BORN: 1821, Moscow, Russia
DIED: 1881, St. Petersburg, Russia
Notes from the Underground (1864)
Crime and Punishment (1866)
The Idiot (1869)
The Possessed (1872)
The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Among European writers of the nineteenth century, Fyodor Dostoevsky is the preeminent novelist of modernity. In his masterworks Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880), he explored the far-ranging moral, religious, psychological, social, political, and artistic ramifications of the breakdown of traditional structures of authority and belief. He chronicled the rise and fall of the modern secular individual and traced the totalitarian potential of the new ideologies of his time, including socialism. His personal and literary engagement with the ongoing political and social issues of his time makes his work particularly interesting from a historical perspective. However, Dostoevsky's work is much more than a window into the world of nineteenth-century Russia. Modern readers continue to find Dostoevsky's work compelling because of the way he examines, as no one had previously and few have since, the potential for violence and the abuse of power in all forms of human interaction. His perfectly drawn psychological portraits of common people in distress resonate with all readers who struggle to find meaning in the world.
A Noble Family Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born on October 30, 1821, in the Moscow Mariinskii Hospital, where his father, Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky, was a staff doctor. The second of seven children, he was closest to his older brother, Mikhail. Dostoevsky later wrote with warmth about his mother, Mariia Fedorovna, but wrote nearly nothing about his father and is reported to have said that his childhood was difficult and joyless. The Mariinskii Hospital served the indigent, so Dostoevsky was exposed at an early age to the results of urban poverty. The plight of the poor made a strong impression on the budding writer.
In 1828 Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky was granted a nobleman's rank, and shortly thereafter the family purchased an estate at Darovoe. In 1837 Dostoevsky's mother died, and in the same year Dostoevsky's father enrolled him in the Military Engineering Academy in St. Petersburg. Dostoevsky's formal education before this time was limited to a boarding school in Moscow. An episode from his journey to St. Petersburg made an overwhelming impression on Dostoevsky. While traveling by coach, he saw a courier beat the coachman on the back of his neck with his fist and with every blow the coachman whipped the horses. Dostoevsky used this scene later in Notes from Underground (1864) and indirectly in Crime and Punishment (1866) in Raskolnikov's dream of the peasant who beats his mare.
In addition to engineering, the training at the Military Engineering Academy focused on parade and drill. Dostoevsky was not a brilliant student. Dostoevsky's letters to his father from the Military Engineering Academy are mostly requests for money, but to his older brother, Mikhail, he wrote about his love for literature, especially the works of German author Friedrich Schiller and ancient Greek epic poet Homer. Dostoevsky compared Homer to Christ, arguing that in the Iliad Homer's vision with regard to the ancient world was similar to Christ's with regard to the new world. At the end of his life, in The Brothers Karamazov (1880), and his speech on Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin, Dostoevsky returned to the idea of universal organization and harmony, carving out a special role both for himself and for Russia in achieving these ends.
Upon completing his training and receiving his officer's rank, Dostoevsky served for one year in the draftsman's section of the engineering department in St. Petersburg before retiring in 1844 in order, as he said, to devote himself to literature. In the same year his anonymous translation of French author Honoré de Balzac's Eugénie Grandet appeared in print.
Father's Death In 1839 Dostoevsky's father died in mysterious circumstances, giving rise to a set of conflicting versions of his death. According to one account, Mikhail Andreevich was killed by his own peasants in revenge for his harsh treatment of them. The other, more likely version is that he died of a stroke. The death or absence of the father is a significant theme in Dostoevsky's work from his early fiction to his last novel. Ivan
Karamazov's line “Who does not desire the death of his father?” in The Brothers Karamazov has added fuel to psychoanalytic interpretations of Dostoevsky's epilepsy, which psychiatrist Sigmund Freud famously diagnosed as “hystero-epilepsy,” a form of neurosis. According to this theory, Dostoevsky felt so guilty about his own desire for his father's death that he had to inflict on himself a form of punishment, which took the form of epileptic attacks. According to the account left by Dr. Stepan Dmitrievich Ianovsky, who treated Dostoevsky in the first part of his life, Dostoevsky did not experience severe attacks of epilepsy in the late 1830s, when his father died, but in the late 1840s.
Poverty in Russia In 1844 Dostoevsky had begun work on his first work of fiction, Poor Folk (1846). Dostoevsky later wrote to Mikhail that he had revised and refined the work and that he was pleased with its overall structure. It was published in 1846 to great critical acclaim.
In Poor Folk, an epistolary novel, Makar Devushkin, a timid and gentle clerk (his name suggests girlishness), cannot save Varvara from what he thinks is an unwanted marriage. In a letter written to his brother after the publication of the novel, Dostoevsky complained that the public “was used to seeing the author's face in his characters and could not conceive that Devushkin and not Dostoevsky was speaking.” This problem was not limited to Poor Folk. Dostoevsky's readers continued to identify the author with the ideological positions taken by his characters and sometimes with their criminal acts.
Psychology and Urbanization Near the end of Poor Folk, Makar Devushkin remarks to himself that “everything has doubled” within him. Dostoevsky's next work, The Double carried on this theme. It was also published in 1846, but was not well received at the time. The Double tells the bizarre story of another little clerk, Iakov Petrovich Goliadkin. Goliadkin encounters his double in the form of Goliadkin Junior, an insolent and more daring version of himself. Goliadkin Junior insinuates himself into the hero's good graces, discovers his weaknesses, including his social ambition and resentment, and finally usurps his position entirely.
Characters driven to madness or near madness were a fixture of Dostoevsky's early “Petersburg” stories. Dostoevsky blamed the dehumanizing effects of the urban, bureaucratic Petersburg in part of the destruction of his characters' personalities. Dotoesvsky continued to explore this “Petersburg” theme in such works as “The Landlady” (1847), “White Nights” (1848), “A Weak Heart” (1848), and Netochka Nezvanova. He never finished Netochka Nezvanova; he was arrested and imprisoned for anti-government political activity in 1849.
Near Death and Hard Labor Dostoevsky and other members of the reading circle of radical Mikhail Butashevich-Petrashevsky were arrested in 1849. A court appointed by Czar Nicholas I in November of that year condemned Dostoevsky to death. In early December the death sentence was commuted, and in Dostoevsky's case the punishment was reduced first to eight years and then to four years of hard labor, to be followed by service in the army with a restoration of civil rights. On December 22, 1849, Dostoevsky and his fellow-prisoners were told, however, that they would be executed by firing squad. At the last moment, the execution was stopped, and the prisoners were informed of their real sentences. Mock executions were the norm when death sentences were commuted by the czar, but usually prisoners were informed in advance that the execution would be nothing more than a ceremony. What made this one unusual was that the prisoners did not know that their lives were to be spared. Czar Nicholas I wanted to make a great impression on the prisoners.
