The Landlady (Khozyayka)
The Landlady was first published in Fatherland Notes in 1846, and in this story Dostoevsky appears to be turning away from his obsession with reassessing Gogol’’s The Greatcoat towards another aspect of the Gogolian legacy – his earlier, more poetic, more folkloric writing. From Poor Folk on we have witnessed a growing opacity in Dostoevsky’s style and presentation of plot. It reaches its zenith in The Landlady which is undoubtedly Dostoevsky’s most mysterious and opaque story, and marks the nadir of Belinsky’s disillusionment with the author, as the bright young hope of the Natural School and torchbearer of the tradition of Gogol’. Yet, as many scholars have pointed out, Dostoevsky in this story is still looking back to Gogol’, albeit to the Gogol’ of an earlier period. The central drama of a wizard capturing the soul of a daughter-figure called Katerina is common both to Khozyayka and to Gogol’’s story A Terrible Vengeance (Strashnaya mest’), as is the folksy, poetic speech of the heroine and the symbolic presence of a river (1,298). We are twice told that Gogol’’s Katerina does not know what her soul knows, and that we cannot know what is in the soul of her father, the wizard. In the corresponding characters of Dostoevsky’s story these inner depths must also be divined.
At the centre of A Terrible Vengeance lies the theme of incest, and betrayal. These are also at the heart of Khozyayka, but whereas in A Terrible Vengeance Gogol’ had substituted poetry and fairy-tale allegory for real emotion; Dostoevsky, while retaining these elements, restores emotion to his subject (perhaps even with a heavy hand).
Gogol’s own narrative techniques are characterised by obliquity – a feature which also marks out Dostoevsky’s early writing, but The Landlady marks a further step in this direction with its ambiguities, dislocations and fusions of the narrative line. The narrative is in the third person, but the fact that the perspective is almost exclusively that of the hero, Ordynov, suggests a ‘subjectivised’ objectivity – the confusion of subjective and objective viewpoints. There are three interpenetrating strata of narration: a) the realism of the opening pages, describing street scenes in St Petersburg, so typical of the Natural School, and seemingly a pledge for the glimpses of the ‘real’ world later in the text; b) dream, shading off into delirium; c) fairy tale (skazka), generating a poeticised, mythological perception of events. Yet the story for all its ‘confusion’ does have a sense of structure, and in this context it is important to bear in mind the concept of ‘three’.
Thus the reader is far from sure what is taking place in the supposed ‘real’ world, but at the centre of this triple confusion lies the triangular relationship of Murin, Katerina and Ordynov – a triadic complexity hinted at in the very title Khozyayka. In its first meaning - a) Khozyayka is ‘landlady’, and as such it figures in English translations of the story; but - b) the word can also mean ‘hostess’; whereas - c) a third meaning, in demotic usage, denotes ‘wife’. What is Katerina’s relationship to Ordynov? Is she another man’s wife, his landlady or the hostess of a temporary guest? It is in the character of this latter role that she chooses between him and Murin in the crucial scene of the drinking party: ‘“Go, go away”, she whispered, “You are drunk and evil. You are not my guest!”’ (1,310). She then turns away to Murin, who is the only one who may be said to be ‘drunk and evil’.
A corresponding triplication of roles may be seen in its male equivalent khozyain: Murin is a) ‘husband’, b) ‘landlord ‘ and c) ‘host’, and in his interview with the policeman, Yaroslav Il’ich, he confirms this latter role and Katerina’s final judgement: Ordynov was not his tenant, but a guest who has outstayed his welcome (315).
The search to clarify relationships is dogged by a certain fuzziness. When Ordynov asks the Tartar yard-boy about his khozyain, and whether Katerina is his wife, the only answer he gets is: ‘Wife, if they say so’. Confusion is further compounded by the Tartar’s inability in his speech to distinguish between masculine and feminine – between ‘he’ and ‘she’. An ambiguous pronoun also characterises Katerina’s account of the death of her father and her own abduction. Earlier, both she and Ordynov had referred to Murin simply as ‘he’ (italicised), and it is an unidentified, italicised ‘he’ who, in her account, enters her life with such dire results. This ‘he’, it is suggested, has a secret liaison with her mother, and they converse in Tartar so that Katerina will not understand them. Later ‘he’ climbs in at Katerina’s bedroom window, bringing her rich pearls, which she accepts merely to provoke her mother, telling her that she will not give them to her, but to her father, and explain them away as goods left by merchants. In such a folkloric account the reference to merchants is significant; the subterfuge of visiting merchants was the standard formulaic pretext for those seeking to arrange marriages. Katerina’s mother reacts in anger: ‘I myself will tell him what sort of merchants came, and for what sort of goods. I will even tell him whose daughter you are, you illegitimate one!’ (1,296). She ends with a curse, but the suggestion is clear: Katerina is Murin’s natural daughter. This relationship appears to be confirmed in the final drinking scene, when Katerina, seeking to learn her future from Murin, refers to herself as ‘your little daughter’ (dochka tvoya) (1,307) and he in turn addresses her as ‘wicked little daughter’ (zlaya dochka) (1,308).
