Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky

writer, novelist
(1821 – 1881)


Fyodor Dostoevsky

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 impressionon the budding writer. In 1828 Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky was granted a nobleman’s rank, and shortly the reafter the family purchased an estate at Darovoe.

Crime and PunishmentIn 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 inachieving 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 Euge´nie 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

Poor FolkIn 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 thatthe 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 notlimited 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

doestoevksyDostoevsky 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 impressionon 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 stockadein 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.

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.

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