He succeeded. In subsequent works Dostoevsky wrote about the horror of certain death. In The Idiot, for example, Prince Myshkin describes how the prisoner greedily takes in his last impressions as he is being driven to the execution and counts the seconds as the guillotine blade falls.
Dostoevsky served four years in a hard labor stockade in Omsk, followed by six years of army service in Semi-palatinsk. He wrote two novellas in Siberia, neither of which has received much critical acclaim. Nevertheless, all the experiences that flowed from Dostoevsky's arrest—his imprisonment in St. Petersburg, the mock execution, life in the stockade in Omsk, and army service afterward in Semipalatinsk—had a profound impact on his later writing.
Return to St. Petersburg In February of 1857 Dostoevsky married Mariia Dmitrievna Isaeva. Her husband, an alcoholic, had recently died, leaving her with a young son and without income. The marriage was, by all accounts, not congenial. The severity of Dostoevsky's epileptic attacks had increased in severity after his release from the labor stockade, and he used his illness as grounds to petition the czar for a swifter return to St. Petersburg. Alexander II had ascended the throne in 1855, and the usual expectations about amnesty were heightened by his reputation for gentleness. The restoration of Dostoevsky's rights, the freedom to retire from army service, permission to publish, and permission to return to the capital progressed very slowly. He was allowed to return to St. Petersburg in December of 1859, under the watch of the secret police.
Christianity and Aesthetics Dostoevsky's experience in prison and in Siberia led him to embrace Christianity. His intense study of the New Testament, the only book the prisoners were allowed to read, contributed to his rejection of his earlier antireligious political views and led him to the conviction that redemption is possible only through suffering and faith, a belief which informed his later work. Dostoevsky also stressed the morally uplifting
power of beauty and art, which he came to associate with Christianity.
House of the Dead, Dostoevsky's thinly fictionalized account of his experience in the Omsk fortress, takes the form of loosely strung together impressions, vignettes, and scenes from prison life, beginning with first impressions and ending with release from the “house of the dead.” The narrator is the nobleman Gorianchikov, imprisoned for the murder of his wife. Dostoevsky later wrote that some readers believed he had committed Gorianchikov's crime. One of the most powerful scenes concerns the prisoners' bathhouse. The filth and steam, the “roaring” of the prisoners, on whose heat-reddened bodies the scars of endured floggings stand out, and the sound of their chains make Gorianchikov think that he has entered hell. He also remarks on the morally uplifting qualities of the prisoners' theater—a living proof of what Schiller called the “aesthetic education of mankind.”
Rejection of Radicalism In 1863 Dostoevsky made a second trip to Europe, this time to pursue his love affair with Apollinariia Prokofevna Suslova, a writer whose life fit the literary model of the emancipated woman of the times. Mariia Dmitrievna, Dostoevsky's wife, died in 1864, the same year that he lost his brother Mikhail. It was in this atmosphere that Dostoyevsky wrote Notes from the Underground (1864) and Crime and Punishment (1866). In Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky satirizes contemporary social and political views by presenting a narrator whose “notes” reveal that his purportedly progressive beliefs lead only to sterility and inaction.
The protagonist of Crime and Punishment, is a young radical by the name of Raskolnikov. The novel depicts the harrowing confrontation between his philosophical beliefs, which prompt him to commit a murder in an attempt to prove his supposed “superiority” and his inherent morality, which condemns his actions. In the novel, Dostoevsky first develops his theme of redemption through suffering.
Although he was unsuccessful with Suslova, she served as the prototype for Polina in The Gambler (1866), the novel that Dostoevsky completed in breathtaking speed by dictating it in twenty-six days to the stenographer Anna Grigorevna Snitkina, who became his second wife on February 15, 1867. In 1867, Dostoyevsky fled to Europe with Anna to escape creditors. Although they were distressing due to financial and personal difficulties, Dostoyevsky's years abroad were fruitful, for he completed one important novel and began another. The Idiot (1869), influenced by Hans Holbein's painting Christ Taken from the Cross and by Dostoevsky's opposition to the growing atheistic sentiment of the times, depicts the Christ-like protagonist's loss of innocence and his experience of sin.
Dostoyevsky's profound conservatism, which marked his political thinking following his Siberian experience, and especially his reaction against revolutionary socialism, provided the impetus for his great political novel The Possessed (1872). Based on a true event, in which a young revolutionary was murdered by his comrades, this novel provoked a storm of controversy for its harsh depiction of ruthless radicals. In his striking portrayal of Stavrogin, the novel's central character, Dostoevsky describes a man dominated by the life-denying forces of nihilism.
Crowning Achievement Dostoevsky's last work was The Brothers Karamazov, a family tragedy of epic proportions, which is viewed as one of the great novels of world literature. The novel recounts the murder of a father by one of his four sons. Dostoevsky envisioned this novel as the first of a series of works depicting “The Life of a Great Sinner,” but early in 1881, a few months after completing The Brothers Karamazov, the writer died at his home in St. Petersburg.
To his contemporary readers, Dostoevsky appeared as a writer primarily interested in the terrible aspects of human existence. However, later critics have recognized that the novelist sought to plumb the depths of the psyche, in order to reveal the full range of the human experience, from the basest desires to the most elevated spiritual yearnings. Above all, he illustrated the universal human struggle to understand God and self. Dostoevsky was, as American author Katherine Mansfield wrote, a “being who loved, in spite of everything, adored life, even while he knew the dank, dark places.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Dostoevsky's famous contemporaries include:
Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852): Ukrainian writer considered one of the fathers of Russian literature.
Charles Darwin (1809–1882): British naturalist most famous for formulating the theory of natural selection.
Karl Marx (1818–1883): philosopher, economist, and revolutionary.
Queen Victoria (1819–1901): British monarch for sixty-three years.
Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910): Russian realist writer considered one of the world's leading authors.
Samuel Clemens (1835–1910): American writer also known as Mark Twain.
Émile Zola (1840–1902): French writer famous for the his work of literary naturalism.
As a young man, Dostoevsky read widely and was especially fond of the works of Homer, German Romantic
Friedrich Schiller, Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol, and Russian poet Alexsandr Pushkin.
Existentialism All of Europe was in a state of quasi-revolution in the mid-nineteenth century. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's The Communist Manifesto, which called on the working class to rise up against the bourgeois social order, was published in 1848. Similar radical social and political ideas circulated among young intellectuals in Russia, and Dostoevsky was heavily influenced by them. The radical philosophies he embraced are reflected in his early work, which is seen by some critics as an early instance of existentialism in literature. Existentialism is the term used to describe a philosophy that holds that there is no meaning in life other than what individuals create for themselves. This somewhat bleak perspective is associated with fiction that portrays characters coming to grips with reality and experiencing feelings of malaise, boredom, and alienation. Dostoevsky's early fiction, particularly his “Petersburg” tales, exhibit strong existentialist traits in keeping with the anti-religious radical philosophy he espoused. His characters feel alienated from both society and themselves.
