Iser (130–57) and Kermode (39–41). Its relevance for Dostoevskii’s works has not previously been touched upon, but the sense of self-contradiction Vaihinger identifies with ‘as if’ is inherent to Dostoevskii’s dualistic conception of human nature. Indeed, the inclusion within the ‘as if’ of ‘an impossible or unreal assumption’ (Vaihinger 93) means that it can almost be read as Dostoevskii’s artistic and personal credo. His famous confession of faith in his letter to Natal’ia Fonvizina of 1854 represents a startling example of the idea of ‘the cognitive work space opened up when some thing that is “given” (i.e., “real, true”) is considered in the light of an “unreal” or “impossible” condition’ (Stampfl 450). In this letter, Dostoevskii orientates himself deliberately towards the symbol rather than the real: ‘even if someone were to prove to me that Christ lay outside the truth, and it really was the case that the truth lay outside Christ, I would rather remain with Christ than with the truth.’ (28.i: 176) As a ‘symbol of faith’, the ability ‘to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more attractive, more reasonable, more courageous and more perfect than Christ’ (ibid.), marks a leap into the unreal that has serious ethical implications for Dostoevskii the person. A similar leap beyond the real in his fiction, privileging the imaginary and the subjective in order to access other worlds and hidden knowledge, enables the author to develop the bounds of his so-called ‘fantastic realism’ (Jones, Dostoyevsky After Bakhtin 1–31; Young ‘Fantastic’). The ‘as if’ for Dostoevskii operates not only on the external level of fictional creation; internally within the fiction, it is also used by his characters as knowing (or, to be more accurate, frequently not-knowing) subjects, bringing the fictionalizing process into the text. It is this internal dimension that marks out Dostoevskii’s use of the ‘as if’ from that defined by Iser or Kermode.

Within Dostoevskii’s corpus,3 usage of the two main ‘as if’ phrases, (kak) budto (2278 occurrences) and kak by (2087 occurrences), exhibits a very clear pattern: in the early works, (kak) budto predominates, and although kak by ultimately takes over after Prestuplenie i nakazanie (Crime and Punishment, 1866), the relative frequency of the latter phrase remains much lower than its earlier counterpart.4

The much higher relative frequency of (kak) budto, particularly in the early works, and the general decrease in the use of ‘as if’ terms overall in Dostoevskii’s mature oeuvre, is perhaps surprising, as we might more readily associate the type of speculative, imaginative construction indicated by ‘as if’ with the partial knowledge of the gossipy narrator-chroniclers who feature in his later novels. What, then, is the significance of the strong presence of (kak) budto in the early works? What is the effect of its fictionalizing, subjective connotations on the construction of his early characters’ and narrators’ consciousness?

In order to answer those questions and assess the significance of the ‘as if’’s fictionalizing qualities for the development of Dostoevskii’s novelistic form, the present analysis will address the three early fictional texts where budto is most pronounced: Netochka Nezvanova (1849), ‘Malen’kii geroi’ (‘A Little Hero’, written 1849, published 1857), and ‘Khoziaika’ (‘The Landlady’, 1847). Across this micro-corpus, budto is the 26th most frequently used word, considerably elevated from its position as the 110th most frequent word in the larger corpus of Dostoevskii’s works. In each of these three early texts, a similar dynamic is apparent, as (kak) budto (occasionally accompanied by kak by and slovno) establishes a dual self/other perspective that introduces a three-stage formula: reflecting on the self, relating to the other, and projecting the other back on the self. Netochka Nezvanova is the fictional autobiography of a young girl rescued from poverty and the trauma of emotional (perhaps also sexual) abuse, and the subsequent story of her maturation with two branches of her wealthy adoptive family. In the course of her narration of the relationships that become central to her identity, the paradigm signalled by ‘as if’ of hesitant self-reflection and emotional self-discovery through desire for (and of) the other, is elaborated most fully, emphasizing the role of her imagination in the development of her relationships, her selfhood, and her writing. The seldom-discussed tale ‘Malen’kii geroi’ likewise reflects back on the (this time male) narrator’s childhood. The similar patterning of the ‘as if’ to reveal an emotional awakening in ‘Malen’kii geroi’ confirms the significance of Dostoevskii’s introduction of the child’s perspective in his development of his characters’ subjectivity. While both those works feature similar first-person narrative perspectives, of an adult narrator revisiting childhood memories, embedding the ‘as if’ in the narrative form, ‘Khoziaika’ is a third-person narrative in which the ‘as if’ is filtered through different characters. The delirious atmosphere and Gothic trapping of the story – the very factors that have contributed to its generally negative reputation among scholars and readers – foreground the unreal condition introduced by the ‘as if’, and link the mode of the fantastic, from hesitations about what is real, to hints of the supernatural and demonic, to the focalizer Ordynov’s confused imagination. It is this story that illuminates the connection between the fantastic and the development of the immature mind (on this occasion concerning the inexperienced dreamer rather than the child) when it is confronted by the other and by the arousal of desire. This has significant implications for our understanding of Dostoevskian self-consciousness and the author’s mode of fantastic realism.

