Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Natasha is not the first fictional woman to come to grief for the sake of a consuming passion. Nevertheless, in The Insulted and the Injured, Dostoevski uses this familiar situation to subvert its more usual implications. The Prince is the first in a long line of Dostoevski’s self-willed men, men who choose to live for their own gratification. Through the Prince’s character, the author pursues a theme that dominates much of his subsequent work: the ascendancy of the self-willed man over those who limit themselves by living within the confines of morality and honor. By the end of the book, although almost everyone else has suffered greatly, the Prince’s egoism ensures that he remains unscathed.

As well as boasting about his own achievements, the Prince mounts a rumbustious attack on idealism. He sneers at Ivan, calling him a “novelist of the naturalistic school,” and deals a satirical blow at those he calls"Schillers,” the dreamers and idealists in the Russian intelligentsia of the mid-nineteenth century. The Prince rants to Ivan about his hatred for “these vulgar and worthless naiveties and idyllic nonsense.” The Prince’s anti-idealism is echoed in a different setting, when Alyosha gives his excited and largely incoherent account of his days with Katerina and her visionary young friends and their plans for saving the world. Clearly, Dostoevski, through the medium of Ivan’s narrative, is poking fun at the high-minded dreamers of this world. Indeed, throughout the novel, he engages in many other literary and philosophical controversies of the period.

The ingenious construction of the plot, with most of the characters pouring out their souls to Ivan, overcomes the limitations of a first-person narrative and also enables the author to sustain suspense by controlling the flow of information.