Dostoevsky moves away from his early existentialism in his later books. The transition can be seen in Crime and Punishment, in which the protagonist, Raskolnikov, puts his own radical philosophy into action and then must come to grips with the consequences.
Corruption and Redemption One of Dostoevsky's dominant themes was the idea that modern urban life is corrupt, but that redemption is possible through suffering and atonement. This idea is central to Crime and Punishment. The protagonist, Raskolnikov, is corrupted by the extreme philosophies circulated among St. Petersburg's intellectuals to the point that he commits a gruesome double murder. It is only in prison, where he must suffer and repent, that he finds a path to redemption through Christianity.
Emphasis on Drama and Dialog One of the aspects of Dostoevsky's writing style that makes his books so dramatic and engaging is the strength of his dialog. More so than previous writers, Dostoevsky propelled his plots forward with the strength of multiple, fully independent and unique character voices. In this way, he moved away from a reliance on the “authorial voice” that characterized other fiction of the time.
Impact on Later Generations Dostoevsky is credited with the development of both existentialist literature and the creation of the “antihero”—a protagonist who often lacks laudable qualities. Notes from the Underground was particularly influential with such writers as Albert Camus, André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Hermann Hesse. In Russian literature, the influence of Notes from the Underground can be traced in such writers as Leonid Nikolaevich Andreev, Fedor Kuz'mich Sologub, Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin, and Mikhail Petrovich Artsybashev in the early part of the twentieth century, and in the period following the revolution, in such writers as Iurii Karlovich Olesha.
Dostoevsky also influenced “father of psychology” Sigmund Freud, who published his essay “Dostoevsky and Parricide” in 1928 as an introduction to a German edition of The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky's examination of the many influences on his characters' psychology foreshadows the development of Freud's own psychoanalytical method.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The question of whether criminals are always punished for their misdeeds has been the subject of much myth and fiction since the time of the ancient Greeks. According to Greek myth, the fearsome Furies, symbols of the conscience, would hound and torment wrongdoers into madness. Modern writers have been less sure of the power of the conscience to punish criminals. Here are a few works that examine “crime and punishment”:
Oedipus Rex (c. 429 B.C.E.), a play by Sophocles. This play tells the story of the ill-fated Oedipus, who kills his father and marries his mother.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), a novel by Oscar Wilde. A beautiful, but unscrupulous, young man allows his vices full reign in this novel. His sins catch up with him in an unusual way.
Match Point (2005), a film directed and written by Woody Allen. This film follows this life of a social-climbing tennis coach who turns to murder when his marriage to a socialite is threatened by his mistress's pregnancy.
Dostoevsky's work was generally well received by critics during his lifetime. Poor Folk was published in 1846 to great critical acclaim. The writer Dmitri Grigorovich, who shared an apartment with Dostoevsky, presented the manuscript to the writer and critic Nikolai Alekseevich Nekrasov, who spent all night reading it and the next morning told the critic Vissarion Belinsky that a new Gogol had appeared. Belinsky said that Dostoevsky had produced the first “social novel” in Russia and had made the truth accessible even to the most unthinking reader. Belinksy was not as impressed with Dostoevsky's next work, The Double, but later critics were intrigued by the philosophical and psychological theme of “double-ness” that Dostoevsky skillfully explored in his writing. Dmitrii Chizhevsky, in an article first published in 1928, was among the first critics to expound on the significance of
the double as a philosophical problem in Dostoevsky's works, including such later works as The Possessed (1872), The Adolescent (1875), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880).
Crime and Punishment Upon publication in 1866, Crime and Punishment was widely praised, primarily for the depth of its psychological analysis. In contrast, the radical critic Dmitrii Ivanovich Pisarev emphasized the depth of Dostoevsky's socialeconomic analysis, arguing that Raskolnikov was driven by the “struggle for existence.” Russian author Ivan Turgenev and Anatolii Fedorovich Koni, a leading jurist, both praised the work. Some radical critics charged that Dostoevsky had misrep-resented the younger generation and its ideas. The symbolist poet Viacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov read Crime and Punishment in a mythic-religious framework, comparing this and Dostoevsky's other works to ancient tragedy. According to Ivanov, Raskolnikov's guilt is the guilt of all humanity toward Mother Earth. In Ivanov's view, Raskolnikov acts in the role of the scapegoat, the substitute sacrificial victim. Twentieth-century author André Gide, whose own writing was influenced by Crime and Punishment, argues that Raskolnikov fails in his attempt to be more than ordinary, while another twentieth-century writer, Thomas Mann, called this work the greatest crime novel of all time.
Crime and Punishment had a profound effect on German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who said that Dostoevsky was “the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn.” The Russian philosopher Nikolai Aleksandrovich Berdiaev saw in Raskolnikov's crime the crisis of modern, rational humanism with its glorification of the individual.
One of most productive sources of Dostoevsky criticism in general and Crime and Punishment in particular has been psychoanalysis and other forms of scientific psychology. R. D. Laing and Karen Horney are among the many professional psychologists who use Raskolnikov and other Dostoevskian heroes as examples of psychological phenomena. Alfred Bem, a Russian scholar, wrote a series of sophisticated literary studies published in the 1930s that traced the structure of the id and guilt in Crime and Punishment and in Dostoevsky's early fiction in general. In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, critic Mikhail Bakhtin also emphasizes the importance of Raskolnikov's consciousness, arguing that everything in the novel is “projected against him and dialogically reflected in him.”
The Possessed The Possessed was received coolly by many contemporary readers, as those in favor of the student movements of the time accused Dostoevsky of slandering an entire generation as insane fanatics. The radical critic Nikolai Konstantinovich Mikhailovsky gave sarcastic praise to Dostoevsky's “brilliant psychiatric talent” in the novel; in so doing he implied that Dostoev-sky's own psychological state was somehow peculiar and extreme.
For many twentieth-century critics, The Possessed signals the end of the nineteenth-century realist tradition. As critic Edward Said remarks in Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975), text, time, and understanding fall out of sync in The Possessed. Normal genealogy is suspended; the family is shattered; and the events of the novel seem to overtake the control of their creator. In Dostoevsky and the Novel (1977), Michael Holquist argues that the division of Stavrogin's persona among all the other characters—for example, Shatov and Kirillov—signals the disruption of the coherent individual self upon which the realist novel usually depends. Instead of the story of the formation of a personality and the development of character, The Possessed is a revelation of the disintegration of personality. The Possessed thus provides a transition to new literary forms of the twentieth century: for example, the technique of fantastic realism and the supernatural and demonic motifs that dominate that novel are greatly beholden to The Possessed. J. M. Coetzee's 1994 novel The Master of Petersburg is loosely based on The Possessed and on episodes from Dostoevsky's life.
