Dostoevsky is known for the realism he employs to describe his characters. Realism is a literary term used to describe an author’s presentation of the details of man’s existence in a way that is true to life. Sometimes it is used in conjunction with the term psychological. Psychological realism, a technique Dostoevsky employs in his major novels, refers to the author’s attempt to portray the innermost thoughts and feelings of his characters in an accurate manner. Realism also implies Rejection Of idealism, the portrayal of life as the author believes it ought to be rather than as it is. In ‘‘The Heavenly Christmas Tree,’’ Dostoevsky Presents The Details Of the lives, thoughts, and struggles of the boy in the story. The author describes the physical effects of the boy’s poverty. The details clearly convey the child’s suffering; he is freezing and starving to death. His fingers and toes ache with cold, to the point where he cannot even hold on to the coin he is handed. His hunger forces him to leave the cellar and wander through the city streets. During his wanderings, the boy is temporarily able to forget his hunger and to be distracted by the lights and sights of a city celebrating Christmas. That the boy can be entertained, however briefly, by the lifelike dolls, to take just one example, reminds us of the child’s tender age. Yet his hunger drives him forward. Dostoevsky vividly conveys the enormity of the child’s fear. This begins in the cellar with descriptions of the drunken man and the old woman, whose grumblings and scolding frighten the boy. The child also remains motionless, his hands resting on his dead mother’s shoulders. Dostoevsky does not make plain whether or not the child knows his mother has died. This imagery heightens the reader’s sense of the child’s isolation and subsequent fear. Additional details underscore the terror the boy experiences: the dog at the top of the stairs; the bustle of the city, including the horses and carriages, which the boy is certain will run him over; the older boy who hits the child and trips him—all inspire understandable fear in a child too young to be alone in the world. Through his characterization and imagery, Dostoevsky creates a realistic portrait of an impoverished, homeless boy. That the hopelessness of the boy’s plight is depicted in a manner so stark suggests that Dostoevsky intended to present the reader with an unvarnished portrait of the problems inherent in nineteenth-century urban Russian society.
The narrator Dostoevsky employs in ‘‘The Heavenly Christmas Tree’’ opens and closes the story with his own first-person commentary (he refers to himself as ‘‘I’’) and tells the tale of the boy in the third person (he refers to the boy as ‘‘he,’’ and the boy’s mother as ‘‘she’’). The first-person narrator draws attention to himself by expressing his own views in the opening and closing of the story. During the story, however, the narrator makes observations that suggest he is aware of circumstances that his characters are unaware of. A narrator who shares this type of knowledge with the reader is described as an omniscient or all-knowing narrator. For example, the narrator shares such information when the boy ‘‘unconsciously’’ lets ‘‘his hands rest on the dead woman’s shoulders,’’ the latter being his mother. Although the narrator confirms that she is dead, the boy does not seem to realize it. The narrator also asks rhetorical questions during the story. (A rhetorical question is one in which the questioner does not expect a response; it is used to create a certain effect.) As the child discovers new sights in the city, the narrator asks ‘‘And what was this?’’ and ‘‘What was this again?’’ The effect of asking these questions and framing the story with his own first-person comments is to create situation which there ader feels as if he or she is being read to, or is being told a story orally. In this way, the reader is permitted to identify with the child in the story, given that the reader is experiencing the story in a manner similar to that of a child. However, the tale is not one for children, as the narrator makes clear in his closing comments when he asserts that whereas the deaths of the mother and her son ‘‘may have happened really,’’ the rest—the heavenly resurrection following their deaths— may or may not be possible.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Published by Gale Group, 2010