Dostoevsky

(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...

(The entire section is 2100 words.)