Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871 Analysis

Joseph Frank


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

The relationship between the author and his culture has always been one of the most fascinating and ambiguous problems in literature. When that author is one of the world’s supreme geniuses whose life was erratic, extreme, and contradictory, and who lived in a historical epoch of rapid change, enormous complexity, and continuing confusion, the difficulties are magnified. Thus, it is not surprising that the biographer is tempted to dwell on the life of his artist—incidents, anecdotes, personalities, behavioral analyses—and ignore his works. Or he may delve into the works, abstracting them from their cultural contexts, as though they had been produced recently and locally. Or—as in the Soviet Union—he may concentrate on the social-political milieu to the point that the author seems little more than a cultural marionette. To avoid these easy traps, to attempt to balance all personal, literary, cultural, and historical factors, is an act of scholarly dedication and critical courage.

Joseph Frank has achieved this balance in Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt. This biography is a controlled, detailed exploration of Dostoevsky’s life, works, and cultural environment that integrates all three into a sensible, coherent, insightful, and sometimes profound study. Frank’s prefatory disclaimer notwithstanding, Dostoevsky the human being emerges as understandable and sympathetic, far more real, in fact, than the erratic genius figure of several more strictly biographical accounts. The complex, shifting intellectual, social, and literary currents in the Russia of the 1840’s are clarified brilliantly and related to the works perceptively. The early efforts themselves are analyzed in considerable (perhaps too much) detail, their individual qualities assessed, and early structural and thematic patterns isolated.

The common approach to studying Dostoevsky is to divide his life into two parts, before and after Siberia, and then view that life as a series of contrasts: before Siberia, a naïve and sentimental romantic in attitude and a fashionable doubter in religion, with an education solely out of books and a literary style that was crude, unfocused, and thoroughly derivative; after Siberia, a hardened realist in attitude and a devoted Christian in belief, having, through personal suffering and hardship, received a real education and a body of experience that fed and formed the great novels. Frank does not actually refute this view, but he so qualifies it as to render these simple distinctions inoperable. To be sure, Dostoevsky’s arrest, near execution, and lengthy confinement in Siberia was the crucial formative event of his life (and will be handled in Frank’s second volume), but the author demonstrates that the origins of Dostoevsky’s entire opus can be traced back to his pre-Siberian experiences. Siberia may have been the crucible that hardened and somewhat reshaped the man, but the essential material was already there just waiting for such a process.

The surprising thing in Frank’s picture of Dostoevsky’s formative years is their relative normalcy. In chronicling the years from his birth in 1821 to his arrest in 1849, Frank stresses the stability of the domestic environment and especially the emphasis on religious orthodoxy and cultural enlightenment. The simplistic view of Dostoevsky as a child caught in a tension between a saintly mother and a tyrannical, lecherous father is seriously challenged. Although he deemphasizes the biographical, Frank dispels a number of longstanding popular myths about Dostoevsky’s growing up, especially the Freudian notion that his epilepsy was the product of a guilt reaction to his father’s death.

To be sure, Frank shows us that Dr. Dostoevsky was not an easy man to get along with—stern, occasionally erratic, somewhat narrow, socially insecure—but he was certainly no “Old Karamazov.” He frequently demonstrated a deep love for his wife as well as an affectionate concern for his children. His attempt to push his two oldest sons, Mikhail and Feodor, into a military career was not tyranny, but, from a mid-nineteenth century middle-class viewpoint, only sensible parental concern. And, although Dr. Dostoevsky declined morally, emotionally, and financially after his wife’s death, young Dostoevsky was away attending school at the time and was, therefore, largely unaware of his father’s deterioration. Frank further points out that personal reasons—poor scholastic record, financial extravagance, social convictions, guilt over participation in a system that so brutalized the family servants that they were driven to murder—explain Dostoevsky’s subsequent attitudes and behavior far more logically than do the Oedipal speculations. As for the epilepsy, Frank does not rule out a psychological basis (Freud’s contention), but he amasses evidence that it was an inherent family trait and that, in any event, it commenced in Siberia, not during childhood nor upon learning of his father’s “murder” (Frank even disputes that long-standing assumption).

Frank’s handling of the “peasant question” provides an excellent example...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

As professor emeritus of comparative literature at both Princeton and Stanford universities, Joseph Frank is engaged in one of the most ambitious and illuminating literary projects of the late twentieth century: a five-volume study of Feodor Dostoevsky’s tumultuous life and career, which shaped and summoned to compelling imaginary life large tracts of psychological, political, and aesthetic modernity. Frank’s previous volumes were subtitled The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 (1976), The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 (1983), and The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865 (1986). Should he be able to complete the quintet, his achievement will be rivaled, in the annals of literary biography, only by Leon Edel’s equally comprehensive study of Henry James. The two biographers’ emphases, however, differ considerably: Edel focuses on the aesthetics of James’s fiction and the psychology of its creator, while Frank’s primary interest is in intellectual and social history.