The Brothers Karamazov During its serial publication The Brothers Karamazov was reviewed extensively in the Russian press. Konstantin Nikolaevich Leontev protested the overly “rosy” Christianity of the elder Zosima, arguing that it distorted the principles of Russian Orthodoxy. In 1894 Vasily Rozanov published a study of Dostoevsky's works as a whole, focusing in particular on The Brothers Karamazov. Athough Rozanov reserved special praise for Ivan's “Rebellion” and the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” he also saw great profundity in Zosima's belief that God had taken “seeds from the other world” and placed them on earth.
The perhaps overly simplistic question as to whether Dostoevsky sided with Ivan or Zosima has concerned critics. Albert Camus's The Rebel (1951) argued that Ivan's rebellion, based on reason alone, leads to insanity. Other critics see in Ivan's suffering a form of imitation of Christ and thus an unwitting refutation of his rejection of Christ. Robert L. Belknap has also shown how Dostoevsky refutes Ivan's claims by a series of ad hominem arguments. Sven Linner and Jostein Bortnes examine the religious dimensions of the novel, and Valentina Evgeneva Vetlovskaia has shown the significance of the “Life of Aleksei the Man of God” for the character of Alesha.
One of the open critical questions about The Brothers Karamazov has to do with the fate of Alesha and the possibility of a second installment of the novel. There is some evidence that Dostoevsky planned to write a second volume in which Alesha would become a revolutionary and commit a political crime. Not all critics accept that Dostoevsky planned to write a second installment.
Modern Critical Reception The study of Dostoevsky, both inside and outside Russia, has been shaped in important ways by his status in that country. In 1972 the massive thirty-volume edition of the complete works of Dostoevsky was undertaken by the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. This edition, with its extensive explanatory notes, bibliographical references, publication histories, draft editions, and variant versions, has been the crucial resource for generations of Dostoevsky scholars all over the world. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, aspects of Dostoevsky's work that were neglected have come to the foreground. These aspects include a closer examination of his politics, both his critique of socialism and his rapprochement with czarist circles, and the study of religious themes and motifs in his works.
In recent years, Dostoevsky scholars have taken advantage of a great variety of critical approaches opened up by feminism, ethnic studies, and the work of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Emmanuel Levinas. At the same time, a new tendency has emerged, which emphasizes Dostoevsky's Christianity above all else. The publication of hard-to-find memoirs and new studies based on archival documents continues. An important source book that exemplifies this type of work is the three-volume chronicle of Dostoevsky's life based on his letters and other documents, edited by N. F. Budanova and G. M. Fridlender (1993–1995). In both Russia and the West, the work of Mikhail Bakhtin has been established as a cornerstone of Dostoevsky criticism.
- What role do the female characters in Dostoevsky's works play? Do you think they fall into easy categories like good and evil? Or are they fully flesh-out characters in their own rights?
- Dostoevsky is often praised by critics for keeping his own “voice” out of his novels and giving his characters strong, distinct voices with which to speak for themselves. Do you agree with this assessment? As you read the works of Dostoevsky, do you notice any “intrusions” by the author? If so, in what way do they appear?
- Czar Peter the Great built St. Petersburg to be a modern, western city. In Dostoevsky work, however, it is portrayed as dehumanizing and cold. Using your library and the Internet, find out more about St. Petersburg and its history. What other writers have used St. Petersburg as a setting? Write a paper tracing the different ways St. Petersburg has been presented in literature.
- Dostoevsky was said to have had a “conversion experience” while in prison that led him to embrace Christianity. Many other famous figures throughout history have made dramatic personal transformations while in prison—people as diverse as Oscar Wilde, Malcolm X, and Martha Stewart. Select one such person and research their life using library resources and the Internet. Then write a paper explaining what it was about the prison experience that caused your subject to change.
Amsenga, B.J., Editor, Miscellanea Slavica: To Honour the Memory of Jan M. Meijer. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1983.
Baring, Maurice, Landmarks in Russian Literature. London: Methuen, 1960.
Beach, Joseph Warren, The Twentieth Century Novel: Studies in Technique. New York: Appleton-Century, 1932.
Belknap, Robert L. The Structure of “The Brothers Karamazov”. The Hague: Mouton, 1967.
Berdyaev, Nicholas, Dostoevsky. New York: Meridian, 1957.
Blackmur, R.P., Eleven Essays in the European Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964.
Bowers, Fredson, Editor, Lectures on Russian Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
Buber, Martin, Israel and the World: Essays in A Time of Crisis. Tel Aviv: Schocken, 1948.
Camus, Albert, The Possessed: A Play in Three Parts. New York: Random House, 1960.
Carr, Edward Hallett, Dostoevsky (1821–1881): A New Biography. London: Allen & Unwin, 1931.
Dolan, Paul J., Of War and War's Alarms: Fiction and Politics in the Modern World. New York: Macmillan, 1976.
Dostoevskaya, A. G., Vospominaniya [Moscow], 1925, translation by Beatrice Stillman published as Reminiscences. New York: Liveright, 1975.
Fanger, Donald, Dostoevsky and Romantic Realism, a Study of Dostoevsky in Relation to Balzac, Dickens and Gogol. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965.
Farrell, James T., The League of Frightened Philistines and Other Papers. New York: Vanguard, 1945.
Frank, Joseph, Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.
Frank, Joseph, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850–1859. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.
Frank, Joseph, Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860–1865. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Gide, André, Dostoevsky. New York: New Directions, 1949.
Goldstein, David I., Dostoyevsky and the Jews. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
Guerard, Albert J., The Triumph of the Novel: Dickens, Dostoevsky, Faulkner. London: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Holquist, Michael, Dostoevsky and the Novel [Princeton], 1977.
Howe, Irving, Politics and the Novel. New York: Horizon Press, 1957.
Huneker, James, Ivory Apes and Peacocks. New York: Scribners, 1938.
Jackson, Robert L., editor, Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Crime and Punishment”. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974.
Jackson, Robert L., The Art of Dostoevsky. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.
Jackson, Robert L., Dostoevsky: New Perspectives. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1984.
Jenson, Peter Alberg, et al., Editors, Text and Context: Essays to Honor Nils Ake Nilsson. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell International, 1987.
Jones, Malcolm V., Dostoevsky: The Novel of Discord. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1976.
Jones, Malcolm V., and Terry, Garth M., Editors, New Essays on Dostoevsky. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Jones, Peter, Philosophy and the Novel. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
Laing, R.D., Self and Others. New York: Pantheon, 1969.
Lavrin, Janko, Dostoevsky: A Study. New York: Macmillan, 1947.
Lednicki, Waclaw, Russia, Poland, and the West: Essays in Literary and Cultural History. New York: Roy Publishers, 1953.
Linner, Sven , Starets Zosima in “The Brothers Karamazov”: A Study in the Mimesis of Virtue. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1975.
Magarshack, David, Dostoevsky. London: Secker & Warburg, 1962.
