Fyodor Dostoevsky

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In addition to short fiction, Fyodor Dostoevski wrote novels, nonfiction, criticism, and Yevgeniya Grande (1844), a translation of Honoré de Balzac’s novel Eugénie Grandet (1833). In his own time, Dostoevski was exceptionally influential, especially through Dnevnik pisatelya (1876-1877, 1800-1881; The Diary of a Writer, 1949), a series of miscellaneous writings that he published occasionally in St. Petersburg. Dostoevski also wrote a series of essays on Russian literature, some feuilletons, and the well-known travelogue “Zimniye zametki o letnikh vpechatleniyakh” (1863; “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions,” 1955). His most famous contribution in his own time was his speech in Alexander Pushkin’s honor, given on the occasion of the dedication of a monument to Pushkin in 1880.

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The collected works of Fyodor Dostoevski (dahs-tuh-YEHF-skee) are available in many Russian editions, starting from 1883. The most carefully prepared of these, comprising some thirty volumes, is the Leningrad Nauka edition, which began publishing in 1972. A wide variety of selected works are also available in English. While the novels dominate Dostoevski’s later creative period, he began his career with sketches, short stories, and novellas, and he continued to write shorter pieces throughout his working life. These works do not exhibit the same unity of theme as the major novels, though many of them in one way or another involve Dostoevski’s favorite topic, human duality.

Dostoevski’s nonfictional writing is diverse. In his monthly Dnevnik pisatelya (1876-1877, 1880-1881; The Diary of a Writer, 1949), he included commentary on sociopolitical issues of the time, literary analyses, travelogues, and fictional sketches. He also contributed many essays to his own journals and other publications. The nonfictional writings often clash with the views expressed in the novels and consequently enjoy wide circulation among specialists for comparative purposes. Equally popular is his correspondence, comprising several volumes in his collected works. The notebooks for the major novels, as well as other background comments, are also included in the collection. They became available in English in editions published by the University of Chicago Press during the 1960’s and 1970’s.


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In the world literature of the nineteenth century, Fyodor Dostoevski has few rivals. Some of his characters have penetrated literary consciousness and produced a new generation in the works of prominent twentieth century authors such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Jorge Luis Borges. He initiated psychological realism, inspiring both Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. His novels are read in translation in twenty-six languages. Dostoevski was originally suppressed in the Soviet Union, only to reemerge as even more influential in the second half of the twentieth century, finding a whole new generation of admirers in his transformed homeland. Even though his style is markedly nineteenth century, Dostoevski still seems quite modern even in the twentieth century.

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Both Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevski, the giants of the Russian novel during the era preceding the 1917 October Revolution, are firmly part of the Western literary tradition today, but whereas Tolstoy’s outlook is solidly rooted in the nineteenth century, Dostoevski’s ideas belong to modern times. His novels go far beyond the parameters of aesthetic literature; they are studied not only by literary historians and critics but also by psychologists, philosophers, and theologians the world over. Each discipline discerns a different drift in Dostoevski’s work, and few agree on what the author’s basic tenets are, but all claim him as their hero. His contemporaries, too, were at a loss to categorize him, primarily because his style and subject matter had little in common with accepted literary norms. Russia’s most prominent writing, as espoused by Ivan Turgenev and Tolstoy, was smooth and lyric. While Turgenev analyzed topical social problems in a restrained, faintly didactic manner,...

(This entire section contains 593 words.)

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and Tolstoy presented panoramic visions of certain Russian social classes and their moral problems, Dostoevski brought an entirely new style and content to Russian writing. He disregarded his colleagues’ logically progressing, chronologicalnarrative mode and constructed his stories as mosaics or puzzles, often misleading the audience, experimenting with peculiar narrative voices, allowing his pathological figures to advance the plot in disconcertingly disorienting ways, and in general forcing the reader to reevaluate and backtrack constantly. Dostoevski was also revolutionary in his choice of subjects, introducing characters whose perception of outside reality essentially mirrored their own skewed personalities.

