Book Review: The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1846)

Release: 30 January 1846

The Double is often hailed as one Dostoyevsky’s early works that portrayed a time before he had found his voice. It is far shorter than later works and focuses on more fantastical subject matter. Based solely on this information I was intrigued. I soon came to find out that British comedian Richard Ayoade made a well received film version of it. I previously knew of the film version, but not of Richard Ayoade’s involvement. With this discovery the book was thrust forward earlier into my list of world books, becoming firmly the choice for this years Russia selection. The Double, being my fourth attempt at Dostoyevsky, is neither Dostoyevsky’s worst or Dostoyevsky’s best. It fails to achieve the greatness of The Brothers Karamazov, is a good deal more interesting than Notes From The Underground, and probably only a little worse than Crime And Punishment. I felt that Dostoyevsky’s voice was still present but that the subject matter and characters where a but unique from what I’ve read of his. I think this would be the perfect Dostoyevsky gateway drug. If you give this a shot and like it, then you should definitely check out his other novels.

The story focuses on someone suffering with a lot of social anxiety, this fits well with Dostoyevsky’s often aloof protagonists, but in this case it seems to be far more in the realm of crippling social awkwardness and not just a bit of an outsider. What would be the worst thing for someone with this problem, why not have an exact replica of themselves appear, only without any social anxiety. Make them suave and comfortable around people, the life of the party and then have them step by step take over your job and your life. If that doesn’t sound like a nightmare for someone with severe social anxiety, then I don’t know what is. So I guess you could say that The Double is horror story for the socially awkward. There is a lot of paranoia and confusion from the protagonists end. Where did this exact replica of himself come from? How does no one seem to be bothered by his appearance? Is everyone in on this elaborate joke? Some might say he is a paranoid schizophrenic, I feel that it is a view into the others versus me mindset that often comes with social anxiety. The Double is the embodiment of the better life, of the expected life that the socially anxious cannot achieve. The conflict forces him to act against everyone around him, and thus further alienating himself.

The character of the doppelgänger is intriguing. Where did he come from? How does he happen to have the same name and appearance of our protagonist. We never really get any answers and no one else seems too bothered by the doppelgänger. The notice similarities, but don’t find it too odd. They comment on similarities in appearance, but don’t every explicitly say they are identical. This apathy towards the situation only increases our protagonist’s paranoia, and makes me doubt the sincerity of his claims. I find myself siding more and more with his colleagues and acquaintances. He is awkward, rude and antagonistic. He speaks strangely and fills me with discomfort. Dostoyevsky does a remarkable job of even alienating the protagonist from the reader. I see his mind working, I see hints of my own, but mostly I see an incredibly frustrating circumstance affecting someone that most wouldn’t want to help. The scenario with the doppelgänger brilliantly shows how isolating and crippling social anxiety and paranoia can be.

It is a simple and short book that examines a very relatable topic in extreme circumstances. It is a fascinating exploration of what makes us tick and what our own personal fears might be. It is wonderful to see where Dostoyevsky came from, especially knowing the masterpieces he would write. For someone looking to get into Dostoyevsky, The Double is a great place to start. I’d give it 4 out 5 stars.

35 Novels from 35 Countries

  1. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (England)
  2. We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (Denmark)
  3. The River Between by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Kenya)
  4. The Stranger by Albert Camus (France)
  5. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño (Chile)
  6. Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia)
  7. The Heart Of Redness by Zakes Mda (South Africa)
  8. The Woman In The Dunes by Kobo Abe (Japan)
  9. The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Russia)

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