Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4212
In a sense, all of Dostoevski’s works are psychological accounts of obsessive behavior. There is no epic sweep to the novels, even though they are very long, and no detailed “slice of life” observation on the part of the narrators. The manner in which his fiction differs from other work of his time is that Dostoevski uncovers for the reader the detailed psychological complexity of an act (such as murder) while avoiding complexity of motif and cleverness of rhetorical patterns. His work achieves a clinical economy of both subject and treatment. This economy, coupled with the reader’s natural fascination with the bizarre obsessions that focus the stories, represents the creation of a new kind of serious fiction that is related to but rises above the psycho-thriller.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Dostoevski’s novels and stories are easy reading. His real goal is to reveal the core of human nature. To do so, he typically subjects his characters to frightening situations, then gradually removes, one by one, the psychological props that they have used to keep themselves in balance, until, finally, they are left quite alone in their dilemmas. In this way, the reader is led into the depths of the human mind’s darkest chasms. The reader’s absorption in the question of what a human being will choose to do when left alone in the night of previously hidden obsessions is what creates the electric suspense of Dostoevski’s stories. The chief manner by which he brings about this revelation is through the subtle manipulation of imagery.
First, almost all Dostoevski’s works are set in the city, that soot-stained, chaotic collection of human souls crowded into a kind of heap. There is a certain protection in a city, but also an inevitable rubbing away of individual identity by too-close contact. Cities confine rather than liberate: Symbolically, they hide the self in a welter of interpersonal relations and complexities. Second, the novels and stories tend to focus on images of lower animal life (spiders, snakes, flies, and lice, for example), providing for the reader the association of Dostoevski’s obsessed characters with disease-carrying and filth-ridden loathsomeness. Finally, the use of dreams for symbolic purposes is omnipresent. There is usually a buildup of tension to the beginning of a dream, followed by a sequence that reveals a segment of a character’s subconscious. Dostoevski accomplishes this very subtly, intermixing dreams as wish fulfillments, regressions, self-assertions, and foreshadowings.
The power of Dostoevski’s art has been called cruel and even sadistic, seeming to revel in the morbid and abnormal. Modern psychology, however, has provided a clinical understanding of mental and emotional abnormalities, so that it is now clear how the novels and stories anticipate and artistically present many of the discoveries made by social scientists. Dostoevski’s art represents the first realistic view into areas of the psyche virtually unexplored before his time. Mental illnesses now named by modern psychiatry are given life by his characters: manic depression, senile dementia, infantilism, and megalomania find form in Raskolnikov, Stavrogin, Natasha Filipovna, and Kiriilov.
In fact, Dostoevski’s insistent use of dreams for symbolic purposes anticipates the most influential early psychological treatise in history, Sigmund Freud’s Die Traumdeutung (1900; The Interpretation of Dreams, 1913). The dream that Svidrigailov (Crime and Punishment) has just prior to his suicide, in which he violates a child, is Freudian to the core. Stavrogin’s (The Possessed) rape of a twelve-year-old girl is mirrored in his dream of the Lorraine painting, which comes to life and haunts him to the verge of insanity. Arkady (A Raw Youth) is aware that his dreams are the key to his identity, particularly the one in which a gruesome spider spins its web inside his bowels. Hippolyte (The Idiot) has a dream that perfectly reveals his split personality: A snake slithers off the wall of his bedroom and chases him around the house. It noiselessly follows him until, just as it touches his head, his dog (already dead for more than five years) runs up and bites the reptile in two. Hippolyte awakes as the leering dog stands in front of him with the two parts of the serpent still writhing in his mouth. Alyosha (The Brothers Karamazov) is spiritually transformed by the dream of his dead mentor’s corpse being alive once again and present at the biblical marriage at Cana. Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) has a dream in which, as he is walking past a tavern with his father, he observes peasants beating a horse to death, a scene that he, upon waking, realizes represents his murder plan. The hero of “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” eventually understands that dreams are always symbolic, always unreasonable, deeply embedded wish fulfillments. The use of dream imagery and dream analysis in Dostoevski’s works has never been surpassed in Western literature and has been the most influential, along with Freud’s writings, of any treatments of the idea.