Maugham, W. Somerset, The Art of Fiction: An Introduction to Ten Novels and Their Authors. New York: Doubleday, 1955.
Miller, Robin, Dostoevsky and “The Idiot”. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Mirsky, D.S., A History of Russian Literature. New York: Knopf, 1949.
Mochul'skii, K. D., Dostoevskii, zhizn'i tvorchestvo, [Paris], 1927, translation by Michael Minihan published as Dostoevsky, His Life and Work. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.
O'Connor, Frank, The Mirror in the Roadway. New York: Knopf, 1956.
Passage, Charles E., Dostoevski the Adapter: A Study in Dostoevski's Use of the Tales of Hoffmann. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954.
Peace, Richard, Dostoyevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971.
Perlina, Nina, Varieties of Poetic Utterance: Quotation in “The Brothers Karamazov”. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, n.d.
Poggioli, Renato, The Kafka Problem. London: Octagon, 1963.
Powys, John Cowper, Dostoievsky. London: The Bodley Head, 1946.
Pritchett, V.S., In My Good Books. Kennikat Press, 1970. Proust, Marcel, Marcel Proust on Art and Literature: 1896–1919. New York: Meridian, 1958.
Rahv, Philip, Literature and the Sixth Sense. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969.
Reeve, F.D., The Russian Novel. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.
Rowe, William Woodin, Dostoevsky: Child and Man in His Works. New York: New York University Press, 1968.
Rozanov, Vasily, Dostoevsky and the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972.
Seduro, Vladimir, Dostoevsky in Russian Literary Criticism, 1846–1956. New York: Columbia University Press, 1957.
Seduro, Vladimir, Dostoevsky's Image in Russia Today. Belmont, Mass.: Nordland, 1975.
Sewall, Richard, The Vision of Tragedy. Yale University Press, 1980.
Slonim, Marc, The Epic of Russian Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950.
Steiner, George, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism. New York: Knopf, 1959.
Thompson, Diane Oenning, “The Brothers Karamazov” and the Poetics of Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Tyler, Parker, Every Artist His Own Scandal: A Study of Real and Fictive Heroes. New York: Horizon Press, 1964.
Warner, Rex, The Cult of Power: Essays by Rex Warner. Lippincott, 1947.
Wasiolek, Edward, Dostoevsky, The Major Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964.
Wellek, Rene, editor, Dostoevsky, A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1962.
Zweig, Stefan, Three Masters: Balzac, Dickens, Dostoeffsky. New York: Viking, 1919.
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) mixed social, Gothic, and sentimental elements with psychological irrationalism and visionary religion. The form of the novel vastly increased in scope and flexibility as a result of his works.
Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821, the son of a staff doctor of a Moscow hospital. His father, a cruel man, was murdered by his serfs in 1839, when Dostoevsky was 18 and attending school in St. Petersburg. Sigmund Freud and other psychoanalysts believed that throughout his life Dostoevsky felt a secret guilt about his father's murder. Dostoevsky was trained to be a military engineer, but he disliked school and loved literature. When he finished school, he abandoned the career he was trained for and devoted himself to writing. His earliest letters show him to be a passionate, enthusiastic, and somewhat unstable young man.
Dostoevsky began his writing career in the tradition of the "social tale" of the early 1840s, but he transformed the fiction about poor people in abject circumstances into a powerful philosophical and psychological instrument. His entry on the literary stage was brilliant. In 1843 he finished his first novel, Poor Folk, a social tale about an abject civil servant. The novel was praised profusely by the reigning critic, Vissarion Belinsky. Dostoevsky's second novel, The Double (1846), was received less warmly; his subsequent works in the 1840s were received coldly and antagonistically by Belinsky and others, and Dostoevsky's literary star sank quickly. The Double has emerged, however, as his most significant early work, and in many respects it was a work far in advance of its time.
Dostoevsky was always sensitive to critical opinion, and the indifferent reception of The Double caused him to back off from the exciting originality of the novel. From 1846 to 1849 his life and work are characterized by some aimlessness and confusion. The short stories and novels he wrote in this period are for the most part experiments in different forms and different subject matters. He continued to write about civil servants in such tales as Mr. Prokharchin (1846) and The Faint Heart (1847). The Landlady (1847) is an experiment with the Gothic form; A Jealous Husband, an Unusual Event (1848) and Nine Letters (1847) are burlesques;White Nights (1848) is a sentimental romance; and the unfinished novel Netochka Nezvanova (1847) is a mixture of Gothic, social, and sentimental elements. Despite the variety and lack of formal and thematic continuity, one may pick out themes and devices that reappear in the mature work of Dostoevsky.
Dostoevsky's life showed some of the same pattern of uncertain experimentation. Although he had already shown the religious and conservative traits that were to become a fixed part of his character in his mature years, he was also attracted at this time to current revolutionary thought. In 1847 he began to associate with a mildly subversive group called the "Petrashevsky Circle." In 1849, however, the members were arrested and the circle was disbanded. After 8 months of imprisonment, Dostoevsky was sentenced to death. This sentence was actually a hoax designed to impress the prisoners with the Czar's mercy, when he commuted the death penalty. At one point, however, Dostoevsky believed he had only moments to live, and he was never to forget the sensation and feelings of that experience. He was sentenced to 4 years of imprisonment and 4 years of forced service in the Siberian army.
Years of Transition (1859-1864)
Dostoevsky returned to St. Petersburg in 1859 with a consumptive wife, Maria Issaeva, a widow whom he had married in Siberia. Their marriage was not happy; Dostoevsky and his wife reinforced each other's unhealthy tendencies. To support himself, Dostoevsky edited the journal Time with his brother Mikhail and wrote a number of fictional works. His first published works after returning from Siberia were the comic stories The Uncle's Dream (1859) and The Village Stepanchikovo (1859). In 1861 he published Memoirs from the House of the Dead, a fictionalized account of his experiences in prison. That year he also published The Insulted and the Injured, a poorly structured novel characterized by improbable events and situations. By and large his work during this period showed no great artistic advance over his early work and gave no hint of the greatness that was to issue forth in 1864 with the publication of Notes from the Underground.
Dostoevsky's life during this period was characterized by poor health, poverty, and complicated emotional situations. He fell in love with the young student Polina Suslova, a girl of complicated and difficult temperament, and carried on a frustrating and torturous affair with her for several years. He went abroad in 1862 and 1863 to get away from his creditors, to repair his health, and to engage in his passion for gambling. His impressions of Europe were unfavorable; he considered European civilization to be dominated by rationalism and rampant with rapacious individualism. His views on Europe are contained in Winter Notes and Summer Impressions (1863).
Thus, at the point when his great talent was to become evident, Dostoevsky was pursued by creditors, his wife was dying, and he was carrying on a love affair with a young girl. His journal had been closed down by the censors, and he was fatally pursuing his self-destructive passion for gambling.
