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Society and Class
She didn't recognize me, and I tried to wrap myself up the best I could, because the overcoat I had on was very dirty, and old-fashioned besides. Now everyone wears cloaks with tall collars, and mine is short, overlapping; and the broadcloth isn't waterproof at all. (1.2)
Poprishchin's comment says the most important thing you need to know about Saint Petersburg circa 1835: fashion mattered! (Um, and so did cleanliness.) We just wonder how often overcoat fashions were changing back then. Short collars were so 1833.
Only a gentleman can write correctly. Of course, there are sometimes merchants' clerks and even certain serfs who can write a bit; but their writing is mostly mechanical—no commas, no periods, no style. (1.2)
Back when literacy wasn't universal, commas, periods and style were all the rage. Knowing punctuation rules, being able to spell correctly, and having some sense of writing style were all good indicators of class. Srsly you guys.
"I know that building," I said to myself, "That's Zverkov's building." What a pile! And the sorts that live in it: so many cooks, so many out-of-towners! And our fellow clerks—like pups, on top of the other. I, too, have a friend there, a very good trumpet player. (1.4)
Apartment buildings with many residents, often of not very high class, were still novelties in cities. We are to presume here that Poprishchin didn't live in one of these. Putting the whole place down is his way of feeling a little bit better about his own social status. Psychologists call this "downward comparison." We all do it.
Am I some sort of nobody, a tailor's son, or a sergeant's? I'm a nobleman. So, I, too, can earn rank. […] Just give me a Ruch tailcoat, cut in the latest fashion, and let me have the same kind of necktie as you have—you won't hold a candle over me. No income—that's the trouble. (3.1)
Poprishchin might be a nobleman technically, but he doesn't have a high enough rank to have hereditary nobility. So he's pretty insecure when it gets to being "somebody." The whole nobility business got kind of complicated in Imperial Russia when nobility became tied to civil service. Suddenly, formerly lower class people had some chance to rise through the ranks and attain nobility. How to rise through the ranks? Well, money and lots of it helps. So Poprishchin is spelling out that chain reaction leading to success: from income to the latest fashions, to being treated like a nobleman to actually being one. Style over substance again.
Went to the theater. […] There was some other vaudeville about some collegiate registrar, written quite freely, so that I wondered how it passed the censors, and they said outright that merchants cheat people and their sons are debauchers and try to worm their way into the nobility. (4.1)
If money meant being able to attain nobility, penniless (or should we say kopeck-less) people like Poprishchin viewed merchants, who had money, with suspicion and resentment. Our noses smell something of a revolution in the air (but it will probably take until 1917 to reach us).
I can't stand cabbage, the smell of which comes pouring out of all the small shops on Meshchanskaya; besides that, there was such a whiff of hell coming from under the gates of each house that I held my nose and ran for dear life. And those vile artisans produce so much soot and smoke in their workshops that it's decidedly impossible for a gentleman to walk there. (7.1)
Cabbage was the quintessential ingredient of lower class cooking. Poprishchin tries to distinguish himself from the lower-class artisans by putting them down with something as essential as the food they eat and their working conditions. As you can see, relations between the upper and the lower classes weren't exactly ideal.
Then, ma chère, a week later Papa came home very happy. All morning gentlemen in uniforms kept coming to him, congratulating him for something. At the table he was merrier than I'd ever seen him before, told jokes, and after dinner he held me up to his neck and said: "Look, Medji, what's this?" I saw some little ribbon. (8.12)
The ribbon Medji is talking about here is probably the ribbon of the Order of St. Vladimir, which would increase the director's class status. The fact that it is on his neck means he attained third or second class in the order. It's a sure sign that he has hereditary nobility, which is what Poprishchin wants but will probably never get. See why Sophie wouldn't even look at Poprishchin?
Several times already I've tried to figure out where all these differences come from. What makes me a titular councillor? Maybe I'm some sort of count or general and only seem to be a titular councillor? Maybe I myself don't know who I am. There are so many examples in history: some simple fellow, not only not a nobleman, but simply some tradesman or even peasant—and it's suddenly revealed that he's some sort of dignitary, or sometimes even an emperor. (9.1)
Here, Poprishchin is starting to see that rank or nobility aren't qualities that have anything to do with a person's essence. And that's quite a keen observation at a time when nobility still held some fascination and many people believed there was something special about the royals and the nobles. (Okay, okay, we know, it actually still does.)
They said the director was coming. Many clerks ran up front to show themselves before him. But I didn't budge. When he was passing through our section, everybody buttoned up their tailcoats; but I—nothing of the sort! What is a director that I should stand up before him—never! (13.1)
Modern clerks don't really do this when the boss is coming, do they? What are some present day signs of deference?
… all those high-ranking fathers of theirs, all those who fidget in all directions and worm their way into court and say they're patriots and this and that: income, income is what these patriots want! Mother, father, God—they'll sell them all for money, ambitious Judases! It's all ambition… (13.1)
Note the contradiction with what Poprishchin says in 3.1. There, he's claiming he's as good as noble, but all he needs is money and some good clothes. But now that he knows he doesn't stand a chance with Sophie, he turns around and blames people like Teplov who actually make it thanks to their money. Yep, a sore loser.
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