Figure 1 

Relative frequency of budto and kak by in Dostoevskii’s corpus.5

In Netochka Nezvanova, (kak) budto is occasionally used as a general means of introducing a simile or a straightforward subjunctive mood. However, the vast majority of occurrences (79 per cent, a figure established through a qualitative close reading of the concordance list for budto) are related to the perception of self and other, and the speculative nature of the understanding (or lack of understanding) that exists between the two. It is of course inevitable that the narrating self’s perception will always be present in a first-person narrative. Yet the degree to which ‘as if’ is deployed in this text specifically in relation to inter-personal dynamics and the self-consciousness of the eponymous heroine, is remarkable. In the first stage of Netochka’s mode of self-reflection, her feelings for others are repeatedly filtered through the prism of (kak) budto. Excluding three occurrences relating to Netochka’s memories, and four on her sensations on hearing music, (kak) budto is used to denote the narrator’s self-perception in terms of her feelings towards others 48 times. A general increase in this usage towards the end of the novella is in line with the story of her coming to consciousness. For example, she describes her awakening feelings for her step-father Efimov as, ‘какая-то безграничная любовь к отцу, но чудна́я любовь, как будто вовсе не детская’ (Dostoevskii 2: 160).6 In the second phase of the story, as her life is transplanted to the house of Prince X. and she develops an intense relationship with his daughter, Netochka describes her feelings as she recovers from illness and sees Katia’s face for the first time, as, ‘каким-то счастьем, будто сладким предчувствием наполнилась вся душа моя’ (2: 197).7

In both these examples, the use of the indefinite pronouns kakoi-to (some kind of) in close proximity to (kak) budto is noticeable. This represents a common pattern. 27.3 per cent of all appearances of (kak) budto in the novella are clustered with an indefinite pronoun, with a greater concentration in the first two parts: 35.5 per cent in the Efimov story (chapters 1–3), and 29.7 per cent in the Katia episode (chapters 4–5), but only 18.4 per cent in the final stage of the novella depicting her life with Aleksandra Mikhailovna (chapters 6–7).8 The effect of this is to enhance the sense of uncertainty already suggested by the ‘as if’ phrase. Arutiunova identifies a similar pattern in Dostoevskii’s later works, but associates this solely with kak by: ‘The meaning of kak by (as distinct from budto and kak budto) converges with the meaning of the uncertainty signal expressed in the indefinite pronouns kakoi-to and kak-to’ (67). Yet the frequent doubling of the budto with an indefinite pronoun suggests that Dostoevskii is framing the ‘as if’ in the same way here. Indeed, Netochka’s reference quoted above to her love for Efimov as chudnáia (strange), which adds a further layer of indeterminacy to her description, corresponds directly to Arutiunova’s identification of modifiers of uncertainty associated with kak by (64).

The sense of indeterminacy established by the use of (kak) budto in relation to the narrator’s self-depiction is further problematized by her ambiguous use of ‘understanding’ verbs (ponimat’/poniat’). Rowe, who categorizes Netochka as a ‘child as adult’ because of her growing awareness of her suffering, claims that ‘the text abounds with passages beginning “I understood”’ (Child and Man 62). However, an overview of her usage of ‘understanding’ verbs suggests a more nuanced situation. The chart in Figure 2 below compares positive references (‘I understood’), negative (‘I did not understand’), and indeterminate understanding (modified by adverbs such as stranno or chudno and other synonyms for ‘strangely’, neiasno [unclearly], or edva [hardly], across the three stories from which the novella is formed.

Figure 2 

Frequency of verbs of understanding (ponimat’/poniat’) in Netochka Nezvanova.

The highest concentration of Netochka’s positive uses of the verb in relation to her own understanding (65.8 per cent) is paradoxically found in the first section of the novella, as despite her tender years she repeatedly claims to understand Efimov. In the Katia story, albeit with much smaller numbers, Netochka strongly inclines towards emphasizing her lack of understanding, while in the episode charting her relationship with Aleksandra Mikhailovna, the numbers are evenly distributed. At times in this final story, however, her growing uncertainty becomes apparent even when she uses verbs in the positive. When, reflecting on Aleksandra Mikhailovna’s worsening attacks of melancholy, she states, ‘Были минуты, в которые мне казалось, что я что-то понимаю в этой загадке’, and ‘как будто я уж понимала ее’ (2: 232),9 her supposed understanding implies quite the opposite. As a result, the diminution in use of indeterminate pronouns in relation to the ‘as if’ in this section appears to be counterbalanced by hesitant admission of her incomplete understanding. This seems to subvert the framing of the novella as a Bildungsroman (Frank, Seeds 349–51; Allen; Krasnostchekova), in which one would normally expect to see more positive signs of a growth in understanding as the heroine matures. In a comment on the avid reading habit she develops under Aleksandra Mikhailovna’s guidance that appeared in the original serial publication but was cut during Dostoevskii’s later revisions, Netochka states that, ‘Несмотря на свои тринадцать-четырнадцать лет, я уже слишком много жила сердцем, слишком много работала головою, хотя не всё еще вошло для меня в ясное сознание’ (2: 450).10 Although she goes on – in the final published version – to claim her consciousness has now illuminated her past life, she at the same time admits that the reading she has undertaken has led ‘почти до отчуждения от действительности’ (2: 234).11

The role of reading that is apparent here in Netochka’s self-perception is significant, as this ultimately takes over from human interaction in her development of selfhood. In the first two sections of Netochka Nezvanova, the use of (kak) budto in relation to the narrator’s own feelings concentrates on the major figures in her life, Efimov (five occurrences) and Katia (seven). In the final two chapters, by contrast, there is only a single reference each to Netochka’s feelings towards Aleksandra Mikhailovna and her husband Piotr Aleksandrovich. Instead her feelings in this section are transferred to written texts. First of all, this relates to books, where five uses of kak budto frame her reading in the same terms as she views her relationships with human beings.12 Three of these appear in consecutive phrases, to emphatic effect:

Действительно, почти каждая страница, прочитанная мною, была мне уж как будто знакома, как будто уже давно прожита; как будто все эти страсти, вся эта жизнь, представшая передо мною в таких неожиданных формах, в таких волшебных картинах, уже была мною испытана. (2: 234)13