Notes from the Underground (1864) is a short novel, written partly as a philosophical monologue and partly as a narrative. In this work Dostoevsky attempts to justify the existence of individual freedom as a necessary and inevitable attribute of man. He argues against the view that man is a rational creature and that society may be so organized as to assure his happiness. He insists that man desires freedom more than happiness, but he also perceives that unqualified freedom is a destructive force since there is no guarantee that man will use his freedom constructively. Indeed, the evidence of history suggests that man seeks the destruction of others and of himself.
Dostoevsky's first wife died in 1864, and in the following year he married Anna Grigorievna Snitkina. She was efficient, practical, and serene and therefore the very opposite of his first wife and his mistress. There is very little doubt that she was largely responsible for introducing better conditions for his work by taking over many of the practical tasks that he loathed and handled badly.
In 1866 Dostoevsky published Crime and Punishment, which is the most popular of his great novels, perhaps because it appeals to various levels of sophistication. It can be read as a serious and complex work of art, but it can also be enjoyed as an engrossing detective story. The novel is concerned with the murder of an old pawnbroker by a student, Raskolnikov, while he is committing robbery, ostensibly to help his family and his own career. The murder occurs at the very beginning of the novel, and the rest of the book has to do with the pursuit of Raskolnikov by the detective Porfiry and by his own conscience. In the end he gives himself up and decides to accept the punishment for his act.
Raskolnikov's intentions in committing the murder share something of the complexity and impenetrability of Hamlet's motives. One can, however, dismiss some of the aims that Raskolnikov consciously gives. The humanitarian motive of murdering a useless old woman to save the careers of many useful young men is clearly a rationalization, since Raskolnikov never makes use of, or even appears interested in, the money he has stolen. The "superman" theory divides mankind into extraordinary and ordinary people, and the extraordinary people are permitted to cross the boundaries of normal morality. This theory appears to be a more accurate representation of Raskolnikov's thoughts. But some critics consider this too a rationalization of something deeper in his nature. There is some evidence that Raskolnikov suffered from a deep sense of guilt and committed the murder to provoke punishment and thus alleviate his guilt.
The Dostoevskys went abroad in 1867 and remained away from Russia for more than 4 years. Their economic condition was very difficult, and Dostoevsky repeatedly lost what little they had at the gaming tables. The Idiot was written between 1867 and 1869, and Dostoevsky stated that in this work he intended to depict "the wholly beautiful man."
The hero of the novel is Prince Myshkin, a kind of modern Christ. He is a good man who attempts to live in a corrupt society, and it is uncertain whether he succeeds or not, since he leaves the pages of the novel with the world about him worse than when he entered. Nastasya Fillipovna, one of Dostoevsky's great female characters, shares the stage with Prince Myshkin. When she was a young girl, her honor had been violated, and she lives to wreak vengeance on the world for the hurt she had suffered. While Prince Myshkin preaches forgiveness, Nastasya Fillipovna burns with the desire to pay others back. Nastasya Fillipovna is nevertheless attracted to Prince Myshkin, and throughout the novel she vacillates between Myshkin, the prince of light, and Rogozhin, an apostle of passion and destruction. In the end Rogozhin kills Nastasya Fillipovna, and Prince Myshkin is powerless to prevent this crime.
Some readers view The Idiot as Dostoevsky's finest creation, while others see it as the weakest of his great novels. It is certainly a less tidy work than Crime and Punishment, but it is perhaps a more challenging novel.
Dostoevsky began The Possessed (also translated as The Devils) in 1870 and published it in 1871-1872. The novel began as a political pamphlet and was based on a political murder that took place in Moscow on Nov. 21, 1869. A radical named Nechaev had a member of his conspiratorial group murdered because the member would not obey him unquestioningly. Nechaev escaped to Switzerland but was arrested and returned to Russia, where he died in prison. Nechaev's actual influence on revolutionary movements in Russia was small, but his bravado and his friendship with Mikhail Bakunin worked to increase his reputation. Dostoevsky saw Nechaev as the end product of pernicious tendencies in liberalism and radicalism.
In The Possessed Dostoevsky raises a minor contemporary event to dimensions of great political and philosophical importance. The novel is a satire of liberalism and radicalism; it is set in a small provincial town and concerns the contrasting influence of father and son. The father, Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, represents the liberalism of the 1840s, and the son, Peter Verkhovensky, represents the radicalism of the 1860s. Dostoevsky believed that the earlier liberalism was responsible for the later radicalism. Nicholas Stavrogin, a mysterious and compelling figure, stands apart from the political and ideological struggle, but it is clear that Dostoevsky sees in him the ultimate principle from which the disastrous consequences stem. Stavrogin represents the totally free will, attached to nothing and responsible for nothing. In Stavrogin, Dostoevsky re-confronted the problem of free will.
Many readers see The Possessed not only as an accurate portrayal of certain tendencies of the politics of the time but also as a prophetic commentary on the future of politics in Russia and elsewhere.
The Brothers Karamazov
During the 1870s Dostoevsky became increasingly interested in contemporary social and political events and increasingly concerned about liberal and radical trends among the youth. Except for his brief flirtation with liberal movements in the 1840s, Dostoevsky was a staunch conservative. The novel A Raw Youth (1875) grew out of his interest and concern about the youth of Russia, and the theme of the novel may be described as a son in search of his father. The novel is something of a proving ground for The Brothers Karamazov but is not generally considered to be on the same level as the four great novels.
The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880) is the greatest of Dostoevsky's novels and the culmination of his life-work. Sigmund Freud ranked it with Oedipus Rex and Hamlet as one of the greatest artistic achievments of all time. The novel is about four sons and and their guilt in the murder of their father, Fyodor. Each of the sons may be characterized by a dominant trait: Dmitri by passion, Ivan by reason, Alyosha by spirit, and Smerdyakov by everything that is ugly in human nature. Smerdyakov kills his father, but in varying degrees the other three brothers are guilty in thought and intention.
The greatest section of the novel is "The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor," in which Ivan narrates a meeting between Christ and the Grand Inquisitor, a devil surrogate. The Grand Inquisitor presents man as slavish, cowardly, and incapable of freedom; Christ sees him as potentially capable of true freedom. The novel, however, does not confirm the validity of either view.
Dostoevsky sent the epilogue to the The Brothers Karamazov to his publisher on Nov. 8, 1880, and he died soon afterward, on Jan. 28, 1881. At his death he was at the height of his career in Russia, and mourning was widespread. His reputation was beginning to penetrate into Europe, and interest in him has continued to increase.
Translations of Dostoevsky's works are available in many editions; those by Constance Garnett and David Magarshack are recommended.
