Taking the Risk: Love, Luck and Gambling in Literature
The Flowers of Evil (1866) authored by Charles Baudelaire and The Gambler (1867) by Fyodor Dostoevsky are two literary works of art with common denominators: they both deal with the themes of gambling, love, luck, moral debasement, and deep poverty. Both books are pivotal, produced during the symbolism era, the literary movement which swept Europe spanning 1860-1880. Symbolism’s main themes surround darkness, decadence; employing images pregnant with symbolic metaphor. Symbolists often looked at the ideal and vested it in language which would take some interpretation and deciphering to understand. Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) on the other hand grew out of the existentialist and symbolist movement in Russia. Although Russian symbolism did not officially begin until 1895, Dostoevsky is viewed as the Russian father of symbolism who preceded the movement though his writings.
In Baudelaire’s “Little Old Women”, he compares gambling old women to “vestals in love with the late Frascati.” Frascati was the only gambling salon in Paris which allowed women players to gamble. This image of old women gambling away their money enraptured by an uncontrollable obsession evokes the scenes of Grandmother gambling away her wealth at the casino in The Gambler. Alexei reports that “at the casino, grandmother seemed to be expected” (Dostoevsky 2005). Gripped by the passion to win, grandmother soon becomes a regular at the casino. Frascati’s was a busy, well-liked salon which drew gambling patrons in the hundreds. The historic Frascati’s gambling salon remained open for business until 1836 when the lease for gambling houses expired and was forced to close down (Shelley).
The main themes of Baudelaire’s poem called “Gambling”, are associated with decadence, aging, and death. In typical symbolist fashion, Baudelaire details the surroundings at the gambling salon, paying close attention to body parts and furniture. These female gamblers described in the poem are hopelessly addicted to the gaming tables, where they fritter their hard-earned money on bets. In Baudelaire’s “Gambling”, he mentions the women gamblers “who come to waste their sorely-sweated pittance”. The gamers are of the poor classes who time and again lose many bets; yet they are inspired by the hope of improving their luck and winning more money. It is a never ending vicious cycle. They work for a few dollars and return to the casinos to place bets, lose, work for more money and return to the gambling houses. Dostoevsky portrays the poor gamblers as “the hungry, restless folk crowded around the gaming tables” (Dostoevsky 2005). Many of the faithful casino’s patrons are ruined, broke, indebted, and hopeless. Later on, after experiencing the vicissitudes of gambling, Alexei, hooked and in despair confesses, “I am in a worse position than the meanest beggar. But what is a beggar. A fig for beggary! I have ruined myself that is all” (Dostoevsky 2005). Mismanagement of money, greed, and imprudence lead to this crushing, inescapable poverty. As soon as fortune changes and one wins some money, it is either frittered away on some frivolous attraction or goes to the payment of incurred debts. Alexei has to depend on the people around him to bail him out of prison, for food and shelter, while he sees himself trapped in the enslavement to money and to Polina.
Baudelaire’s poem, “Gambling” clearly outlines the prevailing environment at the gaming houses where the gamblers waste their money. He evokes the scene of “all-tenacious passion”, “funereal glee”, “envying” (Baudelaire 2006). These sentiments are commonplace in a gambling house where there lies the passion to win and the desire for self-aggrandizement. The (fortunate) lot of other vying players provokes envy just as the poem’s speaker confesses to feel toward his contenders around the table. Baudelaire also characterizes and likens the passion of gambling to a “hellish fever” where the ultimate end is death and destruction. This image also relates the passion of gambling with the heat of sexuality and the excitement to win. At the casino, Alexei is controlled by his passionate urges to win at the roulette games. He says that he “suddenly became obsessed with a desire to take risks” (Dostoevsky 2005). This fervent desire pushes him to make many absurd deals and take wanton bets at the casino. Around the table, Alexei observes the rich competitors, silently scrutinizing and envying them. Even Grandmother when she begins to gamble is “shaking with excitement” (Dostoevsky 2005). The rush of risk-taking and winning floods her entire being and soon becomes wild with anxiety over the games.
In, The Gambler, when Alexei is introduced to the gambling salon, he describes that “in the first place, everything about it seemed so foul – so morally mean and foul” and then alludes to “its attendant squalor” (Dostoevsky 2005). This gambling setting is purposely dirty because it attracts a dirty crowd who is blind to the moral decay around them. The casino’s inherent foul nature poisons and drugs the clientele such that they keep coming back, powerless to stop the habit. Likewise, with Alexei, the casino is repelling and compelling at the same time. He is offended and fascinated by the decadence. In Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil poem, “Gambling”, dirtiness, squalor, and moral decadence go hand in hand. The women play in a dusty gambling salon with “faded armchairs”, “dirty ceiling”, “grim vault”, and “dead virtue” are synonymous telling a tale of aging, obsoleteness, corruption, and decadence. The players are old women who imminently approach death and due to their vices, are hastening to their own demise. The gambling salon has descended into an undesirable condition. The women’s past occupation as harlots further taint their characters and tarnishes the general ambience so that it lacks the purity and cleanliness of its pristine state.
The poem, “I Adore You,” by Charles Baudelaire interconnects with the relationship between Alexei and Polina. The first person in the poem applies to Alexei while his reluctant lover, Polina is the focus of his relentless pursuit and unrequited love. Polina’s physical and emotional distance is palpable throughout the novel, The Gambler. She continuously uses Alexei to gain her own selfish ends and dumps him because she is in love with another. The speaker laments, “I love you all the more because you flee from me … and multiply the leagues that separate my arms from the blue infinite”. By the end of the novel, Polina moves to Switzerland in an attempt to escape Alexei’s amorous advances. However, despite her repeated rebuffs and flights, he continues to chase after her. The novel closes with Alexei busy at a gaming table trying to win money to follow her to Switzerland.