In addition to Dostoevski’s brilliance as a forerunner of psychoanalysis, his place as cocreator of the modern novel is secure. He produced his works while Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, and Charles Dickens were creating theirs. Each of these writers attempted, in his own way, to describe realistically how human beings react to everyday life. Naturalistic views of heredity, environment, and human motivation are basic to the creation of the social types represented in the great nineteenth century novels, but Dostoevski treats these topics in a unique way. He is interested in throwing light on the primitive and raw elements of human nature, out of which social types may be understood. By showing characters in the grip of actual or potential crime and the consequences of these crimes, Dostoevski reveals that human ills and universal evil are not at all outside individuals: Rather, they rest squarely inside each individual.
Notes from the Underground
First published: Zapiski iz podpolya, 1864 (English translation, 1913; best known as Notes from the Underground)
Type of work: Novella
A sick and spiteful man philosophizes about his irrationality, defending himself in advance against criticism of his negativism.
One of Dostoevski’s most interesting and original works, Notes from the Underground represents the real beginning of his literary greatness, even though the earlier novel Poor Folk had already made him famous. Translated into many languages many times, this work is more widely read than perhaps any other late nineteenth century short novel or story. The “underground man” has become a literary archetype, and numerous modern movements have claimed Dostoevski’s creation as their spiritual progenitor. The story consists of two parts. In the first, the underground man gives a long monologue that encapsulates his philosophy, while in the second part, adventures from his life are recounted. Together, these halves form a whole psychological portrait, making a powerful statement against the possibility of rational social progress.
By noticing that the underground man tyrannizes everyone around him, one sees how easy it is for superficial and sentimental people to be corrupted by a strong personality. Thus, the story expresses a pessimistic vision of humankind as weak, too self-centered ever to experience joy, and prone to the agony of solipsism. The essence of the underground man’s meaning lies in his assertion that, as far as he is concerned, the world can go to hell, just as long as he gets his tea. Moreover, Notes from the Underground is a political polemic aimed at reforming Russian society, with its endless wavering between Western European ideas and the “Russian soul.” The recounted adventures in the second half of the story are symbolic representations of episodes from Russia’s dislocated past and present. These recollections reveal that it is not really the underground man who has a problem with true identity: It is Russia itself. By extension, Notes from the Underground is also a renunciation of Dostoevski’s own past. The author, through the narrator, derides his previously held optimism and joyful feelings, and he replaces them with pessimism, hopelessness, and despair. Something ugly had arisen in Dostoevski’s spirit, and he felt compelled to give it expression, no matter how venomous it might be.
Above all, there seems little doubt that it is a full-blown attack on the particular positivist philosophy of Dostoevski’s day, a philosophy holding that human beings are rational and capable of creating a better society for everyone through material progress. The underground man’s spiritual isolation is the result of positivism’s failure to make any material progress at all, and his self-disgust is an agonized cry of protest against it.
Crime and Punishment
First published: Prestupleniye i nakazaniye, 1866 (English translation, 1886)
Type of work: Novel
An intensely emotional intellectual, driven by poverty, comes to believe that he lives above common morality and commits a murder, only to find that his punishment is worse than he imagined it could be.
In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevski treats the problem of crime and the criminal mentality. He is not interested in the social aspects of criminal behavior, and there is little said in the novel about the legalities of crime. Dostoevski has an interior view of criminality, a conviction that crime and its inevitable punishment are deeply seated aspects of the human spirit.
Raskolnikov (the novel’s hero) is presented from the inside. The reader knows what he did before knowing why he did it, and the story is told as a gradual revelation of the hero’s motives. That accounts for the uncanny suspense of the first several chapters: The reader continually searches for the reason that Raskolnikov has murdered the pawnbroker. Intertwined with the reader’s suspense is the slowly dawning realization that Raskolnikov himself does not know his motive. This “double suspense” creates a dense texture that gives the novel its complexity, a complexity laid over the relative simplicity of the plot.
As the novel progresses, Raskolnikov’s possible motives become ever more bizarre. The consistent notion behind his behavior is revealed in his confession to the innocent prostitute, Sonia, after the crime, when he blurts out that he did it because he only wanted to see if he could go beyond a normal person’s revulsion against such an act. This admission seems to suggest that Raskolnikov is an egotist, a self-styled superman who wants to see if he can get away with transgressing the law. The reader comes to find, however, that Raskolnikov’s impulses go more deeply than that: Raskolnikov wants to see if he can overstep the limits of evil itself, if he can exert ultimate power over another person. That is what the murder means to him.