There are many biographies of Dostoevsky. Two competent ones which differ in approach are Edward Hallett Carr, Dostoevsky (1821-1881): A New Biography (1931), and Henry Troyat, Firebrand: The Life of Dostoevsky (trans. 1946). Useful biographical data may be found in Robert Payne, Dostoevsky: A Human Portrait (1961), which treats Dostoevsky's life and work. An intimate view of Dostoevsky the man is presented in the reminiscences of his daughter, Aimée Dostoyevsky, Fyodor Dostoyevsky: A Study (1921). See also A. Steinberg, Dostoievsky (1966).
Ernest J. Simmons, Dostoevski: The Making of a Novelist (1940), is a detailed and objective account of the circumstances surrounding the production of Dostoevsky's novels, as well as a consideration of their substance. Konstantin Vasilevich Mochulski, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, translated by Michael A. Minihan (1967), is the most detailed analysis of Dostoevsky's work. A critical analysis of the individual works may be found in Edward Wasiolek, Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction (1964). For a philosophical and theological consideration of Dostoevsky's work, Nikolai A. Berdiaev, Dostoevsky, translated by Donald Attwater (1957), is a classic. For a psychological approach, Sigmund Freud's widely anthologized essay "Dostoevsky and Parricide" is recommended. It may be found in William Phillips, ed., Art and Psychoanalysis (1957). For general historical and literary background, Prince D. S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature (2 vols., 1927), is recommended; it is also available in an abridged volume, edited by Francis J. Whitfield (1958). □
DOSTOEVSKY, FYODOR (1821–1881), Russian novelist. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky's childhood was spent in the constrained atmosphere of a Muscovite charity hospital, where his father served as a doctor. It was the murder of his father (1838) that was alleged by Freud to have determined the course of Dostoevsky's epilepsy. This theory is usually discounted, but there is no doubt about the epilepsy itself, nor about its capacity to inspire in its victim something of a "higher awareness." Early symptoms of the condition were experienced in 1849 during his first period of imprisonment. By this time the young Dostoevsky, a graduate of the Academy of Military Engineering in Saint Petersburg, had already established a reputation with some works of fiction, the earliest and most acclaimed of which was Poor Folk (1846).
But it was not for his writings that Dostoevsky had been arrested. His crime was having participated in a utopian-socialist discussion group. At a time of repression in the aftermath of the European revolutions of 1848, Dostoevsky and his fellow "conspirators" found themselves arbitrarily sentenced to death. Only minutes before the execution was the sentence commuted. The years of penal exile in Siberia that followed (four years of hard labor and four of military service in the ranks) could not efface the memory of the cynically contrived mock execution, and Dostoevsky was to return to this near experience of death more than once in his later fiction.
The penal exile itself provided ample material for a semidocumentary study of it, Notes from the House of the Dead (1860–1861), which was to be published on Dostoevsky's return to European Russia. Part of the book was to be serialized in the short-lived journal Vremia, which Dostoevsky founded with his brother (1861). Despite the suppression of this journal, Dostoevsky was to revert to journalism throughout the years to come in order to ensure a modest income. But the greater part of his rarely adequate income was derived from the serial publication of his novels and novellas in the well-established literary periodicals of the day.
It was in the second of Dostoevsky's own periodicals, Epokha, that the first of his major works appeared, Notes from the Underground (1864). This anguished work ushered in the period (and introduced some of the thematics) of the great novels. The majority of these novels were composed in western Europe, to which Dostoevsky withdrew to escape his creditors. He found it necessary to mortgage his writings for some time, much to his disadvantage. Only after completing abroad much of Crime and Punishment (1866), all of The Idiot (1868), and The Possessed (1871–1872) was Dostoevsky in a position to return to his homeland. A Raw Youth (1875) and the unfinished The Brothers Karamazov (1879–1880) were thus exceptional in being composed on Russian soil by this most Europhobic of Russian patriots. Even so, with rare exceptions (such as The Gambler, 1867) all the novels have a Russian setting.
This is not to say that the novels are restricted by their time and place, deeply rooted though they are in each. In the dismal byways of Dostoevsky's Saint Petersburg or his provincial towns, problems and myths with universal implications are encountered. The significance of suffering, the limitations of reason, and the importance of free will are debated as early as Notes from the Underground. Each of the major novels has moral and religious problems at its center. Yet answers to these problems are not necessarily to be expected. Rather (as one of Dostoevsky's characters urges in The Idiot ), "it is the continuous and perpetual process of discovery [which is important], not the discovery itself." Dostoevsky does not set himself up as an arbitrator between the characters engaged in this process. Indeed, in The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov he even abandons his role as narrator to "independent" surrogates.
It is one of these surrogates who notes that "reality strives toward fragmentation." The world of the novels is replete with disorientation and disorder. Yet in the privacy of his notebooks Dostoevsky still insists that there is or ought to be some "moral center" or "central idea." However eroded such a central idea may be, however obscured in the contemporary mind, merely to depict its erosion should not be sufficient for someone like himself who has progressed to his "hosanna" through what he describes as "a great crucible of doubt."
After his second marriage (1867), and especially in the last decade of his life, Dostoevsky gradually reverted to the Orthodox Christianity of his youth. Indeed, even in the darkest days of his exile, he had never abjured his residual loyalty to "the image of Christ," regardless (as he wrote in 1854) of whether it corresponded to the truth or not. Nor had he abandoned a certain faith in some kind of golden age, yet to be recaptured. But none of this was enough to overcome a deep-seated reluctance, an organic inability, to proceed with a didactic novel. The creative process inevitably involved him in the production of works that are multicentered and polyphonic in both their philosophical and psychological concerns.
Nevertheless, he continued to nurture the hope that he might one day "compel people to admit that a pure and ideal Christianity is not an abstraction, but a vivid reality, possibly near at hand; and that Christianity is the sole refuge of the Russian land from all its evils." Toward the end of his life it seemed that The Brothers Karamazov might prove the appropriate vehicle for such a demonstration. The saintly figure of the elder Zosima would be called upon to act as the principal spokesman of faith in the work. Thus, the spokesman was required to perform a task to which his author was ill-suited. Equally important, the faith that Dostoevsky invokes was curiously diluted, even secularized. Not that it fails to reflect a "process of discovery"—but necessarily a part of that process are the incisive arguments presented by Ivan Karamazov and his Grand Inquisitor, critics of the divine dispensation.
The Dostoevsky whom one emperor had seemingly sought to execute was to be offered a state funeral by another. The didacticism that had little opportunity to flourish in the novels had found an outlet in the brash and chauvinistic journalism of the writer's later years—hence at least some of the acclaim which accompanied him to his grave. But it was the reputation of a novelist who had given his readers an insight into his crucible of doubt which was to live on. Had he not taken pride in the fact that he "alone had brought out the tragedy of the underground"? It was a tragedy, he had noted in 1875, "which consists of suffering and immolation; of the awareness of that which is better, and of the inability to attain it."
