Fyodor Dostoevski

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2333

Article abstract: One of the world’s greatest novelists, Dostoevski summoned to imaginative life areas of psychological, political, and aesthetic experience which have significantly shaped the modern sensibility.

Early Life

Fyodor Dostoevski is one of only two great nineteenth century Russian writers—Anton Chekhov is the other—who failed, unlike Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai...

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Article abstract: One of the world’s greatest novelists, Dostoevski summoned to imaginative life areas of psychological, political, and aesthetic experience which have significantly shaped the modern sensibility.

Early Life

Fyodor Dostoevski is one of only two great nineteenth century Russian writers—Anton Chekhov is the other—who failed, unlike Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and others, to be born into the landed gentry. Whereas aristocrats such as Turgenev and Tolstoy depicted settled traditions of culture and fixed moral-social norms, Dostoevski spent his early years in an atmosphere which prepared him to treat the moral consequences of flux and change, and dramatize the breakup of the traditional forms of Russian society. His father, Mikhail Andreevich, derived from the lowly class of the nonmonastic clergy, succeeded in rising to the status of civil servant by becoming a military doctor and then became a surgeon attached to a hospital for the poor on the outskirts of Moscow. His mother, Marya Feodorovna, née Nechaev, was a merchant’s daughter, meek, kind, gentle, pious—obviously the inspiration for most of Dostoevski’s fictive heroines. The elder Dostoevski was not the repulsively dissolute prototype of Feodor Karamazov that many early biographies describe. He was, however, while devoted to his family, extremely strict, mistrustful, irritable, and easily depressed. The son was to acknowledge in later life his inheritance, from his father, of oversensitive nerves and uncontrollable explosions of temper. In addition, Dostoevski suffered from epilepsy, a condition which also ran in his family.

Fyodor was the second child and second son in the family. In 1838, the elder Dostoevski sent his sons to St. Petersburg’s Academy of Engineers, determined to push them into secure careers despite their preference for literary achievement. In February, 1839, the father suffered a partial stroke when Fyodor failed to be promoted during his freshman year; in early June, 1839, Dostoevski’s father died. All biographers assumed until modern times that he had been murdered on his small country estate by peasants outraged by his severity toward them. Joseph Frank, however, in Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 (1976), the first volume of his monumental biography of Dostoevski, shows that important new evidence points to the probability of the elder Dostoevski’s dying of an apoplectic stroke rather than at the hands of killers. Nevertheless, Dostoevski all of his life believed that his father had been murdered and therefore assumed a heavy hurden of parricidal guilt, for the peasants who—so he imagined—had killed his father were merely enacting an impulse which he had surely felt.

In August, 1843, Dostoevski was graduated from the academy and placed on duty in the drafting department of the St. Petersburg Engineering Command. He neglected his work, preferring to read widely among French and German Romantic authors. By far the deepest influence, however, was that of Gogol. In 1844, Dostoevski resigned from the army, published a translation of Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet (1833; English translation, 1859), and began to work on his first novel, which was published in January, 1846, as Bednye lyudi (Poor Folk, 1887).

This is a poignant story of frustrated love, told in the form of letters passed between a poor government clerk and an equally poor girl who lives near him. Dostoevski’s insight into the tortures of humiliated sensibility constitutes his major departure from what is otherwise a Gogol-like protest against the upper class’s condescension to the lower. The most influential literary critic of the 1840’s, Vissarion Belinsky, hailed the book as Russia’s first important social novel.

Belinsky was less enthusiastic about Dostoevski’s second novel, Dvoynik (The Double, 1917), which also appeared in 1846. Gogol’s fiction again served as the model, particularly “Nos” (“The Nose”) and “Zapiski sumasshedshego” (“Diary of a Madman”). Dostoevski’s protagonist, Golyadkin, a middle-ranking bureaucrat, is driven by inner demons. His unquenchable thirst for self-worth and dignity causes him to distort reality and create for himself a world that will mirror his self-conflicts. Golyadkin’s split personality disintegrates into two independent entities: A double appears who confronts him with his worst faults, both reflecting the suppressed wishes of his subconscious and objectifying his accompanying guilt feelings. While Dostoevski erred in failing to establish a moral perspective from which the reader could evaluate Golyadkin either straightforwardly or ironically, he did succeed in hauntingly portraying, for the first time, the kind of obsessive, divided self that was to dominate his later, greater fiction.

