The Ridiculous Jew: The Exploitation and Transformation of a Stereotype in Gogol, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky

By Gary Rosenshield | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Notes from the House of the Dead
Ridiculous Jew, Existential Christian,
Hagiographic Muslim, and the Intentional Text

In contrast to Gogol and Turgenev, Dostoevsky did not completely imagine his most detailed portrait of a Jew; it is based on a real-life prototype (Isay Bumshtel) from the prison camp in which he spent four years from 1850 through 1854.1 Nevertheless, the literary embodiment of this Jewish prisoner in his semiautobiographical novel, Notes from the House of the Dead (1860–1862), essentially conforms to the Jewish stereotype that we have seen employed by both Gogol and Turgenev. Like Gogol and Turgenev, Dostoevsky also exploits the stereotype in his own way, consonant with his artistic and ideological ends. What is most interesting about the Jewish stereotype is not, of course, its common features but the uses to which these features are put for different aesthetic ends. In each writer, the Jew stands as a negative other, a non-Russian and a non-Christian, whose difference places Russianness in a favorable light. In Gogol the Jewish stereotype is used to foreground the Russian spirit as embodied by the mythical Cossack; in Turgenev, it highlights an ideal of Russian compassion against which the morality of capital punishment can be challenged; and in Dostoevsky, as we shall see, it serves as a comic counterpoint to existential and hagiographical

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