Dostoevski’s brilliant unfolding of Raskolnikov’s deepest motive really begins after the confession to Sonia. Before this point in the novel, the reader is puzzled by a welter of seemingly conflicting evidence about the hero’s personality. Raskolnikov says he does not believe in God and that there is no arbiter of absolute good and evil. Yet he is numb with self-doubt. In spite of his logical decision to commit murder, he is troubled and hesitant. His horrible dream of the peasants beating a horse to death causes him to awake trembling at the very thought that he himself might be so cruel. As he later walks along the banks of the Neva, his obsession with committing an evil act alternates with a loathing for the very idea. Then, after the deed has been done, something curious occurs that turns out to be the key to understanding his true motive and the rest of the novel. It becomes clear that Raskolnikov’s response to having committed murder is merely puzzlement. In other words, he shows neither remorse nor joy. He realizes that he feels the same way that he has always felt.
Finally, the reader understands that the loathsome criminality of Raskolnikov’s motive lies in its amorality. He had decided to murder the old woman pawnbroker on strictly logical grounds, but the unease that he continues to feel is not a guilty conscience stemming from a too-strict logicality. Had he murdered for money or out of anger and then been caught, his punishment would have been easier than that which comes to gnaw at him. Having made a cold-blooded sociopathic decision to assert himself at the expense of another’s very identity, he finds his feelings locked into the conventional morality that his intellect so despises. He is thus caught in an emotional vacuum, the most inescapable kind of punishment. Raskolnikov has murdered an old woman, but the inability to have an authentically strong feeling about it has murdered him spiritually. In a dream, he tries to kill her repeatedly, slicing at her skull with an ax, but as he looks closely into her face he can see her laughing horribly. Raskolnikov has really killed himself with the ax of cold-blooded self-assertion. He has no clearly definable motive because he is a sociopathic personality.
In the end of the story, Dostoevski makes clear how problematic such a personality is for society. Once again, the author’s meaning is revealed in a dream sequence. Raskolnikov is ill in Siberia and dreams that he and the rest of the world have been devastated by an infestation of highly intelligent germs. The infestation causes insanity. The infected believe themselves to be logical, scientific, progressive, and morally sound; yet they get sick and go mad from the infection. Anarchy results, and human society disintegrates. Dostoevski’s point is that sociopathic personalities are like these microbes, able to kill everything that they touch.
The sickness of cold-blooded amorality is shown against a background of conventional, commonsensical standards that define the boundaries of good and evil. The relationship between them is seen in the novel’s other characters. Raskolnikov’s sister, Dunya, is about to be married to Luzhin, a manipulative businessman, and the morally grotesque Svidrigailov hovers around them, while the prostitute, Sonia, and the policeman, Porfiry, attempt to maneuver the hero into a confession. Each relationship is flawed by the characters’ tendency toward self-serving logicality, none more self-indulgent than that between Svidrigailov and Dunya, caused for the most part by Svidrigailov’s profligacy. Years of cold philosophizing have left Svidrigailov with no heartfelt values, not even the common sense to distinguish between the most fundamental kinds of good and evil. In order to escape his emotional wretchedness, he fills his days with a sinister kind of debauchery. When his love for Dunya is rejected, he is able to shoot himself with a cool detachment. Sonia, although kindly and sensitive, is nevertheless a prostitute; like the others, she has murdered herself by becoming a tool of the dissoluteness of other people. She, like the others, has defined herself by coolly deciding on a course of action that indulges others in their weaknesses. It is the ultimate punishment that results from sociopathic attitudes and behaviors: Like the crime, the punishment is cold, wretched, impersonal, and ultimately without any satisfaction.
First published: Besy, 1871-1872 (English translation, 1913)
Type of work: Novel
In the troubled world of mid-nineteenth century Russia, a group of characters find that their interest in nihilism leads to disaster.