During that earlier fateful night, we are again confronted with a triad; the enigmatic ‘he’ had stated three reasons for his visit: he has - a) come to kill his enemy, b) come to say farewell to his old love, and c) come to pay his respects to a new young love. All this appears to come true. That same night Katerina’s ‘legal’ father perishes in a factory fire (pushed into a red hot boiler, so it is said, by the devil (1,297)). The mother is abandoned, and her daughter (like the Katerina of Gogol’’s A Terrible Vengeance) helps the wizard, her natural father and would-be lover, to escape, but she notices that his hands are covered with blood, which he explains away as the blood of dogs (1,298).
Later, in the interview with Yaroslav Il’ich, Murin seeks to cast doubt on the reliability of Katerina’s statements, citing the unusual circumstances of her upbringing, and her unbalanced mind. He claims that she is merely a distant relative (1,313). In Katerina’s account, it is her legally recognised father who lost his boats in a storm on the Volga and suffered fire in his factory. Yet the Tartar boy, in his incoherent way, suggests that it was rather Murin himself who had suffered these losses (1,282), and this appears to be confirmed by Yaroslav Il’ich, who presents the father killed in the fire only as Murin’s close relative, acting as his manager (1,286). Yet when Ordynov questions Yaroslav Il’ich about the status of Katerina, he can only say that he is aware that some young woman lives with Murin, but he is not sure whether she is his daughter or his wife (1,277-8). Later during the final interview between Yaroslav Il’ich, Murin and Ordynov, the policeman is still unsure of Katerina’s status, and when he refers to her as ‘that woman’ (1,313), Murin supplies the unhelpful clarification ‘our khozyayka’ (khozyayka-to nasha). We are told that ‘the tactful Yaroslav Il’ich did not insist’ and he uses khozyayka in the sense of ‘landlady’ throughout the rest of the interview.
Nevertheless, during this scene it is Murin himself, who gradually reveals the nature of the relationship. He openly refers to Katerina as his wife, using the word zhena (wife) twice, as well as the more elevated term supruzhnitsa (1,314). Moreover, he clinches the identification of khozyayka as ‘wife’ through the variation of a sanctimonious formula indicating that he and his wife will pray for Ordynov. The concluding statement in the story shows that Yaroslav Il’ich himself has accepted this version of the relationship: ‘Exactly three weeks ago he went off home with his wife, to his own place. I learned this from the yard-boy… that little Tartar. Do you remember?’ (1,320).
Earlier in the story this Tartar boy had been far from communicative. When Ordynov had asked what he was called, he had merely replied with a job description: ‘They call me the yard-man’ (1,274). Mystification about identity is typical for the story as a whole. Katerina herself has only a first name. Her patronymic and surname (which might provide further clues) are suppressed, and like the Tartar boy, her social role of Khozyayka, ambiguous as it is, seems more important. When Ordynov asks her directly about her identity and origins, she merely replies with a fairy tale about twelve brothers and a sister. (1,276). Yaroslav Il’ich, on the other hand, has a Christian name and a patronymic, yet, conversely, the all important nature of his social role is suppressed: the reader can only infer that he is a policeman. Il’ya Murin’s lack of antecedents is suggested through the absence of a patronymic. Although the Tartar boy refuses to say what Murin does, we later learn that he is a mystic (1,286) and a wizard (1,307, 308).