Life’s Work

Dostoevski’s darkest decade began the night of April 22-23, 1849, when he was taken into police custody in St. Petersburg as a member of a circle headed by Mikhail Butashevich-Petrashevsky. A czarist court of inquiry concluded that fifteen of the accused, including Dostoevski, had been guilty of subversion and conspiracy. On December 22, 1849, the prisoners were taken to a public square and lined up before a firing squad. By prearrangement, literally in the last seconds before their expected execution, an aide-de-camp to the czar commuted their punishment to four years of hard prison labor and four additional years of military service as privates—both in Siberia. From this moment onward, the secular, progressive, idealistic influences from such writers as Friedrich Schiller, Victor Hugo, and George Sand, which had determined Dostoevski’s previous philosophy, receded before the onrush of a spiritual vitality that overwhelmed him as a revelation. Always a believing Christian, he strove for the rest of his life to emphasize an ethic of expiation, forgiveness, and all-embracing love, based on a conviction of the imminence of the Day of Judgment and the Final Reckoning.

Some scholars interpret Dostoevski’s consequent right-wing conservatism and mistrust of human nature as a psychic-emotive transformation caused by his disillusioning prison camp experiences. Joseph Frank takes a more acute view: Dostoevski came to regard each downtrodden convict as potentially capable of love and compassion but focused on the Russian peasant, regarding persons outside the Slavic culture and Orthodox faith as historically and religiously outcast. He became a fervent Slavophile, insisting that religious and cultural isolation from Western materialism had enabled the Russian people to avoid what he regarded as Europe’s demoralization and decadence.

The Dostoevski who returned to St. Petersburg in mid-December, 1859, had matured enormously as a result of having confronted mortality, discovered the egotistic drives dominating his fellow convicts, and undergone a conversion crisis. In 1864, he published a novelette, Zapiski iz podpolya (Notes from the Underground, 1918), written primarily as a satirical parody of the views expressed in Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s didactic novel Chto delat’? (1863; What Is to Be Done?, c. 1863), which affirmed rational egotism as the panacea for all human problems. Not at all, says the Underground Man. He is a malicious, brilliantly paradoxical skeptic who challenges the validity of reason and of rational solutions. He insists that, above all, man is determined to follow his often foolish, perverse, and even absurd will. Against the Enlightenment premises of utilitarianism, order, and good sense, the Undergroundling opposes chaos, self-destruction, cruelty, and caprice. This work is now generally recognized as the central text in Dostoevski’s canon, the prologue to his greatest novels. The problem he would now confront is how to preserve human freedom from nihilism, how to restrain its destructive implications.

Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886), is another Underground Man, despising ordinary people and conventional morality. He commits murder to test his theory that an extraordinary person is beyond good and evil. He then suffers harrowing isolation and self-disgust. Only his growing love for the sacrificial Sonia will open him slowly to processes of compassion, remorse, and regeneration. Yet Raskolnikov’s self-will continues to battle his surrender to selfless Christian atonement until his Creator finally nudges him into God’s camp.

In Idiot (1868; The Idiot, 1887), Dostoevski presents a Christlike man, Prince Myshkin, yet shows all of his saintly virtues mocked by the world. Myshkin is innocent and gentle, a good-natured sufferer of insults who becomes involved in the whirlpool of others’ egotistic drives; is broken by their pride, lust, avarice, and vanity; and ends back in the world of idiocy from which he had emerged. The love and sympathy he brings to the world only fans more intensely its flames of hate, resentment, and self-will.

Besy (1871-1872; The Possessed, 1913) is Dostoevski’s bitterest and most reactionary novel. He bases his plot on a notorious historic episode: A Moscow student was murdered in 1869 by a group of Nihilists who followed Mikhail Bakunin’s terrorist doctrines. Dostoevski fills this work with crimes, fires, debasements, and other forms of social and psychological chaos. The political drama centers on the Nihilistic leader Peter Verkhovensky, a cynical, slippery, vicious, and monstrously criminal man. Dostoevski also pursues a metaphysical drama at whose center stands his most enigmatic character, Nikolai Stavrogin, who is attracted equally to good and evil and is full of mystery, power, pride, and boredom. He dominates all events while remaining passive and aloof. He liberates himself from any fixed image by confounding everyone’s expectations. He is a fallen angel, a Satan, who succeeds, unlike Raskolnikov, in destroying others without scruple or passion. His suicide is his only logical act.