Secondly, in relation to the letter to Aleksandra Mikhailovna that she discovers hidden in a book, kak budto appears five times to highlight its effect on Netochka’s feelings and the fatal role she perceives it will play in her own life. Three of these are in a single sentence:

когда я прочла его, то почувствовала такое болезненное сжатие сердца, как будто я сама всё потеряла, как будто всё навсегда отнялось от меня, даже мечты и надежды, как будто ничего более не осталось при мне, кроме ненужной более жизни. (2: 240)14

The clustering of kak budto in both these quotations – typical of key moments in the novella – alerts the reader to the importance of the phrase as an indication of Netochka’s self-reflection, and the degree to which her world view is self-centred. There is no reflection until much later on what the discovery of the letter might mean for its original recipient.15

The fact that she uses the same formula for describing her feelings toward written texts as she does towards people indicates a tendency to view everything outside her own being as equally unreal and existing only for her. At the same time, the importance of imagination to her self-perception, and her blurring of reality and fantasy, become apparent (Rowe, Child and Man 62). As she states in the context of her reading, ‘И такая жизнь, жизнь фантазии, жизнь резкого отчуждения от всего меня окружавшего, могла продолжаться целые три года!’ (2: 235).16 All these factors indicate the role of the ‘as if’ in introducing an unreal condition, and the association of that unreality specifically with the written word.

The three factors which shape her self-perception (her reading and imagination, the sense of self-detachment she describes, and her self-centredness) also condition the second stage of development of the ‘as if’. Netochka conveys the other’s feelings in a way that closely resembles her own self-depiction. The sheer oddity of this lack of differentiation, given the surplus of insight into the self by comparison with the other, may represent an aspect of the phenomenon Yuri Corrigan has recognized: ‘Dostoevskii’s early characters desire to erase their internal dimensions, to stifle their memories, to avoid introspection, and to become a purely outward, relational phenomenon’ (83). While her self-centredness remains a factor, she does not ultimately turn into the sort of self-aggrandizing ego we recognize in Dostoevskii’s later works (and there is no indication that she would have done so had the novel been completed), which suggests that the process of figuring the other in the same way as she does herself is a narrative act to displace her sense of self.

The only real difference between the treatment of the self and other is one of degree, as 66 per cent of all uses of (kak) budto across the novella relate to her speculations and re-constructions of the other’s feelings (22 per cent of uses of (kak) budto relate to Netochka’s own feelings). It appears 38 times to refer to her perception of Efimov’s feelings, motives and actions, as in the scene before his final abandonment of her: ‘Он долго тер себе лоб, как будто вспоминая что-то, что еще не было сделано. Наконец он как будто нашел, что ему было надо’ (2: 185).17 There are six occurrences in relation to her mother’s motivation, an indication of how little Netochka considers this. Katia’s feelings merit only fifteen such occurrences, which is surprisingly few given the significance with which Netochka endows their relationship. In the final section, however, there is a marked increase, as (kak) budto appears 58 times referring to Aleksandra Mikhailovna’s feelings, and sixteen relating to Piotr Aleksandrovich’s. Here significant clusters suggest a heightened sense of uncertainty, and a desire to fight the gaps in her perception and pin down her subject. This begins almost immediately upon the opening of the new chapter in her life, and her autobiography, as she speculates on Aleksandra Mikhailovna’s past traumas and secrets: ‘Она была страстна и впечатлительна по натуре своей, но в то же время как будто сама боялась своих впечатлений, как будто каждую минуту стерегла свое сердце, не давая ему забыться, хотя бы в мечтанье’ (2: 225).18

Within these repeated references to the ‘as if’ of the other’s feelings, a significant subset represents the third stage of this schema: reflection back on Netochka as she speculates about the other’s feelings towards her. This is already apparent in her relationship with Efimov:

Мой плач поразил его. Он тихо опустил меня на пол и с минуту безмолвно смотрел на меня, как будто узнавая и припоминая что-то. Наконец, вдруг, как будто что-нибудь перевернуло его, как будто его поразила какая-то ужасная мысль. (2: 185)19

This pattern becomes more marked in subsequent relationships, with eleven of the (kak) budto references to Katia’s feelings, and eighteen of Aleksandra Mikhailovna’s, projecting back on Netochka. Again clusters emphasize the importance of this dynamic for the narrator’s self-perception. They also indicate the increasing sense of her own uncertainty about the story she is telling, and the people to whom she is trying to relate, as in this passage about Aleksandra Mikhailovna’s attitude towards her, when the former appears to be withdrawing her affections:

Но в другое время – и это было тяжелое, грустное время – она сама, как будто в каком-то отчаянии, судорожно обнимала меня, как будто искала моего участия, как будто не могла выносить своего одиночества, как будто я уж понимала ее, как будто мы страдали с ней вместе. (2: 232)20

In relation to this type of reflection back on herself, (kak) budto becomes a means of emphasizing the connection between Netochka and her counterparts. It therefore represents the final corrective to her self-centredness, as it constructs her as a product of the relationship rather than an isolated ego. This form of reflection is used at moments of physical contact, to impart an emotional or psychological dimension to the physical gestures of others, paralleling a shift Arutiunova identifies from the physical to the psychological denoted by kak by (69–70). In relation to her mother, we read: ‘Она долго, крепко держала меня в объятиях, как будто трепеща одной мысли, что разлучится со мною. Сердце мое разрывалось’ (2: 182).21 Similar scenes occur with Katia: ‘Она высвободилась из моих объятий, схватила меня за руки и, нахмурив брови, как будто я чем ее обидела, спросила меня: – Что ты? зачем ты меня целуешь?’ (2: 199).22 Gestures are also used to denote her collusion with Efimov: ‘вдруг взглядывал на меня, мигал мне глазами, делал мне какие-то знаки, как будто в нетерпении поскорей добиться денег и как будто сердясь, что я до сих пор не взяла их у матушки’ (2: 179).23