The presentation of Murin is further complicated by the presence of a ‘double’ figure, which adds further ambiguity to his role as khozyain; for, although Murin, as khozyain, is a ‘landlord’, there is also a landlord of the house itself, who like Murin is an old man and ostensibly deeply religious. This figure is called Koshmarov, a name, which may be read as the genitive plural of koshmar – ‘nightmare’. The whole house is significantly referred to as dom koshmarova (‘Nightmare House’). There are echoes here for Ordynov himself, the root of whose name ord suggests ‘apparition’, ‘ghost’, and who, on first moving into this house, suffers a long, feverish nightmare – a mixture of elements of his childhood and fairy tale. Yet in the middle of this nightmare ‘he was suddenly aware of his true situation’ (1,279); he is vaguely aware of hostile people around him, and guesses that he has stumbled into a den of thieves (priton). Such nightmarish impressions are confirmed at the end of the story, when he is told by Yaroslav Il’ich that the house was indeed a den (priton) for a gang of smugglers and rogues led by the landlord of the house, Koshmarov. He is their boss (khozyain) – a designation which adds another dimension the word. Yet the policeman specifically excludes Murin from these activities, even though he had earlier confided to Ordynov that Murin had once been under rigorous police surveillance (1,287). A further parallel to the relationship of a ‘landlord’ and a ‘daughter’ may be seen in the German Spiess and his susceptible daughter Tinchen, whose apartment Ordynov abandons for that of Murin and Katerina, but to which he returns at the end of the story.
Such parallels suggest structure, yet they only add to confusion, as do parallels between the main characters themselves. Not only in talking to Murin does Ordynov begin to adopt his manner of speech (1,273), but, as Katerina notes, both he and Murin are obsessed by books (1,277). Both suffer from epilepsy, and in the final drinking scene Ordynov assumes the murderous violence of Murin himself, but the knife falls from his trembling hand (1,310, 311), much as earlier Murin’s gun had missed its aim, when he had fallen into an epileptic fit (1,281).
There are also parallels between Ordynov and Katerina. He adopts her poetic language (1,310), and during their first conversation she appears to compare their lives, by suggesting that he has been living with a bad man: ‘Poor you!, It seems, you have not been living with a good man’ (Bednyy kakoy! Znat’, ne zhil ty s chelovekom khoroshim.) (1,276). During his long delirious sleep, Ordynov does indeed dream of an evil old man, who haunts his childhood, who has deprived him of his mother, and now torments him by recounting a scarcely comprehensible, but deeply disturbing fairy tale. Later when Katerina recounts her own life, Ordynov understands it:
‘…because her life had become his life, her grief – his grief and
because his enemy stood before him in reality, took flesh and grew
with her every word….The evil old man (Ordynov believed this) was
before him in reality’ (1,294).
Such identity of feeling and experience is expressed through Katerina’s insistence that their relationship be that of sister and brother, and in the scene when Katerina makes her final choice, Murin, in his sneering manner, links this to the underlying theme of incest: ‘You have become brother and sister, from the same womb! You have fallen in love, like lovers’ (1,304).
Ordynov is a young man of passion, but yet, as we are told at the opening, it is a passion, which, in the external world, has made him a child (1,265). This passion is one for learning, which has become a weapon turned against himself (1,265). Later in his dream the fairy tale told by the evil old man disturbs him with a ‘non-childish passion’ (1,279), and in the course of the story his passion for books is transformed into a passion for Katerina. Yet when Katerina has told him her story, he curses his passion (1,299). At the opening of the story we are told that his passion for learning makes it impossible for him to find his niche among other people (1,265). This ‘niche’ (ugol) is literally ‘a corner’ or ‘angle’, - a three-sided figure with its third side (i.e. its base) merely inferred; as such it assumes a symbolic role for this triangular relationship, and the ‘inferences’ of the story itself. It is when Ordynov is in ‘the darkest corner [ugol] of a church’ that he first becomes aware of Katerina and Murin (1,267), and fascinated by them, he is distracted from finding a new ugol (living quarters). He thinks with regret of the ugol he is being forced to leave (1,269). Ugol figures in his nightmarish dream: he is alone in a strange ‘corner’, but there are enemies whispering in the corners of the room (1,279). He wanted to run ‘but there was no corner in the whole of the universe to conceal him’ (1,280). Immediately after this he peeps into Katerina’s room and is aware of other ‘corners’: her bed is in a corner, and also in a corner there is an ancient ikon (1,280). When Katerina recounts how ‘he’ climbed into her bedroom, she is literally in a corner, pale with fright (1,296). In seeking to know her future in the drinking scene, she asks Murin whether she will have her own warm corner, or have to remain with him in a ‘stale’ corner (cherstvyy ugol) reading ‘dark’ books (1,307). In this symbolic use of ugol, we can detect a sort of structure, but one embedded in a web of confusion.