The Possessed is the most topical of Dostoevski’s novels and stories. During the 1860’s, the radical fringe of the Russian intelligentsia attempted to implant the ideology known as “nihilism” into the general revolutionary fervor caused by the recent abolition of serfdom. Nihilism (from the Latin nihil, meaning “nothing”) was concerned more with destroying societal forms and traditions than with establishing something positive. The destructive anger of this group had been the topic of several novels already published, the most important of which was Ivan Turgenev’s Ottsy i deti (1862; Fathers and Sons, 1867). The Possessed, therefore, is both an attack on nihilism, with sharp caricatures of contemporary revolutionaries, and an attempt to create the great antinihilist novel. Dostoevski’s most important innovation to the antinihilist novel is the structural device of having two chief characters. These two, Pyotr Verkhovensky and Nikolai Stavrogin, embody the two sides of Dostoevski’s political anger, his hatred of the Russian revolutionary left, and his violent distrust of the Russian aristocracy.
In addition to his key role in this novel, Stavrogin is a foreshadowing of characters to appear in Dostoevski’s last novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In The Possessed, this character is obviously another version of Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment), but whereas Raskolnikov is a weak man without values and direction, Stavrogin has a strong character but is still without values and goals. Through him, Dostoevski pictures the consequences of atheism, especially those destructive consequences particularly suffered by the strong and intelligent. Such persons begin in a vague moral drift, progress to a reliance on individual goals, develop from this a self-centeredness, and eventually come to a cosmic self-indulgence that forever separates the individual from moorings of universal truth, the only kind of truth that would bring meaning and significance to life. In his confession, Stavrogin reveals the obsession with which all amoral individuals are possessed, the need to punish themselves. He had considered shooting himself but decides instead to marry a completely unsuitable woman as a way of making his suffering last longer. Dostoevski’s point is that masochism is the inevitable result of atheism, because atheism contains no transcendent value. That, then, means indifference, tedium, and ultimate self-annihilation.
Beyond the embodiment of individual, spiritual masochism, Stavrogin represents the social masochism of nihilism. He joins with the revolutionaries, those possessed with fanatical ideas, a possession compared by Dostoevski to the devils that drive the swine over the cliff in the New Testament. Stavrogin and the revolutionaries disrupt a provincial town with a series of spectacular scandals, but, in the end, Stavrogin finds that he is beyond caring about even the most wildly destructive of the radicals’ plans. He has no spiritual center and can in the blink of an eye annihilate in his mind his interest in nihilism. That, then, is the basic flaw in the revolutionaries’ doctrine: Its indifference to positive values is the seed of its own destruction. Nihilism cannot believe in anything, especially itself. It can only annihilate everything, including itself.
Pyotr Verkhovensky might be seen as the sadistic complement to Stavrogin’s masochism. The son of a faded provincial liberal, Verkhovensky arrives in his family’s town with grandiose plans for a revolution. He has a kind of genial charisma, and the radical group (formerly led by his father) quickly follows his lead. Their mean-spiritedness results in ugly incidents, such as the desecration of an icon and the setting of fires. When a member of the group decides to leave as a result of a change of mind, Verkhovensky maneuvers the others into murdering him, after which he flees, leaving the rest to suffer the consequences.
Verkhovensky is modeled on the self-righteous dreamers who had infected Russian politics in Dostoevski’s youth and who had been indicted thoroughly in Fathers and Sons. The significance of this portrait is that Verkhovensky is more than an example of Dostoevski’s ability to create political satire. Verkhovensky is the culmination of Dostoevski’s treatment of the interrelations of politics and religion, an embodiment of the idea that no social or political progress can be made without individual moral and spiritual regeneration. In using the disintegration of Verkhovensky’s active participation in his home town to show how the political ideals of the Russian left are bankrupt, Dostoevski indicates that the real problem lies in the spiritual emptiness of the revolutionaries themselves.
Just as there are two main characters in the novel, so there are two stories. One is about the few days in August during which nasty events in a provincial town take place. The other is the past action of all the characters who people the present moment in that provincial town. There is a constant interplay of these stories, and events from one expand the meaning of the other. It is a very unique, complex, and artistically satisfying structural device and, along with the two-main-character strategy, makes The Possessed one of Dostoevski’s greatest creations.
