A short story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Published in November 1876 in Doystoyevsky's Diary of a Writer, A Gentle Creature (Russian: Krotkaya) occupied an entire issue of the writer's monthly periodical. As with many of Dostoyevsky's plots, A Gentle Creature was inspired by a lurid real-life event reported in the Russian media. In early October of the same year, a poor St. Petersburg seamstress had leapt to her death, clutching an icon of the Virgin Mary. At the time Dostoyevsky, who was already intrigued and disturbed by what was widely perceived as an epidemic of suicide among Russian youth, had contrasted the obvious desperation of this woman with the casual and cynical bravura of the suicide note (composed in aristocratic French) of a fashionable young aristocratic girl several months earlier.
At first, Dostoyevsky had considered including the story of what he referred to as "the humble suicide" as an episode in one of his novels. Swamped with work for his monthly Diary, he elected instead to combine this character with one of his most famous and distinctive creations- the "Underground Man" from his Notes from the Underground. The result was A Gentle Creature, considered to be one of the finest short works he produced in the period between the publication of A Raw Youth and the appearance of the first chapters of The Brothers Karamazov
The plot of the story concerns a pawnbroker, an often reviled figure in Russian society (and in Dostoyevsky's novels- consider the murder of the pawnbroker in Crime and Punishment) because of their association with usury and profit at the expense of the poor and downtrodden. The pawnbroker in A Gentle Creature is a variation on Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, driven to act out of spite and bitterness, but tortured by an internal drive to be loved and understood. Unfortunately, his positive impulses are twisted and warped by his feelings of persecution, and ultimately leads to his ruin.
Though Dostoyevsky set out to tell the story of "the humble suicide", in the final form of the story it is the pawnbroker who will be the focus and relate the story to us. A Gentle Creature is told from the perspective of the pawnbroker, as he laments his fate and failings from beside the bier of his late wife. It is she who has thrown herself from the window of their home, gripped by desperation and regret. And though in the end the pawnbroker has realized that his one real desire was to be loved and understood by this woman, it is he who has driven her to this terrible fate.
The pair met at the pawnbroker's shop, where the young woman has come to attempt to secure a loan. She is independent and intelligent, retaining her pride and confidence despite her young age (16) and her poverty. She is the daughter of a good family, but her parents have died and plunged her into a genteel poverty. She is to be married to a much older and wealthier man- in effect being sold to provide for her family. The pawnbroker intervenes, proposing to the girl and saving her from this mercenary marriage.
But the pawnbroker himself is moved by less than selfless motives. More than lust, the pawnbroker is motivated by a desire to be understood by the girl as he is understood by himself- as an inwardly noble and worthy person whose life has been marked by torment and abuse. In a strange attempt to convey this internal suffering to his new bride, the pawnbroker rebuffs her early attempts at affection and warmth, responding with coldness and silence- which he hopes will convey the tormented melancholy within.
The tactic goes horribly awry; rather than seeing his internal struggle, the young woman instead begins to perceive that his callous and cruel exterior is all that there is to this perverse man. She rebels against him, dealing charitably with the pawn shop customers who he despises, and seeking out a former acquaintance of the pawnbroker to learn of his past humiliations (he once refused to fight a duel to defend his own honor).
The pawnbroker learns of this visit, and is well aware of his wife's contempt for him. So it is no surprise when, one night while feigning sleep, he sees his wife approach him with a pistol, intending to kill him. Confident that her inner moral nature will preserve him (he had secretly observed her refusing the advances of his old acquaintance), but also willing (or perhaps half hoping) to die, he continues to feign sleep until her will breaks and she puts away the gun.
The pawnbroker hopes that now he will have her entirely in his power; by revealing his knowledge of the murder attempt and then forgiving his wife, he will show that he is the greater and more moral heart. But his joy at the anticipation of this moment of triumph is to great; he spends the entire winter savoring his final victory, and his wife falls ill with a nervous fever, brought on by her all-consuming guilt.
His wife's health ruined by the winter's trials, the pawnbroker abruptly realizes the depths of his need for love, and throws himself at her feet, pleading for a new start. The girl is repulsed and surprised, unable to respond to his pleas for a new life of real love other than with pity. Wracked by her own inability to forgive and show love, the young wife throws herself to her death, clutching the icon of the Virgin Mary- a symbol of the promise of eternal love.
The pawnbroker, having been willing to give up all the trappings of his bitter life to regain the love that his wife first showed him, is left devastated, grieving at the side of his fallen wife. Joseph Frank, Dostoyevsky's biographer, writes of the pawnbroker's final words:
Nothing that Dostoevsky ever wrote is more poignant than the narrator's cry of despair at the end, walking up and down beside the bier of "the gentle creature," at a moment when the entire world has become for him an image of his desolation. "Oh, nature! Man on earth is alone- this is the calamity!… Everything is dead, and everywhere- nothing but corpses. Only men, and, around them, silence- such is the earth. 'Love each other!'- Who said this? Whose covenant is this?"
Source: Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet 1871-1881 by Joseph Frank. An excellent book (as are, I can only presume, the four volumes that proceed it) from which the summary and interpretation of this story are derived.