“The Gambler” is a novella by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky that was originally published in 1867. The story, inspired by Dostoyevsky’s own real life gambling addiction, tells the tale of a young tutor named Alexei Ivanovich who begins gambling to win enough money to become a rich man and therefore win the favor of the woman that he loves.
The woman, Polina is the mother of the children that he tutors. Though she seems largely disinterested in marrying him and is, in fact, the mistress of another man, Polina strings Alexei along, daring him to pull pranks on the wealthy people in their social circle, one of which gets him fired from his position.
Meanwhile, Polina’s step-father, General Zagoryansky tries to win the favor of his love, a Frenchwoman named Blanche. Blanche too is disinterested in the General and only goes to him after she seduces Alexei and spends all of the money that he manages to win gambling. In the end, Polina realizes that she loves Alexei and sends for him to join her in Switzerland.
The novella has been adapted several times, including seven different movies, the first coming out in 1949 and the most recent in 2014. It has also been adapted into a BBC mini-series.
Alexei, a twenty-five year old teacher lives with an elderly general named Zagoryansky in a luxury hotel on a German resort called Rouletteburg. Alexei is tasked with teaching the General’s stepdaughter’s two young children but he does not think that the General likes or respects him very much. Alexei says, “The General is looked upon by every one here as a very rich Russian grandee. Even before dinner he commissioned me, among other things, to change two notes for a thousand francs each. I changed them in the office of the hotel. Now we shall be looked upon as millionaires for the whole week, at least.”
He also says, “The man is unable to look me straight in the face; he would like to very much, but every time I meet his eyes with intent, that is, disrespectful air, he seems overcome with embarrassment.”
While he was still in Russia, the General mortgaged his property to pay a debt to a Frenchman named de Grieux. Unfortunately, the property paid only a small amount of the debt. However, at the start of the novel, the General soon learns that his wealthy aunt, Antonida, whom he calls ‘Grandmother’ is very ill and soon to die. He is waiting for her to pass away so that he can collect his inheritance from her and use it to pay off the rest of his debt to de Grieux. He will also then be able to marry a young Frenchwoman named Mademoiselle Blanch de Cominges whom he has fallen in love with.
The General’s French acquaintances treat Alexei like a servant and treat the General very well although he is a dull, simple-minded man. Alexei’s only friend at the hotel is an English aristocrat named Mr. Astley. Both Alexei and Mr. Astley are in love with Polina, the General’s step-daughter. Alexei’s relationship with Polina is a rather toxic one. He considers her his “torturer” and that he is her “slave”. Alexei is an intelligent, but poor man who is dependent upon the General and Polina for his livelihood.
Alexei swears an oath to Polina that he will serve her. One day, while they are walking on a German mountain together he tells her that if she told him to, he would happily walk off the edge of the path and plummet to his death. She asks him to go to the town’s casino and place a bet for her instead. At first, he refuses but eventually he relents and places a bet on the roulette table. Alexei ends up winning and brings her back the money. Polina refuses to tell him why she needs money. She laughs in his face and treats him coldly. Later, he learns the details of the General and Polina’s lack of finances through Mr. Astley. After this, Alexei becomes convinced that only acquiring a great deal of money will bring him Polina’s love. He begins gambling regularly in order to hopefully win enough to make him rich.
One day, while Polina and Alexei are taking another walk they see the Baron and Baroness Wurmerhelm. Polina, calling on Alexei’s servitude again, dares him to insult the noble couple. Alexei does so and it comes back on him spectacularly that evening,when the Baron demands that the General fire Alexei. Alexei says: “Now two days have passed since that stupid day. And what a noise and fuss and talk and uproar there was! And how unseemly and disgraceful, how stupid and vulgar, it was! And I was the cause of it all. Yet at times – it’s laughable – to me, at any rate. I can’t make up my mind what happened to me, whether I really was in a state of frenzy, or whether it was a momentary aberration and I behaved disgracefully till I was pulled up. At times it seems to me that I have not outgrown childhood and schoolboyishness, and that it was simply a crude schoolboys prank”.
