Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dictionary of Literary Techniques: The Dostoevsky Dash

I'm using The Blue Bookcase's weekly question as an excuse to start writing new entries in my ongoing Dictionary of Fictional Techniques. Head over there to see what other literary devices people find interesting

The Dostoevsky Dash:
The elision of a proper name or place with a series of dashes. 

"At the beginning of July, during an extremely hot spell, towards evening, a young man left the closet he rented from tenants in S------y Lane, walked out into the street, and slowly, as if indecisively, headed for the K-----n Bridge."
                 --The first sentence of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky 

This one has always puzzled me. If a real place, why not name it? If a fictional one, why not give it a fake name? The best answer I have for this little convention is that it signals the line between fact and fiction. To give the name of a real place pulls the narrative toward fact, imposing restraints that the author might not want (for example, does Dostoevsky want us to be thinking of real St. Petersburg locations with such specificity? How does that change our experience of the story).

Conversely, creating fictional places pushes the story away from reality. The psychological realism of Crime and Punishment, and our visceral reaction to it, might be broken if we know that such and such a place doesn't really exist, reminding us, by proxy, that neither do these characters or actions. 

In a way, the Dostoevsky Dash is a kind of Schrodinger's Cat for fiction: it allows the novel to be both fact and fiction at the same time. 


All entries in The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques are original to The Reading Ape, unless otherwise cited. (This means that they aren’t ‘real words,’ so don’t use them in your freshman comp essay)

Previous entries in The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques:

The Generalized Categorical


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  1. Austen does this in Pride and Prejudice, and it drives me crazy. Just another way, I feel, that she shows disdain for her characters. 

  2. That's really interesting! I've never encountered that before, or didn't pay any attention.  I'll have to think more about it.

  3. It's a literary imitation of 19th century newspaper style. Especially in Britain, newspapers feared being charged with libel when they mentioned individual's names, and so they would dash it out, knowing that the reader knew exactly whom they were talking about. It was much imitated in literature with personal and place names.

  4. Such a fun answer.  I've always wondered about that myself.  Why does he do that?

    Check out my post for this hop here.

  5. Great answer!  I just finished reading Jane Eyre and was reminded the whole time that I needed to find out why certain place names were dashed out.  It was a little distracting, but since Jane Eyre is written as the character's memoir, it does give the impression that she doesn't want her readers to know where exactly the various events take place. 

  6. Interesting question. I don't know why this was done, but I bet it does have something to do with libel laws of the day.  In Jane Austen's case it may have helped protect her identity.  Women (and many men) wrote under pen names then.  

    The edition of C & P I recently read featured a map of showing the locations of all the major scenes.  I guess people have figured out where everything was.

  7. loved the dash, once I really it wasn't a Russian 100 metre sprint, and also like the reasoning behind it.

  8. Emily @ Reading While FemaleJuly 8, 2011 at 4:41 PM

    What an awesome answer! I love this use of dashes, pretty much for the exact reasons you stated. It makes fictional pieces seem more real, like the author is referring to a real person but it trying to be discreet about it.

  9. BeltwayliteratureJuly 8, 2011 at 9:44 PM

    Fantastic answer!  I had always wondered the reason for the dash, not only in Crime and Punishment, but in other books as well.  I truly believe that Dostoevsky, in most of his books, used current events for the backdrop of his stories.  That's why I get so much from reading them, I learn much more about Russian history.

  10. Alexandra JacunskiJuly 9, 2011 at 6:48 PM

    Yeah, so, um, I'm going to be commenting on a lot of your blog posts from now on. Sorry in advance.

    The dash has always infuriated me (especially in The Plague - come on, Camus, 194-? Really?). I'd figured the half-fact, half-fiction approach, but I've never thought of it as a reminder that the book is fiction - I like that a little better.
    Though I still can't help attributing it to the author's laziness. :p

  11. Hard for me to see it as laziness, though I think for the later imitators
    (Camus, Kafka, etc) it is an affectation. I don't really mind it, but it
    leaves me scratching my head.

  12. In the case of Russian writers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the technique was also helpful in dealing with government censorship. Russian writers often found fiction to be the only vehicle for dealing honestly with political and religious themes that they dared not write about as nonfiction - and some discretion in the use of proper names was necessary. I don't know if the censors were too stupid to catch the references (dealing with some modern Russian bureaucrats would certainly suggest that!), or if there was tacit understanding between authors and censors that this small blurring of the line between fact & fiction was adequate. Readers of the time would readily recognize the references.

  13. Wait, how is it a sign of disdain? I don't follow. 

  14. There's also a tradition of doing this in Russian literature with dates, e.g. 192---. See Nabokov, Pnin

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