The Miraculous Years is aptly titled. Within a span of six years Dostoevsky wrote three of the world’s greatest novels: Prestuplenie i nakazanie (1866; Crime and Punishment), Idiot (1868-1869; The Idiot) and Besy (1871; The Devils, or The Possessed). He also composed two fine novellas: Igrok (1866; The Gambler) and Vechnyy (1870; The Eternal Husband). He accomplished all of this despite an existence filled with debt to the point of destitution, illness, merciless financial pressures from publishers and relatives, the death of a dearly beloved first child, his pathological addiction to gambling, and a nomadic life, in exile from his cherished Russia, in Germany and Switzerland, whose people he found odious. No other writer, not even Charles Dickens or Honoré de Balzac, could have created so prodigiously against such crushing odds. Even the manically energetic Dostoevsky could never have struck off his masterpieces and survived the weight of a hostile world and his self-destructive temperament without his great good fortune in having found and married his second wife, Anna.

His first wife, Marya, had embittered their marriage with her hysterical rages; she had died of tuberculosis in 1864, committing her son by her previous marriage, Pasha Isaev, to Dostoevsky’s care. His elder brother Michael had also died the same year, leaving Dostoevsky both desperately lonely and acutely burdened with debts, since he assumed his brother’s heavy financial obligations as publisher of a failed periodical. He also agreed to support Michael’s widow and their four children, conscientiously assigning them a portion of whatever income his writings earned him. Then there was his younger brother Nikolay, a trained architect but a confirmed alcoholic who was often jobless. The lazy, wayward Pasha, though twenty-one when his stepfather remarried, was quite content to have him continue to provide for him. Sometimes Dostoevsky would go to the extreme of pawning his winter greatcoat to meet the financial demands of this horde of reptilian relatives.

Anna Grigoryevna had been reared in a strict but harmonious middle-class family. Since her parents had married at the respective ages of his forty-two to her nineteen, they raised no objection to the forty-four-year-old writer’s wedding their twenty-year-old daughter. Dostoevsky and Anna met when he found himself in desperate need of an expert stenographer. The conniving publisher Stellovsky had given him an advance in exchange for an onerous contract: Dostoevsky agreed to furnish a new novel by November 1, 1866; in case of failure, Stellovsky would have the right to publish all of Dostoevsky’s future writings without compensation to him for the next nine years. Dostoevsky had distributed the advance among his most pressing creditors as well as his ever-grasping relatives; now he had to meet Stellovsky’s deadline. He interviewed Anna, star graduate of a stenography school. He found himself able to dictate to her, with ease and speed, the book that became The Gambler. He beat Stellovsky’s deadline by two hours, and he and Anna fell deeply in love.

Anna was not only devoted and warmhearted but also practical, resolute, intelligent, sensitive, charming and, most important, forgiving. She struggled to wrest her husband free from his exploitive relatives, whose intrigues threatened the conditions of their life together. To escape them, as well as some creditors, the Dostoevskys...

(The entire section is 1857 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

With this fifth volume, appearing twenty-six years after the publication of the first, Joseph Frank brings to a conclusion his distinguished biography of Fyodor Dostoevski (1821-1881). The complete work comprises 2,423 pages; this volume, covering the last decade of the author’s life is, at 784 pages, by far the longest of the five. Readers familiar with the earlier volumes will find that Frank’s procedure remains basically the same. After an introduction summarizing his subject’s life to this point, he offers a comprehensive narrative of Dostoevski’s activities during the decade, pays much attention to the sociopolitical background of the time, and provides both accounts of his work in progress and commentaries on the...

(The entire section is 1958 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Feodor Dostoevsky’s tumultuous, complex life and works have been subjected to a towering mountain of description and analysis by scholars from a variety of disciplines: straightforward biography (Leonid Grossman, Konstantin Mochulsky, David Magarshack, to cite only a few); literary criticism (R. P. Blackmur, Philip Rahv, Edward Wasiolek); intellectual history (Edward Carr, Ronald Hingley, Isaiah Berlin); psychology (Sigmund Freud, Karen Horney); and philosophy of religion (Nicholas Berdyaev, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Lev Shestov). Joseph Frank, a sixty-five-year-old professor of comparative literature at Princeton University, seeks to harmonize several of these areas by weaving biography, literary evaluation, and social-cultural context...

(The entire section is 3192 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Joseph Frank, professor emeritus of comparative literature at Princeton University and now a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Stanford University, is engaged in one of the most ambitious and illuminating literary projects of the late twentieth century: a five-volume study of the tumultuous life and career of Feodor Dostoevsky, who identified and summoned to compelling imaginative life large lands of psychological, political, and aesthetic modernity.

Frank’s first volume, subtitled The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 (1976), highlighted the rapturous reception of Dostoevsky’s initial novel, Bednye lyudi (1846; Poor Folk, 1887), but also described the relative failure of his second...

(The entire section is 2614 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

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