Description

The Gambler was written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, one of the most famous on the list of the classical Russian authors that includes Tolstoy, Gogol, Pushkin, Chekhov, and Pasternak. He was born in 1821 and died of complications of emphysema in 1881. He also suffered from epilepsy most of this adult life. His early career in the army did not suit him and the murder of his father by rebellious serfs had a profound effect on the young man’s life. He became a radical, was imprisoned, and sentenced to death only to receive a last second reprieve from the Tsar. After this he was sentenced to Siberia where he changes his entire outlook on life. He came to believe the entire salvation of the world depended on the Russian people. His books include: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and his greatest work The Brothers Karamazov.


Review

The Gambler is a stunning psychological portrait of a young man’s exhilarating and destructive addiction to gambling, a compulsion that Dostoevsky–who once gambled away his young wife’s wedding ring–knew intimately from his own experience. In chronicling the disastrous love affairs and gambling adventures of Alexei Ivanovich, Dostoevsky explores the irresistible temptation to investigate the abyss of ultimate risk that he believed was an essential part of the Russian national character. The reader is afforded the rare treat to be introduced to the full genius of Dostoevsky while reading this short novel of just over 150 pages.


Study Questions

1.  The story is told from the point of view of which character?
2.  How do you assess the character of General Sagorjanski?
3.  What was Alexei’s motive for his first venture at gambling? What was the result?
4.  How do you compare, similar or different, the grandmothers in this book and the Age of Innocence?
5.  What is the role of the Englishman Mr. Astley?
6.  What kind of a young woman was Polina?
7.  How did Antonida’s luck at roulette turn out?
8.  Where did Alexie go wrong?
9.  Does this story alter anything you already felt about gambling?
10.  Will Alexie and Polina ever get together?
11.  Did you find this book easy to read? Does it give you any urge to read Dostoevsky’s masterpiece “Crime and Punishment”?


Discussion

This book selection was a bit of an experiment or more like a tasting party where people can take a small bite of something to decide it they like it and take more, resolve to order a larger portion when the occasion arises or simply move on and chalk up an experience that does not demand an encore. The teaser for this experiment was reading “A Gentleman from Moscow” a thoroughly enjoyable book that bridged the gap between pre-revolutionary Czarist Russia and the Bolshevik era. The tasting party was an under 200-page novel (novella?) by one of the Russian masters, a man whose brilliance produced, “Crime and Punishment”, “The Brothers Karamazov”, and “The Idiot”.

The Book Club was unanimous in the conclusion that none of the characters were likable. There were thirteen, and all seemed flawed by things like greed, arrogance, insincerity, immorality, or other less than desirable characteristics; that is except one. That person was an outlier. He was an Englishman who was independent, wealthy, gainfully employed (or at least in business) and was well known to at least two of the principal characters. The catch was that he was in love with the flighty girl Polina and was a friend and mentor of sort to the protagonist who has the same feelings toward her. Mr. Astley was never mentioned in the discussion and that is perhaps the way the author would have preferred it. This character was more like the frame of the picture. It held the work together, so the reader looked at the action and not the arbiter.

The discussion settled on the book’s accurate description of the evils of gambling and the character of those who succumbed. Especially interesting was the grandmother and matriarch who was titular and financial head of the family whose son, the General, was anxiously awaiting, and cheering for, her death so he could marry an avaricious younger woman whose “affection” for the General was linked to the old woman’s mortality meaning her money.

This grandmother reminded the group of a similar grand dame who played a prominent role in a prior book, “The Age of Innocence”.

It was clear to all that the 25 year old protagonist and the aged grandmother both succumbed to their uncontrollable urge to continue to challenge the roulette table without any logical consideration of the fact that they had accumulated vast winnings and that the inevitable outcome of continuing would be that they would lose it all and they did.

The character of the Russians that exuded pride at simply being Russian, having a good time, not working but having money was a sharp contrast to the mirthless, hard working and seemingly prosperous German’s and the flighty French.

At the end all agreed that Alexie was hopelessly addicted when he decided to put off travelling to see Polina, so he could spend one more day gambling.

Polina’s motives and actions painted her as a character not to be trusted. Alexei’s putting off the trip to see her would have no real effect on the outcome which was destined to be not good for anybody.

One of the group shared a sample of an audio version of the book and it was interesting to read along in our book and see the many differences in language but not in meaning; for example, in the book we read a dinner including the General’s suite was described as, “… a formal dinner; Moscow – style”. In the audiobook this was described as, “a Muscovite banquet.”
The main difference in these two would be use of the word “dinner” or “banquet”. In my opinion, in the context of dining with the family in a hotel without pomp the word “dinner” would be more appropriate.

This “tasting experience” led several in the group to say they would like to read a more serious book by Dostoevsky on their own and the consensus was that this would be “Crime and Punishment”.