Connections that reflect the other back onto the narrator’s self are also constructed by use of parallel phrases with (kak) budto: ‘Но наши истории нераздельны. Ее роман – мой роман. Как будто суждено мне было встретить ее; как будто суждено ей было найти меня’ (2: 223).24 This enables Netochka to claim a mutuality to her relationship with Katia which other details in her story may bring into doubt (notably Katia’s suggestion that they should take turns giving and obeying orders (2: 221), which appears less the recipe for equality Netochka imagines than the beginnings of a sadomasochistic dynamic). Other phrasal echoes convey parallel actions that construct a connection between herself and the other. She describes how Efimov ‘оглядываясь кругом, как будто боясь, чтоб его не застали, всё гладил он меня по голове’ (2: 177).25 At the end of the same paragraph, her reference to her own actions repeats the phrase: ‘Я взяла деньги и, вышед в сени, тотчас же пустилась бежать, как будто боясь, чтоб меня не догнали’ (2: 177).26 The similar intensity of Netochka’s feelings towards Efimov and Katia is highlighted by the use of the same phrase in chapters 3 and 5: ‘Я тотчас же пошла, но едва только взошла на тротуар, как вдруг будто что-то кольнуло меня в сердце…’ (2: 187); ‘Я посмотрела на нее в изумлении, и как будто что-то кольнуло меня в сердце’ (2: 203).27

Such textual echoes in her relationships with Efimov and Katia underline the sense of her becoming part of her others. Similar patterns also appear, less expectedly, in the context of the characters Netochka rejects. Almost every occurrence of (kak) budto in relation to her mother refers to the inexplicability of her actions and motives, creating distance between them. Netochka then reverses this, appearing to bring them closer by highlighting their parallel responses: ‘Наконец она как будто измучилась и впала в забытье. […] Я лежала как будто в забытьи, но сон не смыкал глаз моих’ (2: 182–3).28 This could indicate a subconscious awareness during the writing that her antipathy towards her mother concealed a closer connection between them than she could admit. But that connection appears to be less their blood relationship than their mutual love for Efimov, and the final phrase ‘но сон не смыкал глаз моих’ ultimately emphasizes the differences rather than similarities between them. The occurrence of parallel phrases in relation to Piotr Aleksandrovich places Netochka in the position of being his victim as much as Aleksandra Mikhailovna is, further strengthening the connection between the two women:

– Я вас спрашиваю, слышали ли меня или нет? прервал Петр Александрович, еще более возвышая голос и как будто не слыхав, что сказала жена (2: 252).29

Она была, по-видимому, спокойна; но за это спокойствие я боялась больше, чем за всякое волнение. Я как будто не слыхала слов ее и оставалась на месте как вкопанная… (2: 253)30

In both the triangular relationships in which Netochka participates, these parallelisms become a further means of creating a connection with the object of desire (Efimov and Aleksandra Mikhailovna) at the expense of the third member.31 In both cases, she colludes with one party to conceal deception from the other. In this final scene, as she defends Aleksandra Mikhailovna, Netochka is acting from more clearly moral motives than in the earlier collusion with her stepfather, as Allen argues (135–6). Certainly, the reader’s sympathy here lies with Netochka and her ally, rather than their opponent (Netochka’s mother), as in the first episode. Nevertheless, the pattern, and the form of its narration, remains the same, leaving a residue of ambiguity that challenges the suggestion that she has changed and grown. At the same time, the use of (kak) budto provides Netochka with an alibi for her entire role in these relationships: if they are merely ‘as if’, there may be no reality to her perception at all, and her actions may mean nothing. As her final words put it: ‘Но, может быть, это мне так показалось. Всё это как будто мелькнуло у меня перед глазами’ (2: 267).32

In Netochka Nezvanova the use of (kak) budto is strongly connected with the heroine’s development of selfhood and the relational form this ultimately takes. It also incorporates significant elements of the unreal and emphasizes the importance of her imagination, developed through her reading and thus endowed with a primary textual dimension. While this was Dostoevskii’s first attempt at a large-scale work – thwarted by his arrest and never subsequently completed – ‘Malen’kii geroi’ by comparison is very slight. Its setting, a summer house party on a country estate, is one we would more normally associate with Turgenev than Dostoevskii. The story of a child’s awakening emotional life and his involvement in a love-triangle, however, represents more familiar territory, and the thematic resemblance of the tale to Netochka Nezvanova has been identified (Hart 305). Its brevity (just under 13,000 words, compared to Netochka’s 57,000) means that the thematic and stylistic elaboration is much less complex than that of its predecessor. However, in its use of (kak) budto it contains a comparable frequency (38.63 per 10,000 words compared to 39.49 in Netochka) to construct a similar schema, albeit involving much smaller numbers, with 47 occurrences in the version read today. The frame narrative that accompanied the story on its original 1857 publication in Otechestvennye zapiski, removed by Dostoevskii during revisions in 1860, contains a further ten instances of (kak) budto (2: 455–8).