The Brothers Karamazov
First published: Bratya Karamazovy, 1879-1880 (English translation, 1912)
Type of work: Novel
The sons of an irresponsible provincial businessman return home and become involved in a complex series of events leading to tragedy and the family’s destruction.
Like Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov revolves around a murder. Fyodor Karamazov, a corrupt provincial landowner and businessman, has fathered four sons: Dmitri, an army officer, by his first wife; Ivan, a teacher and scholar, by his second wife; Alyosha, a monk in training, also by his second wife; and Smerdyakov, an epileptic servant in his household and his illegitimate child by a retarded local girl. Fyodor is murdered by Smerdyakov, but Dmitri’s freewheeling anger and violence make him the suspect. After his arrest, a spectacular trial is held. The prosecution builds a solid case, and Dmitri is found guilty and sent to Siberia. Ivan learns that Smerdyakov is the real murderer, but, since nothing can be proved, Dmitri must suffer the consequences of the deed to the end. Ivan has a nervous breakdown, Smerdyakov commits suicide, and Alyosha goes to Siberia to offer what comfort he can to his brother.
The four brothers are symbolic of the basic causes of human spiritual isolation. Dmitri is a deeply sensual person, constantly involved in physical pleasures such as drink, sexual seduction, and material comfort; yet he is aware that his physical excesses are a grave weakness. Ivan is a self-aware intellectual whose arrogance isolates him from meaningful contact with common people. Alyosha has a narrow catechistic faith that imprisons him within the walls of religious naïveté. Smerdyakov represents the distorted drives of the classic passive manipulator. Gross sensuality, proud intellectualism, narrow religiosity, and scapegoating irresponsibility infect the entire series of relationships, not only between the brothers but also between them and the other characters, as well. The weaknesses of the brothers are projected as the fourfold nature of fallen humankind, the representation of spiritual failure and the legacy of Original Sin.
It is in the episode called “The Grand Inquisitor” that Dostoevski’s philosophy of sin and redemption is distilled. Ivan tells the story to Alyosha in order to explain why he is so troubled by his inability to grasp the essence of religion intellectually. Set in sixteenth century Spain, the narrative portrays Christ’s return to earth at a time when faith had been nearly eradicated by the Catholic Inquisition. Christ comforts the enemies of the Church, who are being burned at the stake, gives sight to the blind, weeps with those who mourn, and raises the dead. All who see Him know who He is. The Grand Inquisitor also recognizes Him and has Him arrested for performing acts contrary to the procedures of the Church. One evening, the old Inquisitor visits Christ in His vile prison in order to explain to Him why He must be burned at the stake. Christ must die, the old man insists, because His return would ruin the Church’s centuries-old attempt to save humankind. Christ committed a grave error in rejecting Satan’s three temptations in the wilderness, because those three temptations strike at the core of human weakness: Their eradication through Christ’s power would mean human freedom, something that all of history proves is the root of disaster. Had Christ’s example empowered human beings to happiness through freedom, the Church’s work would be in vain. In any case, there is no evidence that humanity can handle freedom, so the Church, out of love for all people, establishes rules and indices to enslave them. In this way, the problems created by impossible freedom can be avoided. During this explanation, Christ slowly rises to His feet and finally kisses the old man gently. Deeply moved but clinging to his doctrine, the Grand Inquisitor warns Christ never to return and then releases Him.
This episode ties together the entire novel and shows The Brothers Karamazov to be a drama of the irony of the soul’s choice. Mortality is defined by the necessity of choosing good over evil and creating freedom with those choices; yet such freedom is incompatible with human nature. Human beings might choose only the right through authority and spiritual coercion, and these motivations are the opposite of the example of Christ. The problem is that Christ Himself was perfect; that is, He embodied freedom and wanted it for all people. People, however, are not perfect and are not capable of disinterested righteousness, and that is why human beings will never choose freedom. The Grand Inquisitor’s explanation of the world’s future gives a vision of the problem: Human beings will whine and rebel until the age of reason and science brings about so much confusion and disturbance that they will begin to destroy each other. The very weakest will be left, and they will beg the Grand Inquisitor and his institutional religion to make their decisions for them. They will then be “happy” because they will be allowed no moral responsibility. The world will eventually be like a stern parent with many “happy” babies waiting to be coddled.
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