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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.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
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 Honore de Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet appeared in print.
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 “hysteroepilepsy,” 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 Semipalatinsk. 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.
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.”
Works in Literary Context
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.
All of Europe was in a state of quasirevolution 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, Andre 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.
Works in Critical Context
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 ”doubleness” 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 misrepresented 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 Andre 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 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 Dostoevsky’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 Petersburgis 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. Although Rozanov reserved special praise for Ivan’s ”Rebellion” and the ”Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” he also saw great profundity in Zosi-ma’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.
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