The extent to which (kak) budto is used in a similar fashion to Netochka Nezvanova quickly becomes apparent, as the narrator sets the scene before introducing the blonde woman whose teasing so confuses him:

Но – странное дело! – какое-то непонятное мне самому ощущение уже овладело мною; что-то шелестило уже по моему сердцу, до сих пор незнакомое; и неведомое ему; но отчего оно подчас горело и билось, будто испуганное, и часто неожиданным румянцем обливалось лицо мое. Порой мне как-то стыдно и даже обидно было за разные детские мои привилегии. Другой раз как будто удивление одолевало меня, и я уходил куда-нибудь, где бы не могли меня видеть, как будто для того, чтоб перевести дух и что-то припомнить, что-то такое, что до сих пор, казалось мне, я очень хорошо помнил и про что теперь вдруг позабыл, но без чего, однако ж, мне покуда нельзя показаться и никак нельзя быть. (2: 269)33

The correlation here of (kak) budto with indefinite pronouns, in addition to the inclusion of the epithets ‘strange’ (stranno) and ‘incomprehensible’ (neponiatno) in the first line, highlights the narrator’s inability to define his own feelings; 23.4 per cent of occurrences of (kak) budto are clustered with an indefinite pronoun, while eight occurrences of stranno (strange) are clustered with (kak) budto (17 per cent).

The pattern with (kak) budto thus begins in the same way, and the awakening of feelings is equally central (21.8 per cent of occurrences in the story are clustered with words denoting emotions). But on this occasion, that process is aborted, because the narrator represents himself as an unwilling victim, the connection with the blonde lady being imposed upon him. It is only subsequently, with the lovely and melancholy Mme. M., that the pattern is fulfilled. The narrator describes falling in love with her as, ‘как будто я допытывался какой-нибудь тайны...’ (2: 274),34 explicitly connecting the relationship with uncovering knowledge. The narrator then takes on the role of defender within a love-triangle that parallels Netochka’s position with regard to Aleksandra Mikhailovna and her husband. Both the first encounter he describes, when the narrator stumbles upon Mme. M. weeping alone in the garden, and his subsequent reaction to interrupting this scene, are marked by the use of kak budto: ‘Она сидела одна-одинехонька, как будто нарочно выбрав такое уединенное место’ (2: 274); ‘мне всё казалось, что я как будто бы виноват пред нею, застав вчера ее слезы и помешав ее горю’ (2: 277).35 The latter quotation, in which the narrator’s emotions are based on his speculations about her feelings regarding the incident, resemble the type of the projection back onto the self that we see in Netochka Nezvanova.

As the connection between the two develops, the narrator’s first service to Mme. M. involves collusion, as his participation in a pretence to deceive her husband features two ‘as if’s: ‘Конечно, я тотчас же подошел к m-me M*, как только она указала на меня мужу, и глядел так, как будто она меня уже целый час назад пригласила и как будто я уже целый месяц ходил с ней гулять по утрам’ (2: 278).36 The plot device of the mislaid letter from her lover that culminates the story – echoing the events of the final chapter of Netochka Nezvanova – is emphatically framed by ‘as if’. 19.1 per cent of all uses of (kak) budto appear in the final two pages, alongside three occurrences of slovno, as the narrator returns the letter, concealed in a nosegay, to its owner, with both parties acting ‘as if’ nothing has happened. The final, silent exchange confirms both the connection between them and his emotional response in the same terms: ‘В тот же миг скорый, горячий поцелуй обжег мои губы. Я слабо вскрикнул, открыл глаза, но тотчас же на них упал вчерашний газовый платочек ее, – как будто она хотела закрыть меня им от солнца. […] Но вся душа моя как-то глухо и сладко томилась, будто прозрением чего-то, будто каким-то предчувствием’ (2: 295).37

Beyond the final comment that the episode marks the end of his childhood (2: 295), the development of selfhood is not such an explicit theme of ‘Malen’kii geroi’. Nevertheless, the tale reprises the ‘as if’ formula from Netochka Nezvanova in a condensed and direct form. The narrator’s position within the love-triangle remains ostensibly the same, the physical contact of the kiss moves him – if only in his own imagination – from the role of protector to potential lover himself. Netochka may be cast unwillingly in that role by Piotr Aleksandrovich, when he assumes the discovered letter is to her, but she is not able to achieve this in her own right as an equal with Aleksandra Mikhailovna.38 Yet for both narrators, chance involvement in these affairs, which gives them their first access to the world of adult emotions, plays a significant role in the formation of the self through creating a relationship with the other. The temporal position of both narrators in recounting this story of their maturation is also similar, as both are told by an older narrator looking back on their childhood. This was originally explicit in ‘Malen’kii geroi’ through the presence of the frame narrative, but in the revised story is made clear though the narrator’s comments towards the end of the tale: ‘Я до сих пор не знаю этой тайны, […] я тогда не понимал всего этого так, как теперь об этом думаю’ (2: 291–2).39 References to memory in the opening lines of the first two chapters of Netochka Nezvanova (2: 142, 158) establish a similar perspective. In both cases the temporal distance between the narrating voice and the events depicted suggests that the narrator is no longer the same person who experienced the events, creating a dualistic sense of the character not coinciding with themselves (Bakhtin, ‘Author’ 127). The use of ‘as if’ constructions frames the former self as unreal for the narrating self, who has to take a leap into the imagination to recover access to their childhood perspective.