Dostoevski’s last novel, Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912), sums up his leading themes and ideas. Here Dostoevski tries for no less than a dramatization of the nature of humanity, caught in the conflicting claims of man’s desire for sainthood, symbolized by the youngest brother, Alyosha; for sensuality, embodied by the lust-driven middle brother, Dmitry; and for intellectual achievement, exemplified by the eldest brother, Ivan. The last, a brilliant rationalist, organizes a revolt against a God-ordered universe in his powerful “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” which denounces a world tormented with senseless, undeserved suffering. In the legend, Dostoevski, through Ivan, depicts man as weak, slavish, and self-deceptive, willing to renounce freedom and dreams of salvation in exchange for economic security and autocratic guidance. Like Raskolnikov and Stavrogin, Ivan believes that everything is permissible, including the murder of his depraved father. The counterarguments are mounted by the Elder Zossima and his disciple, Alyosha: “All are responsible for all.” They preach and practice meekness, humility, compassion, and Christian commitment. Whether Dostoevski succeeds in refuting Ivan’s skeptical secularism in this novel is questionable; most critics believe that he fails. He planned a sequel, with Alyosha as the dominant character, but died of a pulmonary hemorrhage in 1881, before he could write it.


Perhaps Fyodor Dostoevski’s greatest literary achievement was to marry the novel of ideas to the novel of mystery and crime, thereby creating a philosophical novel-drama, or metaphysical thriller. To be sure, he has glaring faults: His construction and style are often congested; his tone tends to be feverish; his language has sometimes unnerving changes of pace and rhythm; his pathos can become bathos; he crowds his fiction with more characters, incidents, and ideas than most readers can reasonably absorb; and he can burden his plots with irrelevant excursions and pronouncements. Yet his vision, grasp, and skill in dramatizing the complexities and contradictions of man’s nature exceed those of any other novelist. His psychology is amazingly modern in its emphasis on the irrational nature of man, on the human psyche as far subtler and more paradoxical than previous writers realized. He anticipates many of the findings of contemporary depth psychology in his awareness of the personality’s duality, of the roles played by unconscious drives, and of the symbolic function of dreams. His is a creative process that grasps intuitively not only the outline but also the philosophical implications of events. His characters are wholly absorbed by their thoughts and emotions: They live as they think and feel, translating their ideas and passions into entirely appropriate actions. Dostoevski’s hypnotic art, filled with a fury that sometimes verges on hysteria, prepares readers for the ideological and moral struggles that have characterized the twentieth century.


Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Edited by Ralph Matlaw. Translated by Constance Garnett. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976. Includes relevant letters by Dostoevski and a dozen critical essays which suggest a diversity of approaches to the text: thematic, stylistic, mythological, structural, and religious.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Edited by George Gibian. Translated by Jessie Coulson. Rev. ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975. This valuable edition has extracts from Dostoevski’s letters and notebooks and more than a score of outstanding critical essays representing distinguished Russian, Italian, and German as well as American scholarship; eight were not previously translated into English.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. Frank is engaged in one of the most ambitious and illuminating literary projects of the late twentieth century: a five-volume study of Dostoevski’s life and career. Since Frank specializes in intellectual history, his study subordinates the melodramatic personal struggles that have dominated most biographies. Instead, he stresses the sociocultural context in which his subject lived and wrote, taking particular care to analyze the great contemporaneous issues in which Dostoevski participated. Indispensable.

Freud, Sigmund. “Dostoevsky and Parricide.” In Dostoevsky: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by René Wellek. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Freud’s famous essay traces Dostoevski’s epilepsy and gambling mania to what the great psychoanalyst regards as his Oedipus complex and links the parricidal theme of The Brothers Karamazov and Dostoevski’s trauma suffered after his father’s death to his masochistic need for self-punishment to atone for his unconscious drive to kill his father. Though based on flawed historical sources, it remains a striking application of depth psychology to literature.

Mochulsky, K. V. Dostoevsky: His Life and Work. Translated with an introduction by Michael A. Minihan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967. Commonly regarded as the best one-volume interpretation of Dostoevski. Mochulsky has a particularly brilliant analysis of Crime and Punishment as a five-act tragedy with a prologue and epilogue.

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