Despite his disadvantaged position, Alexei is offended that the General tries to take responsibility for his actions as if he were a pet. Eventually, Alexei is fired. Alexei swears that he is going to speak to the Baron himself and this worries the General who goes to the Frenchman de Grieux for help. De Grieux sends a note from Polina asking Alexei to desist. Alexei obeys her but wonders why de Grieux would have so much control over Polina as to get such a note from her.
When Alexei asks Mr. Astley about the situation, he reveals that two years earlier, Blanche, the woman that the General is in love with, spent a season in Rouletteburg. She was bereft, having been abandoned by her lovers and left for broke. Eventually, she started gambling but was unsuccessful and only landed herself in more debt. It was at this point that she met the Baron and tried to seduce him. However, the Baroness got wind of it and had Blanche thrown out of the city. Blanche is now trying to become the General’s wife and must avoid the Baron for fear that she will be ejected from the city again.
When Alexei returns to the hotel after speaking to Mr. Astley, he is amazed to see the General’s aunt sitting on the outside porch, having just come in from Russia. The woman is seventy-five years old and is paralyzed from the waist down. She is also a rich, land-owning woman in Moscow. The aunt is direct and indelicate with the General, telling him that she knows about his debt to de Grieux and informs him that he will not be getting any of her money after she dies.
Taking a shine to Alexei, however, the old woman asks him to squire her around the city to see it’s attractions. As the city is famous for it’s casino, she asks him to bring her there. Alexei carries her to the roulette table where she plays and wins 13,000 Friedrich’s d’ors which are the equivalent of 7 – 8 ooo roubles. This is a tremendous amount of money for the time.
Over the three days of her visit, the old woman continues to gamble and eventually loses as much as one hundred thousand roubles, which is almost all of her fortune. The General begs Alexei to distract the woman before she loses everything but it is all to no avail. Deeply repentant, the old woman wishes to return home immediately and build a church in Moscow with the money she has left. Soon, Blanche throws the General over, pretending that she does not even recognize him when he greets her. He nearly goes insane with desperation trying to win her back. The General’s aunt returns home with money that she borrows from Mr. Astley.
That evening, Alexei finds Polina in his room. She shows him a letter from de Grieux who says that he has started legal proceedings to sell off the General’s properties but that he is going to return fifty-thousand roubles worth of properties to the General strictly for Polina. De Grieux confesses that this will be the end of his obligations toward Polina and that this gift will allow him to feel that he has done right by her.
Polina finally confesses to Alexei that she is de Grieux’s mistress. However, without the money from the General’s aunt, de Grieux is refusing to marry her. She is so furious at him over the disloyalty that she wishes that she could throw the fifty-thousand roubles in de Grieux’s face. Feeling that he could help her with this, Alexei immediately rushes out of the room and over to the casino where he begins gambling and wins two hundred thousand florins in a few hours, becoming very rich. He goes back to his room, where Polina still waits for him and empties the gold out of his pockets.
While he was gambling, Alexei felt the rush of winning and the seduction of becoming more and richer. Even after he dumps the money on the bed, he cannot take his eyes off of it. At first, Polina is disgusted by the money and assumes that Alexei is trying to buy her. She feels that, like de Grieux, Alexei is only interested in money. But soon she accepts his love and embraces him. They two spend the night together. However, the next morning Polina seems to have a change of heart.
“Polina was sitting beside me and looking at her strangely, as though she were waking from some darkness and trying to collect her thoughts. She, too, had only just woken up and was gazing at the table and the money.” When Alexei tries to take Polina’s hand, she pushes him away and jumps up. Polina goes to the window and opens it, and leans out, putting her face in her hands. Alexei begins to dread what she is thinking. Suddenly, she gets up from the window and turns to him, asking him, in anger to give her fifty-thousand francs. Alexei is reluctant but she reminds him that he already promised her the money. Alexei picks up the money from the table and hands it to her. She asks if it is hers now and he confirms that it is.