The third fictional text in which (kak) budto features most prominently, ‘Khoziaika’, at first glance looks quite different from the other works discussed, as it has an omniscient third-person narrator and an adult focalizer, the ‘dreamer’ (mechtatel’) Vasilii Ordynov.40 Yet as this story also pivots around a love-triangle, its similarities to Netochka Nezvanova and ‘Malen’kii geroi’ are significant. As Frank notes, ‘The hold that Peter Alexandrovich exercises over his wife [in Netochka Nezvanova] resembles that of Murin over Katerina [in ‘Khoziaika’]; and it is, in fact, a transposition of much the same drama into the social terms of the late 1840s. […] the state of mind to which he has reduced his wife is similar to that of the inwardly enslaved Katerina in The Landlady’ (Seeds 361–2). Corrigan views Netochka Nezvanova as ‘a more focused investigation of the tripartite relationship that [Dostoevskii] had explored with little aesthetic success in “The Landlady”’ (93). Moreover, while Ordynov may not be the narrator of ‘Khoziaika’, he nevertheless shares many of the characteristics of the narrators of Dostoevskii’s early fictional autobiographies, as he is a poor, young inhabitant of St Petersburg who has lost his social position, and is isolated, orphaned and prone to sickness (Gigolov 11–17). Indeed, these similarities, alongside the role literature plays in structuring her reality in the later stages of the novella, allow us to categorize Netochka as a dreamer as well.41

The use of (kak) budto in ‘Khoziaika’ resembles that in Netochka Nezvanova and ‘Malen’kii geroi’, as it relates primarily to the perception of self and other. But the switch to a third-person narrative means that in place of reflection back on the narrating self through the use of ‘as if’, here an additional layer of perception is introduced. The ‘as if’ still denotes an externalized, imaginative understanding of the other that is connected to the conception of the self. The frequency with which (kak) budto is used to speculate about the mental and emotional states of others on the basis of a physical description (45.45 per cent of all occurrences) is particularly notable.42 But the narrator’s use of ‘as if’ phrases, alongside those employed by the characters, ultimately contributes to the erosion of the boundary between the narrator and focalizer, augmenting the sense of confusion for which the story is often criticized.

The tale starts with the narrator positioned externally to the dreamer-protagonist Ordynov, extrapolating about his psychological condition from his appearance: ‘Бледные щеки его стали покрываться легким румянцем, глаза заблестели как будто новой надеждой’ (1: 264).43 But it is not long before the (kak) budto comes to signify Ordynov’s own perception of his sensations: ‘он глухо чувствовал, что вся его жизнь как будто переломлена пополам’ (1:273); ‘Озноб пробежал по спине его, все члены его болели и как будто были разбиты’ (1: 275).44 As Gaustad notes, the narrator ‘start[s] melting into his asocial hero. […] the distance between hero and narrator gradually becom[es] reduced to the level of a mere third person pronoun’ (209). We see the shift from the external viewpoint to internal perception most clearly during the first of many episodes of delirium in the story: ‘Нет никого; я один... ничего, пусть! теперь лучше... хорошо мне теперь! — говорил Ордынов, будто в бреду. Комната как будто ходила кругом него’ (1: 276).45

25 occurrences of (kak) budto relate to Ordynov’s self-perception, but it is perhaps unsurprising that this is outstripped by 31 occurrences relating to Katerina, his obsession with whom forms the basis of the story. It is immediately made clear that we are given Ordynov’s perception of her, rather than the narrator’s, through the inclusion of ‘he saw’: ‘он видел, что она вся дрожала от волнения и как будто от страха’ (1: 272).46 Later we also see the same kind of parallelism that Netochka uses to underline her relationships with others, as reference to a repeated gesture suggests Ordynov perceives a unity between himself and Katerina: ‘Катерина провела рукою по лицу, как будто что-то гнело и давило ее’ (1:295); ‘Опомнясь, он провел рукой по лицу, как будто снимая с себя сон и ночные видения’ (1: 302).47 Subsequently, the use of (kak) budto comes to characterize Ordynov’s increasingly delirious impressions of Katerina’s actions, her supposed relationship with him, and his own lack of understanding of her relationship with Murin:

Он привстал и, пошатнувшись, ступил шаг вперед, подошел к Катерине и схватил ее за руку; но она и не взглянула на него, как будто его не приметила, как будто не признала его... Она как будто тоже теряла сознание, как будто одна мысль, одна неподвижная идея увлекла ее всю.48 (1: 309–10)

By contrast, other relationships and viewpoints on them are presented only minimally in this way: (kak) budto appears only six times with reference to Ordynov’s impressions of Murin, and only eight times to signify Katerina’s perception (three focusing on herself, three referring to Ordynov, and two to Murin). Murin’s viewpoint is largely excluded, apart from the few times when he speaks, and he does not participate in the type of imaginative response to the other that (kak) budto indicates.

However, the story’s use of ‘as if’ acquires a further layer, relating to a synonym with poetical and folkloric connotations that is rarely used in spoken Russian and that Dostoevskii seldom employed: slovno. Indeed, the story accounts for 16 per cent of all occurrences of slovno in Dostoevskii’s oeuvre, and its use 34 times here is significantly more than the (much longer) text next closest to it in frequency, Dvoinik (The Double, 1846), where it appears 24 times. The fact that Dvoinik is Dostoevskii’s most overtly fantastic work gives some clue to the role of slovno in ‘Khoziaika’. Having appeared only once in part I of the story, referring to the figure of the minor character (and external voice of reason) Iaroslav Il’ich, slovno suddenly becomes prominent in part II, as a regular feature of Katerina’s speech. It features in relation to her own memories: ‘Это давно уже было, очень давно, я и не помню когда, а всё как будто вчера передо мною, словно сон вчерашний’ (1: 294).49 Within the tale she tells itself, the formula ‘like in a dream’ is repeated to convey her own feelings: ‘Я села, прижалась к нему и забылась совсем у него на груди, словно сон какой нашел на меня’ (1: 298).50 Such uses underline the confusing nature of her story, with its unconfirmed hints of demonic possession, incest, paedophilia, and kidnapping. She also uses it in relation to her mother’s emotions: ‘Родимая с минуту молчала, вся как платок бела, говорить со мной словно боится’ (1: 296).51 And her perception of Murin in the present time of the story is framed in the same confused terms: ‘когда я вслушиваюсь в его голос, то словно это не он говорит, а кто-то другой, недобрый’ (1: 293).52 Katerina’s disjoined narrative contains 13 occurrences of slovno, 38.2 per cent of all uses in the story.

