The other day I saw a wedding … but no, I had better tell you about the Christmas tree.
To continue my Literary Christmas reading challenge, I have left behind Mary Gaunt and Australian shores to head off to pre-revolutionary Russia. A Christmas Tree and a Wedding is a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It begins at the 379 page mark of my edition of White Nights and other stories and finishes at 392.
*This review contains spoilers*
I don’t know how it was that, looking at that wedding, I thought of that Christmas tree.
The wedding in question takes place five years after the Christmas tree party our unnamed narrator is remembering. At the party he describes himself as a disinterested bystander. Although invited by the host, he felt himself to be ‘an outsider; I had no interested matter to contribute‘. This gave him the opportunity to observe the behaviour of others. In particular another outsider ‘a tall, lanky man, very grave and very correctly dressed‘ a gentleman from the provinces, in Petersburg on business. Also a gentleman ‘a personage‘. Yulian Mastakovitch was an ‘honoured guest‘ and waited on ‘hand and foot‘ by the host and hostess. The contrast in how these two men were treated by the host and hostess was marked. The businessman was virtually ignored; the personage was fawned over.
Our narrator also observed the children. He watched them strip the tree of sweetmeats before breaking half their playthings.
But one of the young girls took herself off to the same quiet parlour as our narrator. She didn’t enjoy the robust play of her peers, preferring to play by herself with her dolly. Whilst relaxing in said parlour, he overheard a whispered conversation about this young girl. Her wealthy parents had set aside ‘three hundred thousand roubles’ for her dowry. Yulian Mastakovitch also overheard this whisper. He began his calculations straight away, “Eleven…twelve…thirteen,” and so on. “Sixteen – five years!” He then approached the girl, and kissed her abruptly on the top of the head, quizzing her about what game she was playing.
By our modern sensibilities, this story started to feel rather icky. I had to remind myself that it was usual for young girls of this era to be betrothed at a very young age. More often, they were betrothed to boys roughly their same age. But it wasn’t unheard of to be given in marriage to a much older man. Even still, when Mastakovitch at the end of this exchange says,
in most dulcet tones, asked at last, in a hardly audible voice choked with emotion and impatience – “And will you love me, dear little girl, when I come and see your papa and mamma?”. Saying this, Yulian Mastakovitch tried once more to kiss “the dear little girl”.
It’s hard not to shudder with horror. Unfortunately, her parents were filled with a very different emotion. Later in the evening, our narrator observed him talking to her parents, as Mastakovitch went into raptures over
her beauty, the talents, the grace and the charming manners of the charming child. He was unmistakably making up to the mamma. The mother listened to him almost with tears of delight. The father’s lips were smiling.
Five years later, our narrator is passing by a wedding scene when he realises the groom is Mastokovitch. Listening to others in the crowd he learns that he is be married to an heiress barely sixteen years of age. With dawning horror he realises who the bride will be. Through the crowd he sees ‘the beauty was pale and melancholy. She looked preoccupied; I even fancied that her eyes were red with recent weeping…which seemed mutely begging for mercy.’
The Christmas Tree and the Wedding was written in 1848 and highlights the importance of social status in pre-revolutionary Russia – from the gifts the children receive to how the two strangers were treated by their hosts. The children are shown as being happy and free about playing with anyone…until the adults interfere. This is not a happy seasonal story, instead Dostoevsky has crafted a cutting critique of Russian society.
The moral lesson learnt here, thanks to Dostoevsky, is that it’s difficult being poor, but even worse to be a young woman, regardless of wealth.
White Nights and others stories includes:
- White Nights
- Notes From the Underground
- A Faint Heart
- A Christmas Tree and a Wedding
- A Little Hero
- Mr Prohartchin
Title: The Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky Volume X: White Nights and other stories Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky Translator: Constance Garnett (1918) Imprint: Project Gutenberg Published: 5th May 2011 (originally published 1848) Format: eBook Pages: 563
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.