“With a swing of her arm, she flung the money at me. It hit me a stinging blow in the face, and the coins flew all over the table. After doing this Polina ran out of the room.” She runs to Mr. Astley, and it is revealed that the two had secretly been meeting and exchanging notes with one another. Polina was supposed to meet him that night but ended up staying with Alexei instead. Alexei never sees her again.
Mr. Astley shelters Polina and blames Alexei for the fight. He assumes that Alexei simply doesn’t understand Polina’s personality and does not possess the ability to truly love her. Seeing that Alexei is depressed from his lost love, Mademoiselle Blanche uses this opportunity to seduce him. After learning that the General is not going to get his inheritance, she has left him and is returning to Paris and convinces Alexei to join her. Alexei agrees and the two stay together in Paris for one month while Blanch spends his money on things like horses, dancing and parties. Blanche uses this opportunity to raise her social standing and acquire a name for herself in Parisian society. She then abruptly drops Alexei and marries the General who followed her to Paris in desperation. Three weeks later, Alexei leaves Paris and goes to Germany.
Left alone again and now without his money, Alexei returns to gambling to earn more money. For six months he does nothing but travel around Germany gambling in different cities and towns. He occasionally takes menial jobs to get by and does some time in prison for debts as well.
In Bad Homburg, he unexpectedly runs into Mr. Astley who is sitting on a park bench. Mr. Astley tells him that Polina is staying with family in Switzerland. Polina sent Astley to find Alexei to tell him that she does love him. Astley also tells Alexei that the General’s aunt has died and left her money to Polina and her children. The General has also died in Paris. Astley gives Alexei a little bit of money, but assumes that he will waste it on gambling. He assumes that Alexei is not able to resist destructive behavior and passions.
” Is it possible? It’s it possible? I cried, and tears rushed in streams from my eyes.
I could not restrain them. I believe it was the first time it happened in my life.
Yes, unhappy man, she loved you, and I can tell you that, because you are—a lost man! What is more, if I were to tell you that she loves you to this day—you would stay here just the same!Yes, you have destroyed yourself. You had some abilities, a lively disposition, and were not a bad fellow; you might have even been of service to your country, which is in such need of men, but—you will remain here, and your life is over. I don’t blame you. To my mind, all Russians are like that, or disposed to be like that. If it is not roulette it is something similar. The exceptions are very rare. You are not the first who does not understand the meaning of work.”
Alexei takes the money from Mr. Astley but feels that just as he, himself was being hasty about Polina and de Grieux, Mr. Astley is too hasty in judging all Russians by the same standards. Alexei goes home and dreams of going to Switzerland and seeing Polina the next day. He thinks about what circumstances made him win at roulette tables in the past.
Alexei Ivanovich – the main character of the story. Alexei is a twenty-five-year-old Russian tutor living in a luxury hotel in Germany with his employer, the General, and his charges. Alexei is primarily defined by his relationships with other people. With the General, his relationship is primarily passive aggressive. The man does not respect him, and because of this, Alexei cannot bring himself to respect the General. He loathes the way the man treats him like a child or a pet.
With Polina, Alexei is almost the opposite. He worships her, and his worship makes him foolish and buffoonish. On Polina’s command, he insults the Baron and Baroness which ends in him losing his job. Also on her command, he begins gambling and very quickly becomes addicted to it. Alexei readily admits that he is Polina’s slave and that she “tortures” him, yet he still loves and vilifies her to the extent that no one, not even a kinder woman than Polina, could live up to.
Over the course of the story, Alexei’s life falls apart, and he becomes increasingly addicted to the rush of gambling. He goes from being a poor tutor to a very rich man to a poor man once again when he falls to the seduction of Blanche. In the end, he is a gambling addict and seems to be uninterested in overcoming this. His only interest is in roulette and still, despite everything, in Polina.
Polina Tarassevitcha – Alexei’s love interest and the step-daughter of the General. As the novel is so short, not much of Polina’s character or background are explored. She has two children and whether or not they are de Grieux’s, considering the fact that she was his mistress, is never revealed. Above all, Polina is shown to be a fairly cruel woman. She treats Alexei like her “slave” and willingly instructs him to insult the Baron and Baroness, which results in him getting fired.