If we associate (kak) budto with Ordynov’s consciousness, then slovno becomes the marker of Katerina’s. However, towards the end of her narrative, the use of slovno begins to spill out into the surrounding text. First of all, it appears in a break in her story and is related to Ordynov’s perception: ‘Она вздрогнула, хотела было что-то сказать, но кровь залила ей лицо… Словно в беспамятстве закрылась она руками и бросилась лицом на подушки. Всё потряслось в Ордынове!’ (1: 299).53 The same thing happens in the next – and final – break in her story, again, returning to Ordynov’s point of view: ‘Она хотела прервать его, взяла его за руку, хотела сама что-то говорить и как будто не находила слов. Какая-то странная улыбка медленно появилась на ее губах, словно смех пробивался сквозь эту улыбку’ (1: 300).54 This transference of the speech pattern suggests that Ordynov’s perception has become confused with part of Katerina’s, as a result of his delirium. Subsequently, we read: ‘Он [Ordynov] теперь только подумал о Мурине. Глаза старика, словно потухавшие в предсмертной тоске, смотрели на него неподвижно’ (1: 304) and, ‘Она была вся словно в огне, и чудно делалось это’ (1: 307).55 The use of slovno indicates a growing confusion, as if the text – or the narrator – can no longer distinguish between the two viewpoints. Moreover, when Murin speaks, slovno emerges as part of his very distinctive vernacular: ‘Ишь вы, побратались, единоутробные! Слюбились, словно любовники!’ (1: 304); ‘Разум не воля для девицы, и слышит всю правду, да словно не знала, не ведала!’ (1: 308).56 As a result, what had initially appeared to be indicative of Katerina’s point of view now seems suggestive of Murin’s. From this point until the denouement and Ordynov’s removal from Murin’s and Katerina’s sphere of influence, it becomes difficult to identify with any certainty the perceiving consciousnesses in the story.

This blurring of boundaries between the characters’ minds, and the uncertainty or hesitation it causes in the reader, contributes significantly to the loss of distinction between the real and unreal in ‘Khoziaika’ that relates the story to the genre of the fantastic (Gaustad 206, Todorov 25–40). The place of the characters’ perception of others, and projection onto others, within that blurring of boundaries, points to the role of the ‘as if’ in shaping the fantastic element of the tale. As critics have noted, the ‘truth’ of Katerina’s relationship with Murin is obscured by two layers of projection: Murin’s and Ordynov’s. Frank states that ‘the secret of her enslavement by Murin lies in what Katerina believes to be true, not in what actually may be the case’ (Seeds 338). Her self-perception depends to a great extent on Murin’s projection onto her. At the same time, when Gaustad comments that the creation of Katerina’s image ‘depends, in a very direct way, on another person’s perception’ (214), that person is immediately identified as Ordynov. Gaustad further clarifies the source of projection: ‘It is made clear to the reader that there is no one truth about Katerina and Murin (or if there is, it is not divulged), and that their meaning, beauty and “otherness” might only have been projected onto their persons by the romanticising observer, Ordynov’ (214–5). Leatherbarrow also identifies projection in Ordynov’s perception of Murin, linking it to the production of the narrative itself: ‘the demonic identity ascribed to Murin is also the product of Ordynov’s creative delirium, an ingredient in the fictional folk tale into which he draws the merchant and his companion’ (‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ 609).

As we have seen in Netochka Nezvanova in particular, the formation of the narrator’s identity is dependent upon a similar process of projection, driven by her imagination and indicated by her use of (kak) budto. In ‘Malen’kii geroi’, (kak) budto governs the projection of the narrator’s ideas to present the other characters as types within his own drama:

For if these women behave less like flesh-and-blood women than dolls, whose movements are more predictable than life-like, it is because they are essentially creatures of the hero’s private world, and as such, are interesting not for what they tell us about the adult female mind (they tell us next to nothing), but what they suggest about the inner workings of the immature male mind: its erotic apprehensions, its evasions, and, ultimately, its dreams. (Gregg 291)

The additional layers of projection in ‘Khoziaika’ take the distortion of perspective to the extreme, rendering the tale almost incomprehensible in places. But the comparison of this process to that in Netochka Nezvanova and ‘Malen’kii geroi’, alongside their shared triangular dynamics, suggests a common origin in the child’s relationship to the other and view of the world. Ordynov may, unlike these other characters, be in his twenties, but his youth and inexperience – the result of his passion for ‘learning’ (nauka) – are emphasized: ‘Он был молод и покамест не требовал большего. Страсть сделала его младенцем для внешней жизни’ (1: 265).57 Indeed, Gregg’s characterization of the eleven-year-old ‘little hero’ above could equally describe Ordynov. Katerina’s narrative of how she came to be with Murin also incorporates her childhood perspective, its apparent distortions emphasized by the folk-tale elements.

