The first mention of gambling as a theme for a novella, we know, goes back to the summer of 1863, when Dostoevsky was traveling in Europe with his erstwhile mistress Apollinaria Suslova. Dostoevsky was gambling furiously all during this trip, and he thought of recouping his losses by turning them into literature. While in Rome he wrote to Strakhov outlining a work for which he hoped Strakhov could obtain an advance. “I have in mind,” he wrote, “a man who is straightforward, highly cultured, and yet in every respect unfinished, a man who has lost his faith but who does not dare not to believe, and who rebels against the established order and yet fears it.” The letter then continues:
The main thing, though, is that all his vital sap, his energies, rebellion,
daring, have been channeled into roulette. He is a gambler, and not merely
an ordinary gambler, just as Pushkin's Covetous Knight is not an ordinary
miser…. He is a poet in his own way, but the fact is that he himself is
ashamed of the poetic element in him, because deep down he feels it is
despicable, although the need to take risks ennobles him in his own eyes.
The whole story is the tale of his playing roulette in various gambling
houses for over two years.1
By the time Dostoevsky came around to using the idea outlined in his letter, the religious motif had dropped by the wayside, and instead he developed what had been mentioned only as an afterthought—that the gambling of Russian expatriates “has some (perhaps not unimportant) significance.” In the novella, this significance becomes linked to the remark about the gambler being “a poet in his own way.” Dostoevsky explains this idiosyncratic notion of “poetry” by a reference to Pushkin's Covetous Knight, who amasses a fortune not for the sake of the money itself but solely for the psychological sense of power it enables him to acquire over others. “Poetry” in this Dostoevskian sense means acting not for immediate self-interest or for the gratification of any fleshly material desire, but solely to satisfy a powerful psychic craving of the human personality, whether for good or evil.
1PSS, 28/Bk. 2: 50–51.