Dostoevski thus rendered obsolete both his contemporaries’ classical realism and the prevailing superficial treatment of the human psyche. In his choice of settings, he disdained the poetic landscapes preferred by others and concentrated on the teeming of the city or the starkly barren aspects of the countryside. Because of this preference for the seamy side of life, he is often linked to Nikolai Gogol, but Dostoevski’s descriptions of deviant behavior have a decidedly more modern flavor than do Gogol’s. During his enforced proximity to criminals, Dostoevski applied his powers of observation to their perverted worldview and, in the process, developed a new approach to literary portraiture; Sigmund Freud praised him for anticipating modern psychological approaches, and twentieth century psychologists on the whole have accepted Dostoevski’s observations as valid.

Dostoevski tended to be conservative and didactic in his nonfictional writings, though his often cantankerous and controversial assertions contributed to the lively journalistic interplays of the time; to this day, there is disagreement over whether he affected a conservative public stance in order to be trusted with censorially sensitive material in his fiction or whether conflicting elements were actually integral to his personality. In either case, Dostoevski is responsible for leading Russian literature away from its often tranquilly harmonious narratives, with their clearly discernible authorial points of view, to a polyphonic plane.

During Joseph Stalin’s reign as leader of the newly formed Soviet Union, severe censorial strictures limited the average Soviet reader’s access to Dostoevski, yet interest in him remained undiminished, and he returned to his prominent place after Stalin’s death. Outside his homeland, Dostoevski’s influence has been immeasurable. Albert Camus—to cite only one among countless examples of twentieth century writers awed by the power of Dostoevski’s metaphysical dialectics—transformed The Possessed into a gripping play, Les Possédés (pr., pb. 1959; The Possessed, 1960), because he saw in Dostoevski’s torturedprotagonists the forerunners of today’s existentialist heroes. Dostoevski’s work thus has remained topical and continues to appeal to widely divergent views.


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Although most of Fyodor Dostoevski’s major works deal with crime, especially murder and suicide, only two of his works fit into the genre of detective fiction, and only one is frequently associated with the popular form known as the murder mystery. Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912) deals with a murder, a manhunt, and a trial, but Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886) focuses more closely on the nature of crime and its detection. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevski elevates the murder mystery to the level of great art. Engaging in a penetrating study of the criminal mind, he probes deeply into the psychopathology of crime. He follows the criminal through his obsessions, his anxieties, and his nightmares.

By highlighting the effects of poverty and isolation on potential criminals, Dostoevski depicts the social milieu that breeds crime and encourages criminal behavior. Furthermore, he re-creates big-city life, with its nefarious characters and its hopeless derelicts living at the brink of despair. Probing deeply into the shadows of the human condition, he tries to unearth the root of crime itself.

Dostoevski goes beyond the sociology of crime and murder, however, to explore its politics and metaphysics. Instead of asking who the murderer is, he explores such questions as, is murder permissible? If so, by whom? Under what conditions does one differentiate between the revolutionary and the common criminal? He also follows the criminal beyond the act of his apprehension to explore how crime should be punished. To Dostoevski, crime becomes sin, a sin that must be expiated through deep personal suffering and a mystical transformation of character. Dostoevski does not ask who committed the murder, but why there is murder. In his opinion, the murder mystery is merely a vehicle for exploring the mystery of murder.

Discussion Topics

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Why is it possible to have a better understanding of Fyodor Dostoevski’s psychological novels today than could readers of his time?

Present evidence that Notes from the Underground is a “literary archetype.”

Explain whether or not Dostoevski’s literary punishments fit the crimes.

Does a character like Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov verify that Dostoevski can demonstrate redeeming features in human nature?

Is Dostoevski’s opposition to atheism as an essential basis for immorality convincing?

To what extent does Dostoevski show his major characters overcoming criminal temptations?


