Dostoyevsky, Fyodor

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DOSTOYEVSKY, FYODOR (1821–1881), Russian novelist.

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, the creator of the modern psychological novel and arguably the most important influence on the twentieth-century novel, was born on 11 November (30 October, old style) 1821 in Moscow's Hospital for the Poor. His father, Mikhail Andreyevich, was an ill-tempered physician and his mother, Maria Fyodorovna, was a loving woman who liked to play music and read poetry. Fyodor had seven siblings but became close only to his older brother Mikhail with whom he was sent to a boarding school in St. Petersburg at the age of sixteen, one year before their mother's death. Although he was studying engineering, Fyodor was able to become acquainted with classic Russian and European writers such as Alexander Pushkin, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich von Schiller, Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Nikolai Gogol. During his stay at the boarding school, Dostoyevsky learned that his father was killed by his own serfs because he treated them cruelly. Fyodor was shocked and began to experience periodic fits of epilepsy. After graduation from the St. Petersburg Military Engineering School in 1843, Fyodor entered civil service, which he soon left to become a full-time writer.

After finishing a translation of Balzac's Eugénie Grandet, Dostoyevsky began writing Poor Folk (Bednye lyudi, 1846), which, like most of his novels, was published serially by the well-known critic and author Nikolai Nekrasov; it brought him instant fame. His second novel, The Double (Dvoynik, 1846), was less successful. In 1847 Dostoyevsky joined the Petrashevsky Circle, a utopian socialist discussion group whose members were arrested by the tsarist police in 1849. The author was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress and after a two-week trial sentenced to death. Dostoyevsky's sentence, however, was soon commuted to four years of hard labor and four years in the army in Siberia. In 1857 the author married Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, in 1858 he was released from the army, and in 1859 he was allowed to return to St. Petersburg. There he published with his brother Mikhail the journal Time (Vremya, 1861–1863), which tried to find a compromise between the liberal "Westerners" views and those of conservative "Slavophiles." Nevertheless, the Siberian experience, which he described best in Memoirs from the House of the Dead (Zapiski iz myortogo doma, 1862), a great study of prison life, caused Dostoyevsky to become a political and social conservative and a fervent Russian Orthodox believer.

With the publication of Notes from the Underground (Zapiski iz podpolya) in 1864, Dostoyevsky started his great period, which is characterized by a perceptive psychological analysis of characters as well as a deep discussion of philosophical, moral, and social problems. In 1867, three years after the death of his first wife from tuberculosis, he married his secretary, Anna Grigorievna Snitkina, an understanding and tolerant woman twenty-five years his junior. They had a daughter and a son, both of whom died young. Where in Notes from the Underground Dostoyevsky described an alienated, neurotic intellectual with no solution for his unhappy predicament, with Crime and Punishment (Prestupleniye i nakazaniye, 1866) the author created a complete novel that is considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written. By psychologically dissecting the poor student Raskolnikov, the author discussed the nature of good and evil and reached a religious conclusion that salvation can be found only through suffering. In 1868 Dostoyevsky published two more novels, The Gambler (Igrok) and The Idiot (Idiot). The former reflected his own passion, while the latter was a portrait of a truly beautiful, pure person, Prince Myshkin, who is driven to insanity by the corrupt society. In 1872 he published The Devils (Besy, often translated as The Possessed), a story of political intrigue, which was followed several years later by perhaps his finest—albeit incomplete—creation, The Brothers Karamazov (Bratya Karamazovy, 1879–1880). This is a novel of patricide with each of the four sons representing different aspects of human life. The three legitimate sons are allegorical figures but strikingly real. A planned sequel to the novel never materialized because of the author's death on 9 February (28 January, old style) 1881 in St. Petersburg. Just before his death, Dostoyevsky delivered a famous speech at the second Russian Literary Society meeting in which he praised Pushkin as the greatest Russian writer and his spiritual teacher. At his funeral, thousands of admirers followed the coffin to its grave at St. Petersburg's Alexander Nevsky Monastery.

Dostoyevsky is one of the most widely read Russian writers, and he contributed greatly to the nineteenth-century Russian literary golden age. Most of the characters found in Dostoyevsky's novels reflect the author himself. They have complicated, contradictory, dual personalities, believing in God and proudly rejecting God, showing vitality and zest for life or suffering from epilepsy and generally being in poor health. The author's own ability to empathize with his protagonists who are constantly torn between opposite poles make them real and believable. Sigmund Freud on several occasions expressed his admiration for Dostoyevsky's brilliant psychological insights, and many critics view the author's ability to portray the psychology of his characters as unsurpassed in world literature. Many world-renowned twentieth-century writers, such as Thomas Mann, André Gide, and Franz Kafka, have publicly acknowledged their indebtedness to the great Russian author.

See alsoPushkin, Alexander; Russia; Slavophiles; Tolstoy, Leo; Turgenev, Ivan; Westernizers.


Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821–1849. Princeton, N.J., 1976.

——. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850–1859. Princeton, N.J., 1983.

——. Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860–1865. Princeton, N.J., 1986.

——. Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865–1871. Princeton, N.J., 1995.

——. Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871–1881. Princeton, N.J., 2002.

Grossman, Leonid. Dostoevsky: A Biography. Translated by Mary Mackler. London, 1974.

Hingley, Ronald. Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work. London, 1978.

Jackson, Robert Louis. Dostoevsky's Quest for Form. New Haven, Conn., 1966.

Lavrin, Janko. Dostoevsky: A Study. London, 1943. Reprint, New York, 1969.

Magarshack, David. Dostoevsky. London, 1962.

Mochulsky, Konstantin. Dostoevsky: His Life and Work. Translated by Michael A. Minihan. Princeton, N.J., 1967.

Payne, Robert. Dostoyevsky: A Human Portrait. New York, 1961.

Scanlan, James P. Dostoevsky the Thinker. Ithaca, N.Y., 2002.

Wasiolek, Edward. Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction. Cambridge, Mass., 1964.

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