Throughout ‘‘The Heavenly Christmas Tree,’’ Dostoevsky portrays the poverty of the residents in his urban Russian setting. Not only does he delineate the effects of poverty on his characters but he also comments on society’s response to the poor. As the story opens, the narrator highlights the extreme conditions under which the boy and his mother exist. They are currently living in a cold, damp cellar and do not have the proper clothes or possessions to protect themselves against the elements. They have no blankets, and the boy wears a dressing gown. He is able to find water to drink but has nothing to eat. It is his hunger that motivates him. He leaves the cellar in search of food. His intense hunger is mentioned repeatedly as he explores the streets of the city. The narrator describes the way a policeman looks away so that he does not have to stare at the starving child. While peering into a shop window, he sees three young women distributing cakes to anyone who walks in from the street.
Yet when he attempts to enter the store he is waved off by all except one woman, who hands him a coin. Unfortunately, his fingers are so stiff from the cold that he cannot hold the coin and loses it. Ignored by the policeman and the women in the shop, the boy is next mistreated by another child. After the boy has died, the narrator describes the boy’s experiences around Christ’s Christmas tree and recounts the experiences of other children who have died due to poverty. Some froze to death ‘‘on the doorsteps of well-to-do Petersburg people.’’ Abandoned and orphaned children were suffocated after being placed in the care of Finnish women. Some starved during the famine. Still others died in ‘‘third-class railway carriages.’’ The poor, according to Dostoevsky, are ignored and abused by those who are better off, or they are killed by others or die as a result of circumstances related to their poverty. Aside from the lone woman who attempts to give the boy a coin, there are no kindhearted people in this story. In the end, their poverty kills them.
The world in which Dostoevsky’s story ‘‘The Heavenly Christmas Tree’’ takes place is a Christian one. All around the boy are celebrations of Christmas, the birthday of Jesus Christ, one of the holiest of Christian holidays. Christmas trees, decorations, and feasts surround the boy. Aside from the single coin offered to him by one woman, the little boy receives no charitable treatment while he is alive despite the so-called Christian environment in which he finds himself. Dostoevsky contrasts the world of people who are sufficiently well off to be able to afford celebrations with that of the boy and his mother, who are too poor to purchase a crust of bread. Furthermore, this distinction is made more obvious given the fact that it is during the Christmas season that the boy is forced to suffer extreme hunger and cold. Even at this time, when one would expect charitable feelings among faithful Christians, the boy is ignored (by the policeman) and denied food (which is free and available to everyone else). The starving boy wanders the streets in a thin dressing gown. People do not interrupt their Christmas celebrations to aid him in any way. It is only after the boy dies that he is able to celebrate Christmas with Christ himself, including all the other children who have suffered and died horrible deaths. In the end, it is grim reality that the narrator assumes to be true—represented by the freezing cellar in which the mother dies and the woodpile where the boy perishes—rather than the hopeful story of peace, according to which the boy and his mother are reunited in heaven. Throughout the story Dostoevsky appears to question the nature of those who call themselves Christians, who would ignore and abuse a young child who is starving and freezing to death. Given the fact that at the end of the story the narrator suggests that the new life in heaven with which the child and his mother are rewarded is perhaps an unlikely conclusion, it seems as though Dostoevsky is doubting the Christian belief in salvation itself.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Published by Gale Group, 2010