She also throws the money that he offers her in his face after agreeing to be with him the previous night. Polina is a very dramatic and confusing character, acting against her own words frequently. She seems to go from man to man, heedless of their feelings. In the end, Astley reveals to Alexei that Polina did love him and still does.
The General – Alexei’s employer and Polina’s step-father. Though the relationship between the General and Polina is never really explored, it seems to be mostly amicable if not traditionally loving. For his part, the General’s main obsession is the drive to marry the Frenchwoman, Blanche. The General is in love with her in much the same way that Alexei is in love with Polina—in a reverent, unobtainable way.
However, Blanche and The General seem to have an understanding that they will marry after he inherits the money from his rich aunt’s passing. This obviously does not happen and Blanche leaves the General very quickly after she realizes that his aunt has disinherited him. After Blanche leaves him, the General only becomes desperately obsessed with winning her back and most of his actions throughout the rest of the novel reflect this. In the end, Blanche spends much of Alexei’s money and goes off to live with the General, perhaps discovering, like Polina with Alexei, that she really loved him all along.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky Biography
Fyodor Dostoyevsky was born on November 11th, 1821 in Moscow, Russia. The son of a doctor he was raised in a family home on the surrounding grounds of the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in a low-class district in Moscow. Dostoyevsky learned to read at an early age and fell in love with literature and novels. Many of his childhood experiences living near the hospital and seeing the poor patients influenced his writing later in life.
In 1833, he was sent away to a French boarding school, and four years later his mother died of tuberculosis. Soon, he and his brother Nikolayev were conscripted into the military although Nikolayev was soon turned away due to poor health. Dostoyevsky was sent to Estonia to begin his military training. Though he did well in the military academy, Dostoyevsky disliked the regimented style of learning and spent most of his time alone, reading.
In 1839, his father died of a stroke. Dostoyevsky soon attained the rank of engineer cadet and then lieutenant engineer. It was during this time that he began writing his works and his first work, a translation of the French novel “Eugenie Grandet” was published in 1843. He completed several other translations but did not receive much money for them.
In 1845, he completed his first novel, “Poor Folk” and the novel was a commercial success, being described as Russia’s first “social novel”. After resigning his military career, Dostoyevsky began writing full time and published his second novel, “The Double” in 1846. It was during this time that he discovered and became involved in socialism. “The Double” was not as well-received in the press, and Dostoyevsky began suffering from frequent health issues.
Dostoyevsky joined a socialist circle called “Petrashevsky Circle” which was later investigated by the police. Dostoyevsky was accused of reading banned books and circulating copies of these books. He and the other members of the circle were arrested in 1849 and sent to exile in a Siberian prison camp which was then followed by a term of compulsory military service. The conditions in the camp were so terrible, and Dostoyevsky spent most of his time there ill.
After being released in 1854, Dostoyevsky wrote a novel about his experience in the camp called “The House of the Dead” which became the first novel published about Russian prison camps.
In 1855, Dostoyevsky met a woman named Maria Dmitrievna and fell in love. Dostoyevsky was given leave to marry her although, as a convict, he remained under police surveillance for the rest of his life. The marriage was an unhappy one, and the couple lived apart for most of it.
In the late 1860’s, Dostoyevsky produced some of his most famous works, including “Crime and Punishment” (1866), “The Gambler” (1866) and “The Idiot” (1868). He married again in 1867 after his first wife died and had a daughter named Sonya who unfortunately passed away as an infant. Despite his literary success, Dostoyevsky suffered from an acute gambling addiction that left his family in a constant state of poverty. In 1871, he had a son named Fyodor and two years later began a new periodical.
His health began to decline as he had suffered from seizures for much of his life. In 1875, Dostoyevsky had another son name Alexey and continued to write, publishing “The Adolescent” the same year.
On January 25th, 1881, Dostoyevsky suffered a pulmonary hemorrhage and passed away shortly afterward. Reports of the attendance at his funeral range from 40,000 to 100,000. He was buried in Tikhvin Cemetery in Saint Petersburg, Russia.