Fyodor Dostoevsky

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.


Early Works

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.


Crime and Punishment

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 Idiot

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.


The Possessed

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.

Further Reading on Fyodor Dostoevsky

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).