Falling into the Abyss: Dostoevsky’s The Double and Mental Illness

I.
Picture this: you overhear your work colleagues talking in the break room one lunch time. You find out they have planned a party for that very evening.  Everyone in the office is invited, and there will be plenty of food, drink and entertainment. The problem is, they have neglected to invite you. You had absolutely no idea this event was taking place. Confused, you rightly begin to feel a sense of rejection and unworthiness. After all, you have never said a bad word about anyone in the office, and you pride yourself on being both honest and friendly. Squashing down a growing sense that you are deliberately being excluded, you continue to listen to their hushed whispers in the hope that there is some mistake. You find out that the party is going to be taking place at the home of one of your co-workers. You catch the address and decide that against your better judgement you will turn-up to the party anyway. After all, they probably just forgot about you, right?

You arrive at the party several hours after it commences in a carefully planned attempt at letting people know you weren’t that desperate to be there. You don’t receive the apologetic and friendly welcome you were hoping. On the contrary, those present (most of the office staff including management) eye you off with an unsettling mixture of disdain and amusement. You were clearly not meant to be there. Your lack of invitation was no oversight. You feel a growing sense of turmoil and anger which- mixed with the liberal amounts of alcohol you have been consuming- lead to a desire to do whatever it takes to prove yourself as worthy. You approach office management and casually strike-up a casual conversation. They ignore you, smugly dismissing you with the wave of an apathetic hand.

This outright rejection only spurs you on in your efforts to be accepted. Eventually your persistence pays off and these arrogant bureaucrats are reduced to actually having to speak to you, telling you in no uncertain terms to sod off. Emboldened by this perverse form of recognition, you approach one of your attractive colleagues and drunkenly attempt to flirt, full-well knowing that her husband is also present. Understandably outraged, the husband avails himself of the opportunity to rough you up and- together with some people from the management team- you are escorted out of the house and into the cold night.   

 II.

The above scenario serves as the triggering event for Mr. Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin’s descent into madness as depicted in The Double– Dostoevsky’s novella of 1846. The occasion of his public downfall arises after Mr. Golyadkin’s doctor tells him that his social isolation is affecting his health. Contrary to his inherently shy nature, Mr. Golyadkin decides to attend the upcoming birthday party of a certain Klara Olsufyevna as a form of self-therapy. Ms. Olsufyevna is the daughter of the office manager at Mr. Golyadkin’s place of work, and the ensuing social faux pas committed by Golyadkin at the party were witnessed by his entire workplace, shaming him in ways that would ultimately be beyond repair.  Painfully aware that he had not been invited in the first place, Mr Golyadkin’s chatter with guests was disconnected and rambling, and he manages to offend all the wrong people. He is soon booted out.   

Humiliated and emotionally fragile, the subsequent feelings of an inexorable slip away from reality causes Mr. Golyadkin to experience a number of psychotic breaks, the first of which occurs soon after he was escorted out of Klara’s party. As he attempts to find his way home through the snow of a bitterly cold St. Petersburg night, Mr. Golyadkin’s mind tricks him into thinking that he has spotted his exact replica scurrying through the frosty evening. Convinced of the reality of his double, this second Mr. Golyadkin begins a process of sadistically interfering in the real Golyadkin’s life in an attempt to take it over. This second version of himself is a faithful clone of the original; same looks, clothes, accent, mannerisms. The only difference is that Mr. Golyadkin version two is a phenomenal success in all he does, whereas the original article is a lowly titular Councillor with a somewhat mediocre ranking of level 9. After the shock discovery that this fake persona has commenced working at the same office, the real Mr. Golyadkin’s horror quickly increases as his fraudulent caricature quickly rises through the bureaucracies ranks, soon eclipsing his own success and status in every conceivable way. His meteoric rise to the top is accompanied by an increase in social standing, wealth and prestige, which the caricature savagely uses to taunt and humiliate the original. In short, the fake Mr. Golyadkin is everything the real version is not: graceful, cultured, popular, competent. It scarcely matters that he is in fact a cruel illusion, a mere trick of the mind. The mere thought of his presence is enough to tip the real Mr. Golyadkin off the precipice of mental stability.    

III.

The Double makes for harrowing reading indeed. Dostoevsky continually paints the picture of a man crumbling under the burden of his own social ineptitude. Mr. Golyadkin has a good heart and the purest of intentions, but he has not been gifted with that most essential skill in life: the ability to successfully navigate the complex intricacies of social interaction. Every move he makes is marked by a tragic-comic mixture of poor timing, awkward verbal interchanges and- at times- slapstick clumsiness. It’s a cruel fate indeed, the more so because his motivations are of the most pure sort: a desire to be accepted, valued and loved. Unfortunately, the harsh, theatrical and oftentimes artificial nature of social dynamics means that Mr. Golyadkin’s awkward attempts at ingratiating himself are met with mockery and derision. He cannot play the social game, and is increasingly perceived as a colossal embarrassment. As the story unfolds, Mr. Golyadkin grows increasingly paranoid and psychotic, resulting in his eventual sectioning in a mental health facility.

Reading The Double, it’s difficult to not empathize with the plight of Mr. Golyadkin. As the painful drama unfolds, one cannot help but throw oneself into the narrative: what would I do if I were the central character? In the depths of social isolation, how could I be so sure that my own grip on reality is sufficiently strong to avoid abandoning myself to an encroaching madness?  This brief novella also caused me to think about how we react to mental illness in our own time. Is it any less stigmatized? I am no therapist, but it seems to me that in spite of an increase in knowledge, programs and treatments, those with a mental illness will continue to struggle with that most crippling of existential conditions: loneliness. As a society we may affirm mental illness as a legitimate struggle in an individual’s life, but at the same time we have a tendency to grow uncomfortable when we are forced to confront it in those immediately around us. We are happy to outsource the problem to medical professionals and counselors, but when someone struggling with mental health issues enters our own sphere of existence the tendency can be to cast them out for fear that they may hurt or inconvenience us. Unless we experience mental illness ourselves, we prefer to think about it in the abstract. Like the Russian high society present at Klara Olsufyevna’s  birthday, we too would prefer if the likes of Mr Golyadkin would simply go away and get the help they need in a place where we can’t see it. If there is indeed a lesson to be extracted from Dostoevsky’s depiction of Mr Golyadkin’s descent into mental hell, I believe it relates to this: we all have an opportunity to influence each others mental health in each social interaction we make. In each day we come across not only our friends and family but also those whom we do not yet know; from the person serving you at the grocery store to the receptionist at your local GP.  On each of these occasions we have the opportunity to contribute- in whatever small way- to another’s mental well being. The great philosopher Philo of Alexandria knew the power of such interactions, and implored us to ‘be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’ We are not always privy to the inner struggles a person might be facing, even if our first instinct is often to diagnose them as arrogant, pathetic, weird or whatever other adjective we see fit. Dostoevsky’s depiction of a life falling into a mental abyss thus presents us with an ongoing challenge. Although Mr. Golyadkin ends up being trapped in the prison of his mind, what might the outcome have been if his longing for acceptance was met with empathy and understanding as opposed to the mocking judgement he received? The answer may not be so simple, but the imperative is clear: we can respond to Dostoevsky’s challenge by treating those with whom we come into contact with kindness and patience, even if they may confound us.

About Ryan Buesnel

Welcome to my page! I am a writer and musician from Sydney who enjoys reading philosophy, theology and military history. I am a Ph.D. Candidate through Charles Sturt University, with my thesis exploring the activities of the German State Church during the Third Reich-era.
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