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Fyodor Dostoevsky—“An Honest Thief”

The second story in Eyes to See is this story by Dostoevsky, an author with the same level of religious intensity as that possessed by Chesterton, but a profoundly greater narrative facility. “An Honest Thief” is a simple story but at the same time a vexing one.
The basic plot is simple. Astafy, a lodger in the home of a reluctant landlord tells a second-hand tale about an honest thief. This thief, Emelyan, also a lodger of sorts, had stolen riding breaches from Astafy, his benefactor. Emelyan denies the crime vehemently, yet his actions proclaim his guilt more clearly than would a confession. Eventually, apparently sick with his sense of guilt—or perhaps just sick—Emelyan lies on his deathbed and confesses the theft of the breeches to a sympathetic Astafy.
Complicating this story, however, is the narratological structure. Why must Dostoevsky employ the framing story with Astafy speaking to the narrator? Granted, the narrator has just been deprived of an overcoat by a wandering thief, but might the story not be told without this device?
In order to read Dostoevsky in this case, we should consider the character of the narrator for a moment. This is a significantly isolated man, holed up in his home office, rarely speaking with anyone. He confesses to having no meaningful conversation with his housekeeper for six years. He describes himself, upon first meeting Astafy as follows: “I lead as a rule a very lonely hermit’s existence. I have scarcely any friends; I hardly ever go anywhere. As I had spent ten years never coming out of my shell, I had, of course, grown used to solitude.”
The rationale for Astafy telling his story in response to the theft of the overcoat is obvious, but why did Dostoevsky need this narrative frame? I would suggest that this story is not about an honest thief. Emelyan is not the true focus of the story. Instead, the narrator is the character most changed in the course of these pages. Let me explain.
At the outset, as noted, our narrator is a hermit. Upon admitting Astafy to his life, he breaks with his old habits and makes a connection, however tentative, with another human being. This represents a first step to full humanity, yet it’s not enough. How remarkable is it for a man to love his friends? That’s nothing remarkable at all. But loving an enemy is significant. (I seem to have read this sort of thing before.)
The narrator’s initial response to the theft of his overcoat is surprisingly restrained. In fact, it is Astafy who seems the more concerned about the crime. It is he, despite his advanced age, who runs after the thief. It is he who continues to bring up the topic and express anger. Yet then it is Astafy who tells the story of his experience with Emelyan. In the course of those pages, Astafy fully humanizes the weaker man, Emelyan, so that in the end, while the reader and the narrator do not condone the thief’s conduct, we see that conduct as the action of a frail vessel, fatally marked by sin.
A moment ago, I suggested that the narrator is a changed figure by the end of the story, but is there evidence for such a claim? The fact of his narration is, I would argue, such evidence. I would compare this to the biblical book of Philemon. Paul sends a runaway slave, Onesimus, back to his owner, Philemon, along with a letter. In the letter, Paul implores Philemon to treat Onesimus as brother in Christ. What evidence do we have that Philemon heeded Paul’s advice? I believe that the survival of the letter suggests that course. Similarly, we should not expect the narrator to tell such a tale if he found it to be nonsense.

Posted in Russian Literature.

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