The correlation of (kak) budto with the child’s uncertainty about the world and the other is given particular concentration in the moments when they stand outside relationships, try to make sense of them, and intrude on them. Within the self-consciousness of Dostoevskii’s protagonists that is dependent on others’ perceptions of the self, and what the self believes others’ perceptions of them to be, the ‘as if’ reveals hesitation as a central factor in the formation of the self’s (and perception of others’) feelings. Bakhtin – without further elaboration – identified Netochka Nezvanova and ‘Khoziaika’ as representing the next stage in the development of self-consciousness, reworking a different area of the Gogolian world to the milieu of the ‘poor clerk’ that had inspired both Bednye liudi (Poor Folk, 1846) and Dvoinik (Problems 76).58 Yet in their depiction of the awakening of inexplicable feelings, the inability to understand the actions of others, and collusion with the object of desire, these texts go beyond the bounds of Dostoevskian self-consciousness as it is normally perceived. It is here, rather, that Dostoevskii experiments with the formation of subjectivity itself, and its role in creating narrative.

The adoption of the child’s view of the world also underlines the extent to which the themes of the fantastic become instrumental to the development – and writing – of selfhood in Netochka Nezvanova and ‘Malen’kii geroi’, as much as in the overtly fantastic ‘Khoziaika’. As Todorov points out, central to the ‘themes of the self’ associated with the fantastic is the ‘effacement of the limit between subject and object’, as a re-writing – in adult terms – of what Piaget described as the infant’s inability ‘to distinguish the psychic world from the physical one’ (115–16). While obviously relevant to the quintessential Dostoevskian trope of doubling, this type of blurring of self and other is as much a part of the process of projection and its narration for Netochka and the ‘little hero’, as it is for Ordynov and Katerina. The collapse of the self into the world of ideas that is another aspect of the same phenomenon is as apparent in Netochka’s reading and reliance on her imagination as it is in Ordynov’s ‘creative delirium’. Although neither Netochka nor the ‘little hero’ (nor indeed Katerina in her story about Murin) is telling the story of their infancy, they are reworking from an adult perspective the experiences of their childhood. Their recourse to themes commonly associated with the fantastic reflects the disjuncture between the self that was and the narrating self, internalizes the hesitation between subject and object, and associates it with the fictionalizing ‘as if’.

Todorov argues that ‘the network of themes of the self corresponds to the system of perception-consciousness’; conversely, ‘the network of themes of the other corresponds to the system of unconscious impulses’ (149). In Dostoevskii’s texts, these ‘themes of the self’ relate to the process of projection and self-reflection introduced by ‘as if’ phrases, as I show above. The ‘themes of the other’ correspond to the desires and relationships (actual or imagined) associated in all three stories with the ‘as if’. The variations on ‘transformations of desire’ outlined by Todorov (131–2) all feature implicitly or explicitly in these works: incest (Netochka and Efimov; Katerina and Murin); homosexuality (Netochka and Katia); sadism (Efimov, Katia and Piotr Aleksandrovich; the blonde persecutor of the ‘little hero’; Murin), and ‘supernumerary love’ or l’amour à trois (the love-triangles at the centre of each text). A further dimension of desire associated with the ‘themes of the other’ relates to the demonic, owing to the identification of sexual desire with the devil (Todorov 127). The representation of Murin in ‘Khoziaika’ as a demonic figure is overt, but Netochka’s step-father, and formative influence, Efimov, also potentially falls into this category. His prowess as a violinist compared to his previous career as a mediocre clarinettist hints at a demonic source for his talent; the accusation that he killed the Italian violinist in order to get hold of the instrument (2: 144–5), although formally disproved, nevertheless lingers in the reader’s memory.59 The demonic allusions surrounding Efimov locate the early stages of the novella in distinctly Gothic territory (Bowers; Jones, ‘Romanticism’; Marullo, ‘Man-God’ 233–4). The fact that this story is by necessity told second-hand, as it predates Netochka’s life, alerts us to the role of the imagination, and its fantastic tendencies, in her narration and her desires. In the first chapter of Netochka Nezvanova and throughout ‘Khoziaika’ we see the ‘as if’ operating on precisely the level of Todorov’s identification of the ‘as if’ as a signifier of the fantastic (79–80). The rest of Netochka and ‘Malen’kii geroi’ appear to escape those fantastic origins, but the continuing presence of (kak) budto indicates the persistent influence of that mind-set and the role of the imagination in these works. Thus while the use of (kak) budto and other ‘as if’ phrases relates primarily to self-construction and the development of intersubjectivity in the transition from child- to adulthood, it also reveals the fantastic premise Dostoevskii brought to all of his fiction.60

The fictionalizing ‘as if’ Dostoevskii uses to develop the narration of childhood memories of the relationship of self to other in Netochka Nezvanova and ‘Malen’kii geroi’, at a point when he was still refining his novelistic technique, seems highly significant, particularly given the importance of children to his later fictional world. Yet, as the concordance results show, usage of (kak) budto dramatically decreases at the very point when one might have expected it to feature more prominently. The present reading indicates that it is precisely the child’s perspective that is at stake here, and the fantastic aspect of the ‘as if’ that enables imaginative comparison in compensation for gaps in understanding. This suggests that we see elevated usage of (kak) budto in Unizhennye i oskorblennye (The Insulted and Injured, 1861) alone among Dostoevskii’s post-Siberian oeuvre because of its predominantly youthful protagonists and narrator. Thereafter, although children are increasingly centralized as images of innocence and suffering, their agency as narrators (and to a great extent, as active participants in the drama of the texts) diminishes. This would imply that alongside the (kak) budto that is used so frequently to signify it, the child’s own perspective is largely excluded from Dostoevskii’s later work. Verifying that hypothesis, however, must be the subject for another article.