Fyodor Dostoevski Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Fyodor Dostoevski’s works fall into two periods that coincide with the time before his imprisonment and following it. The seven-year hiatus in his creative output between 1849 and 1857 corresponds to the four years that he spent in prison and the three subsequent years during which he was banished in Siberia. The first period produced primarily shorter novels and short stories, many of which have never been translated into English; the latter period is represented more by the great novels, the epithet denoting both significance and size, as well as by Dnevnik pisatelya, 1876-1877, 1880-1881 (2 volumes, partial translation as Pages from the Journal of an Author, 1916; complete translation as The Diary of a Writer, 1949), which also contains several new short stories.

In Dostoevski’s works, complex structures are created that introduce fundamentally antipodal constructs and that produce, among other effects, a mythologization of the antagonistic elements. Thus, the city, often the St. Petersburg of Dostoevski’s present, contrasts with the countryside. The squalor of poverty permeates St. Petersburg with sounds and smells in Dickensian realistic fashion, as opposed to the quaint, provincial quiet of the country. Usually, problems or actual troublemakers come from the city, or, if one leaves the provinces for the city, one may become “infected” with urban discontent and return to plague the countryside. In another prevalent dichotomy, the “man of the forties” (that is, the optimistic believer in the Enlightenment) often clashes with the “man of the sixties” (that is, the atheistic and/or nihilistic revolutionary). This conflict often is positioned generationally, and it is seldom clear whether the representative of either generation should prevail.

Often throughout Dostoevski’s works, men of a higher social class, although not necessarily a very high class, interact most significantly with women who are socially inferior, usually powerless or “compromised.” The relationship takes on many different attitudes in the various works, but, in almost every case, the woman turns out to be of greater virtue or higher moral and spiritual constitution than the man who, nevertheless, from his privileged position in society, usually fares better than the woman.

Perhaps most important of all the themes in his work is the belief in God versus atheism. If there is no God, many of Dostoevski’s characters realize, then either every human being is a God or every human being is nothing at all. This conflict can, and sometimes does, take place within a single person as well as between two characters. Atheism usually appears in its most extreme state—that is, in the belief that, since there is no God, the human being must be God. While Dostoevski’s proponents of atheism are strong-willed, disciplined, and morbidly dedicated, in Dostoevski’s world they need to accept the existence of God as their only chance for peace or, in the final analysis, for existing in the world at all. While free will is interpreted by these radical proponents as the ability to become gods, the submission to the will of the divine God is the only means toward happiness. Those who fail to redeem themselves through God either perish or are subject to enormous spiritual and psychological torment. Such conflict forms the crux of more than one novel in Dostoevski’s latter period, and it will be the treatment of this element in Dostoevski’s work that will earn for him recognition as the founder of existentialism in literature. Ironically from the point of view of Dostoevski’s beliefs, it is his existential writings rather than his metaphysical ones that constitute his most profound influence on world literature in the twentieth century.

Most of Dostoevski’s short stories are simpler works than the novels, both in terms of the psychology of the characters and in terms of structure.

“White Nights”

One of his best-known short stories, “Belye nochi” (“White Nights”), is subtitled “A Sentimental Story from the Diary of a Dreamer.”...

(The entire section is 1686 words.)