Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin is a government clerk, a faceless bureaucrat, who is struggling both in work and in his social life. After a particularly emotional encounter at a party, while walking home through a cold night’s fog, he finds himself face to face with his double, a man identical in look, background, and even name. At first, they becomes friends. Golyadkin even shares his home with him, but before soon his doppelgänger begins to take over his life. Golyadkin is awkward with people, but this double is charismatic and popular. Golyadkin isn’t getting anywhere in his career, but the double is working with his superiors and advancing within the organization. He’s everything Golyadkin has tried and failed to be.
This was my first Dostoyevsky novel, and I really had mixed feelings about it. I like the premise and how the story was structured, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the writing style. The dialogue, in particular, was a bit painful to get through. Golyadkin’s incessant repeating of each character’s name while speaking to them was a bit too much for me. I don’t think it’s a translation problem, Jessie Coulson seemed to do a fine job on the rest, but rather a style choice made to show how the character was struggling to hang on. It did successfully convey that feeling, but it wasn’t fun to read. When characters weren’t speaking, I found myself enjoying the story much more.
I was surprised by how darkly funny this was at times. There were scenes that were awkward to the point of slapstick, a weirdly tragic slapstick that I thoroughly enjoyed. I especially loved how Golyadkin would struggle with getting the nerve up to do something, standing outside a party for the better part of three hours for example, and as soon as he’d decide to abandon the plan he’d immediately turn around and go through with it. It felt like the physical version of an internal monologue that many introverted people will know all too well.
At the end of the novel, Golyadkin is driven away to an asylum. This business with his doppelgänger was all in his head, and it ends with him being locked away. I was still thinking there really was a double at that point, mainly because we see the hallucination conversing with people in the office and at parties, and it’s written very much as if they’re two different people.
Looking back now, I do really like the idea of his double being a delusion. I’ve often heard people with social anxiety describe social situations as feeling like they’re an actor playing a part, so the idea of that stress manifesting itself like this makes a kind of sense. Golyadkin feels so out of character that it’s like watching a completely different version of himself.
There is a scene in which Golyadkin asks his co-worker if the new hire reminds him of anyone, and it takes a while but does eventually dawn on him that Golyadkin and his double look remarkable similar, and I don’t really understand how that works with the idea of Golyadkin going insane. I suppose you could write that whole conversation off as a hallucination, but that seems a bit easy. There are a couple of moments in the story, looking back, that don’t seem to really fit with the ending.
So, I’m still not sure about Dostoyevsky, but I will give him another go at some point. I have Notes from Underground as well, so that may be the next one. The Double was one of his first published novels, so maybe I’ll enjoy his later work more. Even though I was lukewarm on this one, I am interested in giving it a re-read at a later date. I think it would be really interesting to see each scene again, knowing how it ends.