He asserts to an irate Polina, who is even more annoyed by his undying love, “Am I afraid of a scandal, or of your anger? Why should I fear your anger? I love without hope and know that hereafter I shall love you a thousand times more” (Dostoevsky 2005). This passage matches in sentiment and in action Alexei’s resolve. He never becomes discouraged at her glacial snubs or livid fury. Polina’s implacable cruelty is plain for all to see, even to Alexei. Adamant as stone, after Alexei declares his love for her, Polina snarlingly retorts, “Why I HATE you! Yes, yes, I HATE you!” (Dostoevsky 2005). Her hardened heart, impervious to returning Alexei’s love, demonstrates incapacity to dismiss him with sympathy for his feelings. She continues to take his winnings from gambling and then refuses to love him or even show him respect and proper gratitude. The more Polina persists in rejecting him, the more fervent Alexei’s love burns toward her. He says to Polina that “you will end by making me love you, since you are what you are, I mean to love you all the time, and never be unfaithful to you” (Dostoevsky 160). Fully knowing her cold disregard still forces Alexei to love Polina and be true to her forever. From all appearances, it seems that Alexei is even more enamored by Polina’s cruelty.
Chance and luck are key elements of gambling and are common factors in The Gambler and The Flowers of Evil. The luck of the characters vacillates and either proves their ruin or success. As beforementioned, Baudelaire’s “The Little Old Women” mentions the Parisian Frascati gambling salon. One gambler testifies that while at Frascati’s the only handicap of the gambler is the law of chance. “Intuition led me to revere the law of chance as the highest and deepest of laws, the law that rises from the fundament. An insignificant word might become a deadly thunderbolt. One little sound might destroy the earth” (Brecht 1966). Roulette is the most popular game at the casino. Roulette, taken from the French, means little wheel. In the game, one has to turn the wheels until a ball settles on a number. This game comes from the Wheel of Fortune concept where in mythology it is believed that the gods determined fates by the turn of a wheel (The Meaning of Wheel of Fortune). Chance and fortune correspond with one another since the wheel of fortune meant either an improving or worsening of one’s fortunes (pun intended). When playing at the gaming table to cover Polina’s urgently due debts, Alexei wins many times and accumulates about two hundred thousand rubles. However both he and his grandmother have lost fortunes, betting large sums of money in a desperate attempt to recover their losses. At the gambling house, one of the characters De Griers says “les chances peuvent tourner. Une seule mauvaise chance, et vous perdrez tout – surtout avec votre jeu. C’était terrible” (Dostoevsky 2005). Translation: Your luck can change. But one bad stroke of luck, and you can lose everything, especially in gambling. It’s terrible. Characters play against an awesome foe, fate and cast it in the hand of chance. Roulette, one of the popular games at the gambling houses, is based on chance. The intoxicating obsession to keep playing the chance game precipitates Alexei in graver circumstances and heavier losses. He confesses while gambling, “the madness seemed to come upon me and seizing my last two thousand florins, I staked them on 12 of the first numbers – wholly by chance” (Dostoevsky 2005). Even in the game or better said, gamble of love, Alexei stakes everything in order to be with Polina, making amorous advances and courting her affections. However, he debases himself into being a willing slave and ultimately a spurned lover; however, luck and love are inextricable themes since the characters must risk something to pursue their heart’s desire.
Baudelaire’s “The Venal Muse” also harmonizes thematically with Dostoevsky’s The Gambler since poverty, greed, and deceit are omnipresent in both works. First of all, the gamblers are spurred on by need. The majority of the players in Germany and France are the poor who lust to be rich and the pretentious, indebted rich who long for a return on their wealth. The Venal Muse alludes to indigence “knowing that your purse is dry as your palate”. Alexei is an impoverished tutor who wants to get rich and enjoy the company of the affluent circle and to win the love of his life, Polina. The General, heavily debt-encumbered, is also a poor man who appears wealthy because of his aristocratic connections and possession. He plays and wagers in Roulettenberg – a pun on the word roulette. Polina herself is a broke woman who uses her beauty and charm to get what she wants from men. Baudelaire verbalizes her actions where “to earn your daily bread you are obliged to swing the censer like an altar boy.” She uses Alexei for her own selfish ends without truly loving him. Alexei and the General’s fortunes depend on the death of their opulent Grandmother, hoping that she passes away soon and leaves them a healthy share of her estate.
In sum, Flowers of Evil and The Gambler explore rich, deep themes such as gambling, moral decay, passion for winning, chance, and the gamble of love. Baudelaire and Dostoevsky enter the human’s psychology and represent these realities poetically in their masterpieces. Gambling transcends class consideration for it is as much a vice of the rich as a downfall of the poor. As classical symbolists, both writers plunge into the macabre and the glorious, giving the reader an analysis of human nature and the times of life.
Baudelaire, Charles. The Flowers of Evil, Wesleyan University Press. Connecticut, 2006.
Brecht, G., & Elisabeth, B. Chance-imagery. New York: Something Else Press, 1966.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Gambler. Digireads.com Publishing, Kansas, 2005.
The Meaning of the Wheel of Fortune.
Shelley, Charles Henry. Old Paris: Its social, historical, and literary associations. University of Michigan, 1912.
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