(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevski was born on November 11, 1821, in a small Moscow public hospital, where his father, Dr. Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevski, worked. He was the second son to the doctor and Marya Fyodorovna (née Nechaeva). One year after his mother’s death, in 1837, Fyodor enrolled in the St. Petersburg Academy for Military Engineers. He completed his studies at the academy even after his father had died of a stroke in 1839, thanks to the inheritance of the Dostoevski estate.

Like so many writers’ attempts, Dostoevski’s first foray into the literary world was through translation—in his case, of Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet, appearing in print in 1844. His first original work was a novel in letters, Bednye lyudi (1846; Poor Folk, 1887), which met with immediate success, creating quite a literary sensation even before its publication. The great critic Vissarion Belinsky hailed it with such enthusiasm that the novice writer was propelled into early fame.

Dostoevski followed this initial success with Dvoynik (1846; The Double, 1917). It was met more coolly, was considered an artistic failure, and was generally unpopular. The failure of The Double, as seen in the twentieth century, is quite ironic, since it contains many of the thematic occupations that eventually made Dostoevski famous. His next novel, Netochka Nezvanova (1849; English translation, 1920), was fated...

(The entire section is 505 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

There was little in the childhood of Fyodor Mihaylovich Dostoevski to presage his achievements as a writer of world-famous novels. Born into a middle-class family of few cultural pretensions, he received a mediocre education. His father, a physician at a Moscow hospital for the poor, ruled the family with a strict hand and enforced observance of Russian Orthodox ritual at home. When Dostoevski entered the St. Petersburg Military Engineering School in 1838, he found himself unprepared for academic life; nevertheless, he enjoyed his first exposure to literature and soon immersed himself in it. The elder Dostoevski’s murder at the hands of his serfs (he had in the meantime become a modest landowner) and the first signs of his own epilepsy upset Dostoevski’s academic routine, delaying his graduation until 1843.

Dostoevski worked only briefly as a military engineer before deciding to pursue a literary career. When the efforts of acquaintances resulted in the publication of his first fictional work, Poor Folk, his excitement knew no bounds, and he envisioned a promising writing career. His initial success led easily to publication of several additional pieces, among them the uncompleted Netochka Nezvanova and the psychologically impressive The Double. While these works are not considered primary by Dostoevski scholars, they hint at what was to become the author’s fascination with humankind’s ambiguous inner world.

The perfecting of this artistic vision was interrupted by Dostoevski’s encounter with the realities of czarist autocracy under Nicholas I. Dostoevski was active in the Petrashevsky Circle, one of many dissident groups engaged in underground dissemination of sociopolitical pamphlets. Dostoevski’s arrest and death sentence in 1849, commuted at the last moment to prison and exile, initiated a terrible period for the young author. On Christmas Eve of that year, he left St. Petersburg in chains to spend four years in the company of violent criminals in Omsk, Siberia. The inhuman conditions of his imprisonment severely taxed his mental stability, especially because he was forbidden to write or even read anything, except religious matter. He later recorded these experiences graphically in The House of the Dead (initially translated as Buried Alive: Or, Ten Years of Penal Servitude in Siberia), immediately catching public attention for his psychological insight into pathological and criminal behavior. He spent an additional five years (1854-1859) as a political exile in a Siberian army contingent.

In 1857, after recovering...

(The entire section is 1067 words.)