UBC Lectures, Seminars, and Symposia

Dostoevsky’s Capitalist Realism, or, Why Money Does Not Burn in 'The Idiot' Shneyder, Vadim


The Russian realist novel played a part in making the concept of the economy thinkable. This talk examines how Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1868–9) gave a narratable form to Russia’s nascent capitalist economy in the years after the emancipation of the serfs. Rather than scrupulously documenting observable economic phenomena, the novel condenses the mass of details into an economic subplot featuring a conflict between two types of wealthy characters: modern capitalists and traditional merchants. While the merchants’ wealth is shockingly material and attracts the novel’s attention, the wealth of the capitalists circulates behind the scenes, forming an invisible network that gradually takes over the novel’s world. As the conflict develops, it captures all three of the major characters in its orbit. Even Prince Myshkin, who has traditionally been seen as a being far removed from the financial excesses of 1860s St. Petersburg, is entangled in this economic conflict. Ultimately, the capitalists prosper, their lives extending beyond the novel’s narrative, the merchants are doomed to stasis, sterility, and failure.

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