Article abstract: One of the world’s greatest novelists, Dostoevski summoned to imaginative life areas of psychological, political, and aesthetic experience which have significantly shaped the modern sensibility.
Fyodor Dostoevski is one of only two great nineteenth century Russian writers—Anton Chekhov is the other—who failed, unlike Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and others, to be born into the landed gentry. Whereas aristocrats such as Turgenev and Tolstoy depicted settled traditions of culture and fixed moral-social norms, Dostoevski spent his early years in an atmosphere which prepared him to treat the moral consequences of flux and change, and dramatize the breakup of the traditional forms of Russian society. His father, Mikhail Andreevich, derived from the lowly class of the nonmonastic clergy, succeeded in rising to the status of civil servant by becoming a military doctor and then became a surgeon attached to a hospital for the poor on the outskirts of Moscow. His mother, Marya Feodorovna, née Nechaev, was a merchant’s daughter, meek, kind, gentle, pious—obviously the inspiration for most of Dostoevski’s fictive heroines. The elder Dostoevski was not the repulsively dissolute prototype of Feodor Karamazov that many early biographies describe. He was, however, while devoted to his family, extremely strict, mistrustful, irritable, and easily depressed. The son was to acknowledge in later life his inheritance, from his father, of oversensitive nerves and uncontrollable explosions of temper. In addition, Dostoevski suffered from epilepsy, a condition which also ran in his family.
Fyodor was the second child and second son in the family. In 1838, the elder Dostoevski sent his sons to St. Petersburg’s Academy of Engineers, determined to push them into secure careers despite their preference for literary achievement. In February, 1839, the father suffered a partial stroke when Fyodor failed to be promoted during his freshman year; in early June, 1839, Dostoevski’s father died. All biographers assumed until modern times that he had been murdered on his small country estate by peasants outraged by his severity toward them. Joseph Frank, however, in Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 (1976), the first volume of his monumental biography of Dostoevski, shows that important new evidence points to the probability of the elder Dostoevski’s dying of an apoplectic stroke rather than at the hands of killers. Nevertheless, Dostoevski all of his life believed that his father had been murdered and therefore assumed a heavy hurden of parricidal guilt, for the peasants who—so he imagined—had killed his father were merely enacting an impulse which he had surely felt.
In August, 1843, Dostoevski was graduated from the academy and placed on duty in the drafting department of the St. Petersburg Engineering Command. He neglected his work, preferring to read widely among French and German Romantic authors. By far the deepest influence, however, was that of Gogol. In 1844, Dostoevski resigned from the army, published a translation of Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet (1833; English translation, 1859), and began to work on his first novel, which was published in January, 1846, as Bednye lyudi (Poor Folk, 1887).
This is a poignant story of frustrated love, told in the form of letters passed between a poor government clerk and an equally poor girl who lives near him. Dostoevski’s insight into the tortures of humiliated sensibility constitutes his major departure from what is otherwise a Gogol-like protest against the upper class’s condescension to the lower. The most influential literary critic of the 1840’s, Vissarion Belinsky, hailed the book as Russia’s first important social novel.
Belinsky was less enthusiastic about Dostoevski’s second novel, Dvoynik (The Double, 1917), which also appeared in 1846. Gogol’s fiction again served as the model, particularly “Nos” (“The Nose”) and “Zapiski sumasshedshego” (“Diary of a Madman”). Dostoevski’s protagonist, Golyadkin, a middle-ranking bureaucrat, is driven by inner demons. His unquenchable thirst for self-worth and dignity causes him to distort reality and create for himself a world that will mirror his self-conflicts. Golyadkin’s split personality disintegrates into two independent entities: A double appears who confronts him with his worst faults, both reflecting the suppressed wishes of his subconscious and objectifying his accompanying guilt feelings. While Dostoevski erred in failing to establish a moral perspective from which the reader could evaluate Golyadkin either straightforwardly or ironically, he did succeed in hauntingly portraying, for the first time, the kind of obsessive, divided self that was to dominate his later, greater fiction.
Dostoevski’s darkest decade began the night of April 22-23, 1849, when he was taken into police custody in St. Petersburg as a member of a circle headed by Mikhail Butashevich-Petrashevsky. A czarist court of inquiry concluded that fifteen of the accused, including Dostoevski, had been guilty of subversion and conspiracy. On December 22, 1849, the prisoners were taken to a public square and lined up before a firing squad. By prearrangement, literally in the last seconds before their expected execution, an aide-de-camp to the czar commuted their punishment to four years of hard prison labor and four additional years of military service as privates—both in Siberia. From this moment onward, the secular, progressive, idealistic influences from such...
(The entire section is 2333 words.)