Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

A common theme in Dostoevski’s novels is the prevailing disorder in Russian society of the late nineteenth century. In this novel the chaos is represented by two ideas which seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum: a selfish goal (Arkady’s desire to be a Rothschild) and a selfless goal (Versilov’s paradise without God). The meeting point is the passion both men feel for Katerina; both men forget their ideas and lead disordered lives,causing themselves and their loved ones great pain. Arkady, through this process, realizes the duality of his nature and sees it reflected in the actions of his father.

Both of these ideas, which are not strong enough to sustain Versilov and Arkady, are countered by the idea of Christian love, personified by Makar. The serenity of this faith allows the integration of body and soul, the much sought-after unity between the two aspects of the human personality. For Dostoevski, this unity cannot occur without belief in Christianity.

A secondary theme, although closely aligned with the general tenor of the first, is the role of the family. Family feuds and irregular family situations crop up throughout the novel, and the author uses the phrase “an accidental family” many times to portray the haphazard relationships among the characters. Dostoevski believes that the chaos in the family unit is symbolic of the disorder in society in general; this theme is evident in many of his novels. The implication is clear that the disintegration of society affects the family, and the disintegration of the family can only lead to greater chaos in society.