Central to the story is the issue of freedom (volya). Almost the first words Katerina addresses to Ordynov are an exhortation to free himself from sleep (chto nevolish’ sebya?): ‘Freedom’, she says, ‘is sweeter than bread, more beautiful than the sun’ (1,275), and the fairy tale which she offers Ordynov, instead of personal details, appears to have a moral. In this account the ‘twelve brothers’ called the young girl ‘sister’ - ‘gave her freedom and she was the equal of them all’ (1,276). That is the relationship she is offering Ordynov – a sister and an equal. Nevertheless, she confesses later to the pleasure of subordination to one she would love. She would be his slave, but her freedom has been restricted: ‘my life is not my own, but another’s, and my freedom is constrained!’ (1,291).
Her lack of freedom depends on a solemn agreement entered into with Murin as he carried her off in his boat. He will be her master as long as she gives him happiness, but if she should cease to love him, she need say nothing; an indication of eyebrow, eye or little finger would suffice, and he promises: ‘I will give you back your love with your golden freedom’ (1,298), but in that case, he says, it would be the end of his own life. Katerina confides to Ordynov that the grief she feels is not for the loss of her mother, or her mother’s dying curse, nor for the loss of her maidenly freedom, nor even that she has ‘sold herself to the devil and surrendered her soul to her destroyer and borne eternal sin for her happiness’ - it is loss of freedom which tears at her heart. She is Murin’s dishonoured slave, who loves her shame. Her heart avidly loves to recall her grief, as though it were joy and happiness, feeling no anger for her wrongs. (1,299).
But there is yet an earlier, another third figure in this relationship, Alesha. Continuing her confession, Katerina relates how she, Murin and her would-be lover, Alesha, were in a boat on the Volga in a storm, when Murin reminded her of the compact that promised her freedom. The triadic formula is at issue: the boat is too heavy for three, he says, she must choose. Katerina’s response to the original compact had been enigmatic, but it had been a response of the flesh. Now, in her account, at this critical point of choice, she falls silent, but it is at this very moment that her confession is interrupted by the voice of Murin himself, standing at the door. The fate of Alesha is thus left undisclosed (but Yaroslav Il’ich has already told us that Murin had attempted to kill a young merchant) (1,286). Katerina follows Murin to his room, but her parting words to Ordynov are a reference to the earlier choice she had to make: ‘Until tomorrow! Remember where I left off: “Choose between the two: whom do you love, or not, beautiful maiden”!’ (1.301). Ordynov must wait a whole night.
The following day appears to be full of hope. Ordynov hears Katerina singing a song of ‘the joy of freedom’ and ‘of a soul, that had broken its chains’ about to plunge into a sea of unrestricted love (1,303). She welcomes Ordynov as a guest and offers wine, but when it comes to the ‘choice’ she relies not on her own will, but the fortune telling of Murin, who first of all proposes a toast in which ‘reconciliation’ is really ‘discord’ (razmir’e) and volya is interpreted, not as ‘freedom, but as ‘will’ (dobraya volya) (1,308). His predictions, in the vague, suggestive language of necromancy, draw a distinction between Katerina’s heart and her head. ‘Reason is not freedom for a young girl’, he says. Even though her head will creep round obstacles like a snake, and will preserve its cunning freedom, her heart is weak (slaboe serdtse) (1,308). He prophesies that she will be a slave to the one who loves her, will bind up her own freedom, surrender it as a pledge, and will not take it back (1,309). Then, through the image of her tears in his own wine cup, he tells Katerina, what she has already told Ordynov, that more than anything she loves her grief and her slavery, and continuing the ‘merchant’ imagery of matchmaking, he reasserts volya as ‘will’: the goods may be stale, but the merchant of his own free will (voley vol’noy) will not sell them at less than their price: a blood bath for her and the would-be buyer (1.309).
Katerina rejects Ordynov, but he persists. He is concerned by Murin’s threats, but he takes up his imagery. He will buy Katerina from her merchant, if she needs him, and will not allow him to butcher her. (1,310). Yet it is he who now makes an attempt with the knife. Katerina falls at Murin’s feet with the repeated cry of ‘Alesha!’, thus linking the resolution of this triangular relationship with the earlier one in the boat.
In his explanations to Yaroslav Il’ich on the following day, Murin again talks of volya in terms of ‘will’, rather than ‘freedom’, stressing the couple’s good will towards Ordynov (1,312) and his own wish to conform to his ‘guest’s’ will (1,314), but he also reiterates his earlier statements on Katerina’s misconception of her own freedom: ‘She chases after her dear freedom [volyushka] but she herself does not know her heart’s whims’ (1,317). Murin then develops his argument in general terms to embrace both Katerina and Ordynov:
‘Know, master, a weak person cannot hold out on his own! Give
him everything, and he himself will come and give it all back. Give
half the world’s globe into his possession. Just try, and what do you
think? He will immediately hide in your shoe, he will so humble himself.
