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Gambler, The

by Fyodor M Dostoevsky

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No one would argue that The Gambler is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s greatest work. It was written hastily, at the same time Dostoyevsky was working on Crime and Punishment, and his chief motivation for writing it was to get out of debt.

But the problem with all of Dostoyevsky’s masterpieces, from The Brothers Karamazov to The Idiot, is their daunting length. Even The Devils, in the edition I read, is 704 pages long.

We assign The Gambler for the same reason that we assign Hard Times as an introduction to Charles Dickens: it’s shorter and it’s more accessible. Dostoyevsky shows flashes of his brilliance, so that students develop an appetite for his more challenging works.

And there is brilliance! Because The Gambler is largely autobiographical—Dostoyevsky was addicted to roulette at the time—and because he is willing to bare every tawdry part of his soul, students are confronted with a gripping account of self-abasement and the folly of sin. At one point the narrator (who represents Dostoyevsky), after being bankrupted at the casino, confesses to his love, “I am convinced to this moment that I shall win. I confess you have led me now to wonder why my senseless and unseemly failure to-day has not left the slightest doubt in me. I am still fully convinced that as soon as I begin playing for myself I shall be certain to win.”

Dostoyevsky is not exaggerating the self-delusion of the gambling addict—he believed the same thing himself. He said as much in a letter written to his new wife in 1867: “Forgive me, my angel, but I must go into some of the intricacies of my venture, of the game [roulette], so that you will see more clearly what it is all about. Already on twenty or so occasions I have observed as I approached the gaming table that if one plays coolly, calmly and with calculation, it is quite impossible to lose! I swear—it is an absolute impossibility!”

The Gambler is not Dostoyevsky’s best book, but one can hardly imagine a more impassioned sketch of the truth taught by the Apostle Paul: “When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness.”

by Jeff Baldwin