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Adelman, Gary. Retelling Dostoyesvky: Literary Responses and Other Observations. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2001. A study of the possible influence of Dostoevski on a number of authors from Joseph Conrad to Frank Herbert.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Fyodor Dostoevsky. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. Essays on all of Dostoevski’s major novels as well as on his treatment of heroes and nihilism. Includes introduction, chronology, and bibliography.

Catteau, Jacques. Dostoevsky and the Process of Literary Creation. Translated by Audrey Littlewood. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. This excellent book offers detailed textual analysis and factual information on Dostoevski. The categories that form the subheadings range from “Time and Space in the World of the Novels” to ones such as “Money.” Catteau provides a thematic overview of the pressures and inspirations that motivated Dostoevski. The volume includes ninety-five pages of notes and bibliography, as well as an index.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821- 1849. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. The first volume of Frank’s monumental five-volume biography, the best available source on Dostoevski’s life and art in English. Includes an appendix on neurologist Sigmund Freud’s case history of Dostoevsky.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850- 1859. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Reiterates Frank’s effort to subordinate the writer’s private life in favor of tracing his connection to the social- cultural history of his time.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860- 1865. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. Continues Frank’s study.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) The fourth volume in Frank’s series on the life and works of Dostoevksi. Includes an extended discussion of Dostoeski’s novella The Gambler from an ethnic-psychological perspective as a commentary on the Russian national character and an extended discussion of the classical construction of the novella The Eternal Husband, which Frank sees as Dostoeski’s most perfect shorter work.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. Volume 5, concluding Frank’s biography. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review)

Grossman, Leonid. Dostoevsky: A Biography. Translated by Mary Mackler. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975. Covers Dostoevski’s life and works, creative product, and critical reception. Includes detailed notes and an index.

Jackson, Robert Louis, ed. Dialogues with Dostoevsky: The Overwhelming Questions. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993. Chapters on the writer’s relationships with Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky, Nikolai Gogol, William Shakespeare, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Kjetsaa, Geir. Fyodor Dostoevsky: A Writer’s Life. Translated by Siri Hustvedt and David McDuff. New York: Viking, 1987. A thorough and compelling work on Dostoevski’s life that seeks to shed light on the creation of Dostoevski’s fiction, citing letters and notes as artistic points of departure for Dostoevski.

Mochulsky, K. V. Dostoevsky: His Life and Work. Translated by Michael Minihan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967. This book’s title may slightly mislead the reader into thinking that the author is somehow isolating Dostoevski’s life from his work. Mochulsky, however, informs the reader in his preface that “the life and work of Dostoevsky are inseparable. He lived in literature.” Thus, rather than making a large work consisting of two major parts, Mochulsky interweaves biography and literary analysis brilliantly. His style is engaging and very accessible. This book is regularly recommended for undergraduates by many teachers of courses on Dostoevski.

Scanlan, James P. Dostoevsky the Thinker. Cornell University, 2002. Scanlan examines Dostoevsky in the role of philosopher.

Straus, Nina Pelikan. Dostoevsky and the Woman Question: Rereadings at the End of a Century. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Although, like most books on Dostoeski, this study centers on the novels, it is helpful in understanding his work generally; it argues that Dostoeski’s compulsion to depict men’s cruelties to women is a constitutive part of his vision and his metaphysics. Claims that Dostoeski attacks masculine notions of autonomy and that his works evolve toward “the death of the patriarchy.”

Wasiolek, Edward. Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction. Cambridge: Massachussetts Institute of Technology Press, 1964. In this interesting and comprehensive work, Wasiolek not only addresses virtually all Dostoevski’s fiction but also introduces much of the contemporary political polemics. He also includes a well-balanced assessment of many important subsequent literary critical opinions, which is interwoven in his analysis of the individual works. Includes notes about the first publication of Dostoevski’s works as well as a detailed bibliography presenting both general subject headings (for example, a work’s reception in the West) and writing apropos an individual work.


Critical Essays