dostoyevsky and the art of in medias res

Dostoevsky and the Art of In Medias Res

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short novel The Gambler never reached the popularity and renown of his other works (Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Notes From Underground, most notably), but it deserves a spotlight of its own for several reasons.

The most notable reason is undeniably its stunning and incisive portrayal of gambling addiction. Dostoevsky, who struggled with the vice himself, dashed off this work of not 200 pages in an astonishing one-month period, and perhaps, in part for that reason, it is one of his fastest and most concise works. In it, he tells the story of the impetuous Alexey Ivanovitch, a teacher in the family of an expatriated Russian family.

Alexey, skilled at the gaming tables but unwilling to use his ability for others’ mercenary purposes, finds himself in an uneasy position as the head of the family—known only as the General—squanders his money in debt to the nefarious French marquis, de Grieux, and then demands Alexey ply his skills to refurbish the family’s coffers. Further complicating Alexey’s situation is his mad passion for the General’s step-daughter, the proud and distant Polina Alexandrovna, who shuns his proclamations of undying love and seeks out instead the Frenchman de Grieux, to Alexey’s unbearable frustration and rage.

When the General’s aunt, Antonida Vassilyevna Tarasyevitchev—known throughout the story as “Granny”—arrives unexpectedly from Russia, dashing the family’s hope of her imminent death and their own inheritance of her fortune, Alexey is immediately proclaimed her favorite. He is forced to escort her through the casinos and gaming halls of Roulettenburg, watching helplessly as her growing fascination with roulette burns up her great fortune.

But not until Polina, in desperation, turns to him as her final resort, only to spurn him in the end, does he at last give in to his own great desires and throw himself headlong into the seductive and entangling world of the gambler.

Dostoevsky’s story is an unparalleled work of philosophic brilliance in its portrayal of gambling addiction. But, from strictly a writer’s viewpoint, it offers one of the best examples of in medias res I have ever seen.

How not to use in medias res 

In medias res, the highly effective method of beginning a story “in the middle” of things, provides the opportunity to immediately and irrevocably immerse the reader in the world of the protagonist. Introductory narrative and important but potentially boring backstory are postponed until after the reader is (hopefully) hooked by the character’s initial plight.

Unfortunately, this method, combined with the dictate to “begin with action,” often means the reader is dumped into the middle of intense scenes with no knowledge of the characters and little reason to care about them or their predicament. Character is king. And when in medias res is misused, character often falls by the wayside in favor of gaudy fireworks. As a reader, I am left cold by these techniques. Action, tension, and fireworks are fine—even preferable, certainly—but not at the expense of character. Finding a balance in injecting character in medias res is a delicate matter—one which Dostoevsky nails in The Gambler.

How to use in medias res

Dostoevsky opens with the line:

At last I have come back from my fortnight’s absence.

Where the narrator has been, or why he has come back, is not revealed. But Dostoevsky immediately pulls the reader into the character’s plight with the lines that follow:

Our friends have already been two days at Roulettenburg. I imagined that they were expecting me with the greatest eagerness; I was mistaken, however.

Immediately, the reader is given to beg questions, and inherent in a reader asking questions is a reader devoting his attention and committing his time to the story.

His greatest goal (that of hooking the reader) met, Dostoevsky avoids the pratfalls of many writers who make it this far. Instead of immediately spilling the beans (the beans, in this case, being pages of backstory and character analysis), he sails into his story without ever looking back. The reader never learns how Alexey gained his teaching position with the General’s family; he never learns how and why Alexey fell in love with Polina, or why Polina is so set against him; he is never dragged through the miseries and joys of Alexey’s childhood, never submitted to Alexey’s ramblings about world politics. And, yet, astonishingly, the reader never even considers that these facts are left out. Dostoevsky dives into character confrontation and never slows down to answer irrelevant questions.

He is helped, of course, by the overall brevity of the story and its singularity of theme. A novel of this length is almost a short story and therefore shares many of strengths of the short story genre. He is able to take a concise and even limited view of his characters without the reader ever feeling gypped. It is not a method that works for every novel; most will have to slow down, sooner or later, to fill the reader in on important details. But in The Gambler, Dostoevsky has provided us an excellent example of a streamlined, gripping, and incisive beginning.

Tell me your opinion: What makes a story’s in medias res beginning work?

dostoevsky and the art of in medias res

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. CM Burdick says:

    This post is the answer to unuttered prayer. I was reading Jack M. Bickham’s “The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes” and he covered the same topic – opening a story in media res. His chapter was so brief, though, that I was left alone to ponder the opening of my story much too soon. Thanks for explaining it more fully to me. I don’t feel as cowed now as I did a couple of hours ago. Good post.

  2. Sounds like an interesting book. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for it.

  3. Nice post.

    In fact The Gambler is one of my favorite books. I call it “my beach book”, since I read it every summer on the beach. I’ve probably read it more than 10 times now. The story is hardly any surprise anymore, so now I read it mainly to appreciate Dostoyevsky’s writing.

    The name of the place were the story takes place, Roulettenburg, is just brilliant. The coolest part of the book is the moment when the old grandmother (whose death they are waiting for, to cash in the heritage) is the highlight of the book, I think.

    My copy of The Gambler is printed in 1946, and has a nice leather back. I bought it in a 2nd-hand bookstore when I was a physics student >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  4. The grandmother was my favorite character too. Classic Dostoevsky.

  5. Dostoevsky is my idol! and yet I haven’t read this book yet. I have the brothers karamazov, crime and punishment, and notes from the underground in paperback but I had the idiot, and the gambler on my ereader which I accidentally broke on a bus losing all my classics! 🙁 I definitely need to snag a copy of the Gambler as I didn’t even get a chance to start it. He always makes such entertaining characters.

  6. Oh, no, broken e-readers are never fun! Looking back, I would have to say that The Gambler was my favorite Dostoevsky experience.

    • Really? I thought you’d prefer ‘Idiot’ to it. Dostoevsky wrote Gambler so quickly, because his publisher was on him, Dostoevsky owed him money and he was afraid of creditors and prison. Then he had a lucky thought to write about what he knew well and didn’t need to research. He met his new young wife while working on it, he hired her to write it down (the book he dictated) on paper

  7. Steve Mathisen says:

    Each of your posts is an education unto itself. You continually open my eyes to views not previously seen and my thoughts to ideas not previously known to me. Thank you.

  8. One effective way of bringing in the background many writers usually put near the beginning, just after the action part you mention, is to leave it until just before the climax. Not a whole load of exposition, but the part that shows how there can be no other end. I have been admiring the way Faulkner does that in Absalom, Absalom! His exposition accumulates without the reader being aware of it so that he can still maintain narrative tension in the very last chapter.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I have a love/hate relationships with Faulkner (mostly, hate), but there’s no question that Absalom! Absalom! is a narrative masterpiece.

      • I tend to have a love/more love relationship with Faulkner. I once had a professor who said that Faulkner was the American Shakespeare. I corrected him and insisted that Shakespeare was the British Faulkner (all quite tongue in cheek, but I am a fan)

  9. Excellent article. I think Alexey is formed after the mould of the Russian character type known as the Superfluous Man. If you haven’t looked into this, it might be worth your while. Regarding in medias res, I feel an excellent example in Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night

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