If you’ve ever found yourself sitting in Sophomore English class, flipping through Frankenstein, you’ve met the Dostoevsky Dash before. Chances are, if you’ve read Crime and Punishment or Jane Eyre, you’ve come across a date dashed out. Or, often, a name. Even listening to the audiobook version of Pride and Prejudice would have brought you Austen’s “blankshire” regiment. As with Chekov’s “N─── Reserve Artillery Brigade” and Les Misérables‘ “Madame de R──”, these instances often leave behind only the first letter of the word, the rest scratched through. Now dubbed The Dostoevsky Dash by one writer, let’s talk about why these dashed out words exist.
Outside of Fiction
The novel, as we think of it now, was just coming to be in the early 19th century when Mary Shelley and Jane Austen published their dash-filled works. In the late 1700s, criticism of society was cloaked behind these blanks in newspapers and nonfiction. The reporting of Parliamentary discussion was banned until 1771, so information was published under false names. Often, writers left the first letters behind as clues for readers to decode.
Poet John Dyrdyen’s Mac Flecknoe of 1682 hides his attack on Thomas Shadwell by using S── in the text of the poem. Scandal sheets, like “a 1772 issue of the Town and Country Magazine” chronicled “the years long affair between the married Mrs. L──fle and the dashing Lord H──n.” Epistolary collections were published after editors censored out dates and names. Even 18th century pornography utilized the same crossing-out as a way to protect the distributors from legal trouble.
The Guise of Realism
Early novels often posed as found documents discovered by the author and published for the public’s entertainment. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe originally cited Crusoe himself as the author, rendering the text a travel diary rather than fiction. And his Moll Flanders was purported to be an autobiography of an unnamed narrator. Many of these texts blurred this line between reality and fiction by using conventions of nonfiction.
As such, Austen was used to this “cloaking of identities with semi-transparent nicknames and encoded clues.” They used it to contribute to the supposed realism of their novels. So, when Shelley used the Dostoevsky Dash even before Dostoevsky himself and wrote 17── in Frankenstein, it was a way to make the tale more realistic to an audience so unaccustomed to reading pure fiction.
Author John Barth writes, “initials, blanks, or both were often substituted for proper names in nineteenth century fiction to enhance the illusion of reality. It is as if the author felt it necessary to delete the names for reasons of tact or legal liability.” By using these dashes, the authors are aiding the suspension of disbelief. It’s not always censorship, as some might think, but an intentionally used tool to convey the illusion of censorship to make it seem all the more real.
Protection from Libel Claims
The Dostoevsky Dash was also used so readers didn’t look too deeply into the referenced places and find factual inconsistencies. Austen’s “──shire” was a way to not to seem as if she based Wickham on a real person. If she specified a real regiment, readers would start pointing fingers.
Broader locations were ambiguous enough to leave in without frenzy, but a reference to a specific regiment would only cause rumor. Same with her “Earl of ──” as a way not to make a reader wonder who she meant. (Or to cover her if, in the end, they did, in fact, find a real-life connection). It seems to operate in exactly the opposite way under this reading. Dostoevsky’s “S──y Lane” and “K──n bridge were easy for readers to decode as St. Petersburg while allowing him to escape retaliation. If society was to put the clues together, the author could claim ignorance. They simply used a letter at random, all the rest is happenstance. A back-in-the-day all persons fictitious disclaimer of sorts.
The Dostoevsky Dash
Both used to further realism and to hide authors behind fiction, modern novels lack The Dostoevsky Dash. Authors like Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections and Chuck Klosterman in The Visible Man use this convention in their modern novels. But the device has mostly fallen out of style, exchanged by the making up of entirely new cities and names. Unlike Victorian readers who were new to this form of storytelling, we’ve grown used to the fictional aspect of novels. Have even come to expect it.