Give him freedom, this weak person, he himself will restrict it, will hand
it back. Even freedom is no advantage to a weak heart!’ (1,317).
Such a person, he says tauntingly, is unable to kill his enemy, even if a knife is placed in his hands and the enemy himself bares his chest.
Critics have long pointed to the link between these ideas and those of the Grand Inquisitor in the novel written at the end of Dostoevsky’s life The Brothers Karamazov. The emotional stress of Katerina looks forward to that of Grushen’ka in that novel, but perhaps even more to the poetic madness of Mar’ya Lebyadkina in The Devils. Love for her own shame and grief will also characterise Nastas’ya Filippovna in The Idiot, who herself is in thrall to an evil genius with sectarian overtones, wielding a knife. Moreover, The Landlady reveals Dostoevsky’s early interest in the thematic use of epilepsy. Later in A Gentle Maiden Dostoevsky will develop the theme of tyranny and subjection, but with a different outcome. The Landlady is also significant in that it is Dostoevsky’s first portrait of the intellectual hero (he is researching the history of the Church), he is a young man of ideas and as such Ordynov looks forward to Raskol’nikov in Crime and Punishment, perhaps even more to Dolgoruky in A Raw Youth – a novel, which in its level of confusion has much in common with The Landlady. Confusion and ambiguity are important in The Landlady as a narrative technique, but the merging of realism, dream and hallucination will be refined in Crime and Punishment, and elements of the folk tale can still be found in The Brothers Karamazov (Grushen’ka’s little onion). The Landlady also anticipates Dostoevsky’s use of ‘doubles’ as a structural device, and the comic effusiveness of the policeman Yaroslav Il’ich will take on more ominous aspects in the portrait of Porfiriy in Crime and Punishment.
The Landlady, may exhibit great narrative confusion, but at the same time it has an underlying symbolic structure, and an intertextual relationship to Gogol’’s A Terrible Vengeance. In spite of its artistic shortcomings, it can also be read as a ‘modern’, experimental text forcing the reader to make his own connections. The story is important, too, in the context of Dostoevsky’s œuvre, because it reminds us, that for all the great changes in his writing after Siberia, the essential elements are all here at the beginning of his career.
 Gogol’, Soch. I, .225, 226, and 251.
 In A Terrible Vengeance the term for ‘guest’ (gost’) takes on the meaning of enemy, Ibid., p.235.
 ‘A uzh kak my s zhenoi pro vashu milost’ Boga budem molit’!’ (1,314) and ‘A uzh kak my s khozyaykoi budem pro vashu milost’ Boga molit’ ‘(1,315)).
 Strangely, the patronymic Il'ich links him with the Christian name, Il’ya, of the ‘wizard’ Murin.
 Cf. Vladimir Dal’. Tolkovyi slovar’ zhivago velikoruskago yazyka (2nd edition), St Petersburg /Moscow, 1881, Vol.2. p.690.
 There may be an allusion here to the ‘little old man, whom up to now he knew only by hearsay’ (starichok, kotorogo dosele znal ponaslyshke) a man, who is the guardian of what turns out to be Ordynov’s pitifully small inheritance (1,265).
 The repetition of ugol suggests the lurking presence of another meaning, reinforcing the subjectivity of the narrative mode - ugol zreniya = ‘angle or point of view’.
 The theme of the ‘boat’ is also important for Gogol’’s A Terrible Vengengance.
 ‘And at this all my flesh smiled at his words’ (I tut vsya plot’ moya na ego slova usmekhnulas’) (1,299).
 The concept of the ‘weak heart’ will be explored by Dostoevsky in a story of the following year bearing this title.
 Charka – ‘goblet, cup’ is related to chary – ‘magic, charm’ (the vessel is also referred to in the text as chara) (1,309).
 See: the commentary to the story (1,508).
 For interesting readings of the story see: R. Neuhäuser, ‘The Landlady: a New Interpretation’, Canadian Slavonic Papers, Vol.X, No. 1, 1968, pp.42-67; and Go Kosino, ‘Dostoevskiy i gipnotizm (Khozyayka) i drugie proizvedeniya’, XXI vek glazami Dostoevskogo: perspektivy chelovechestva (Materialy mezhdunarodnoy konferentsii, sostoyavsheysya v Universitete Tiba [Japan] 22-25 avgusta 2000 goda, pp. 361-372.