Fyodor Dostoevsky Fyodor Dostoevski World Literature Analysis

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Fyodor Dostoevski World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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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...

(The entire section is 4,212 words.)