Generally recognized as an outstanding survey of Dostoevsky, and one written with considerable insight into his development as a religious thinker, is Konstantin Mochul'skii's Dostoevsky: His Life and Work (Princeton, 1967). Another wide-ranging survey is provided by Richard Peace, Dostoyevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels (Cambridge, U.K., 1971). This contains interesting material on the novelist's treatment of religious sectarians. Robert L. Jackson's Dostoevsky's Quest for Form (New Haven, 1966) is concerned with the subject's idealism and his reluctance to confine himself merely to the phenomena of everyday life. Malcolm V. Jones, in his Dostoyevsky: The Novel of Discord (London, 1976), discusses the centrifugal forces in the fiction with erudition and tact. The classic treatment of the novelist's polyphonic technique is Mikhail Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1973). By contrast, L. A. Zander in Dostoevsky (London, 1948) argues that his subject is essentially a proponent of Orthodox Christianity. Less partisan is the useful study of The Religion of Dostoevsky by A. Boyce Gibson (London, 1973). The symposium New Essays on Dostoyevsky, edited by Malcolm V. Jones and Garth M. Terry (Cambridge, U.K., 1983), contains my analysis of the teachings attributed to the elder Zosima, "The Religious Dimension: Vision or Evasion? Zosima's Discourse in The Brothers Karamazov," pp. 139–168.
Sergei Hackel (1987)
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky was well known in his country during his life and has since been praised around the world as a writer. He is best known for writing novels that had a great understanding of psychology (the study of how the human mind works), especially the psychology of people who, losing their reason, would become insane or commit murder.
The young man
Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in Moscow, Russia, on November 11, 1821, the son of a doctor. His family was very religious, and Dostoevsky was deeply religious all his life. He began reading widely when he was a youth. He was first educated by his mother, father, and tutors, but at thirteen years old he was sent to a private school. Two years later his mother died. His father, a cruel man, was murdered in 1839, when Dostoevsky was eighteen and attending school in St. Petersburg, Russia. Dostoevsky was trained to be a military engineer, but he disliked school and loved literature. When he finished school, he turned from the career he was trained for and devoted himself to writing. His earliest letters show him to be a young man of passion and energy, as well as somewhat mentally unstable.
Dostoevsky began his career writing fiction about poor people in harsh situations. In 1843 he finished his first novel, Poor Folk, a social tale about a down-and-out government worker. The novel was praised by a respected critic. Dostoevsky's second novel, The Double (1846), was received less warmly; his later works in the 1840s were received coldly. The Double, however, has come to be known as his best early work, and in many ways it was ahead of its time.
The lack of success of The Double troubled Dostoevsky. From 1846 to 1849 his life and work were characterized by aimlessness and confusion. The short stories and novels he wrote during this period are for the most part experiments in different forms and different subject matters.
Dostoevsky's life showed some of the same pattern of uncertain experimenting. In 1847 he joined a somewhat subversive (antigovernment) group called the Petrashevsky Circle. In 1849 the members were arrested. After eight months in prison, Dostoevsky was "sentenced" to death. In reality, though, this sentence was only a joke. At one point, however, Dostoevsky believed he had only moments to live, and he never forgot the feelings of that experience. He was sentenced to four years in prison and four years of forced service in the army in Siberia, Russia.
Years of change
Dostoevsky returned to St. Petersburg in 1859 with an unhealthy wife, Maria Issaeva, whom he had married in Siberia. Their marriage was not happy. To support himself, Dostoevsky edited the journal Time with his brother Mikhail and wrote a number of fictional works. In 1861 he published Memoirs from the House of the Dead, a work of fiction based on his experiences in prison. By and large his writings during this period showed no great artistic advance over his early work and gave no hint of the greatness that came forth in 1864 with his Notes from the Underground.
Dostoevsky's life during this period was characterized by poor health, poverty, and complicated emotional situations. He fell in love with the young student Polina Suslova and carried on a frustrating affair with her for several years. He traveled outside the country in 1862 and 1863 to get away from the people to whom he owed money, to improve his health, and to gamble.
Notes from the Underground is a short novel. In this work Dostoevsky attempts to justify the existence of individual freedom as a necessary part of humankind. He argues against the view that man is a creature of reason and that society can be organized in a way that guarantees the happiness of humans. He insists that humans desire freedom more than happiness, but he also sees that unchecked freedom is a destructive force, since there is no guarantee that humans will use freedom in a constructive way. Indeed, the evidence of history suggests that humans seek the destruction of others and of themselves.
The great novels
Dostoevsky's first wife died in 1864, and in the following year he married Anna Grigorievna Snitkina. She was practical and even-tempered, and therefore she was the very opposite of his first wife and his lover. There is very little doubt that she was largely responsible for introducing better conditions for his work by taking over many of the practical tasks that he hated and handled badly.
In 1866 Dostoevsky published Crime and Punishment, which is the most popular of his great novels, perhaps because it is appealing on different levels. It can be read as a serious and complex work of art, but it can also be enjoyed as a gripping detective story. The novel is concerned with the murder of an old woman by a student, Raskolnikov, while he is committing robbery in an attempt to help his family and his own career. The murder occurs at the very beginning of the novel, and the rest of the book has to do with the pursuit of Raskolnikov by the detective Porfiry and by his own conscience. In the end he gives himself up and decides to accept the punishment for his act.
The Dostoevskys traveled in 1867 and remained away from Russia for more than four years. Their economic condition was very difficult, and Dostoevsky repeatedly lost what little money they had while gambling. The Idiot was written between 1867 and 1869, and Dostoevsky stated that in this work he intended to portray "the wholly beautiful man." The hero of the novel is a good man who attempts to live in a society gone wrong, and it is uncertain whether he succeeds.
Dostoevsky began writing The Possessed (also translated as The Devils ) in 1870 and published it in 1871–1872. The novel began as a political pamphlet and was based on a political murder that took place in Moscow on November 21, 1869. In The Possessed Dostoevsky raises a minor event to great importance. Many readers see The Possessed not only as an accurate account of the politics of the time, but also as a visionary statement on the future of politics in Russia and elsewhere.
The Brothers Karamazov (1879–1880) is the greatest of Dostoevsky's novels. The psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) ranked it as one of the greatest artistic achievements of all time. The novel is about four sons and their guilt in the murder of their father, Fyodor. Each of the sons may be characterized by a major trait: Dmitri by passion, Ivan by reason, Alyosha by spirit, and Smerdyakov by everything that is ugly in human nature. Smerdyakov kills his father, but to a degree the other three brothers are guilty in thought and desire.
Dostoevsky sent the last part of The Brothers Karamazov to his publisher on November 8, 1880, and he died soon afterward, on January 28, 1881. At the time of his death he was at the height of his career in Russia, and many Russians mourned his death. He had begun to win praise in Europe as well, and interest in him has continued to increase.
For More Information
Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Payne, Robert. Dostoevsky: A Human Portrait. New York: Knopf, 1961.
Scanlon, James P. Dostoevsky the Thinker. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.