Fjodor Dostojewski

The Russian novelist Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, b. Nov. 11 (N.S.), 1821, d. Feb. 9 (N.S.), 1881, stands at the very summit of Russian literature and is considered by many to have brought the Western novel to the peak of its possibilities. Sigmund Freud, for one, considered the treatment of patricide in The BROTHERS KARAMAZOV the equal of that of Shakespeare in Hamlet and of Sophocles in Oedipus Rex, while Jean Paul Sartre has said that all of French EXISTENTIALISM is to be found in Ivan Karamazov’s contention that if there is no God, everything is permitted. Dostoyevsky has had a profound effect on Western consciousness, and it is difficult to think of a major 20th- century American novelist whose work does not show traces of his influence. This is most clearly seen in the motif of the “underground hero,” that is, the hero who is alienated from technology and the so-called advances of civilization.

The son of a Moscow military doctor who was murdered by his serfs, Dostoyevsky grew up in materially comfortable but psychologically damaging circumstances. After finishing a military engineering education in 1843, he soon turned to literature. His first published work, Poor Folk (1846), was widely hailed in literary circles, but subsequent works in the 1840s, among which were The Double (1846), Mr. Prokharchin (1846), The Landlady (1847), and Netochka Nezvanova (1849), were less warmly received.

In 1849, Dostoyevsky was arrested for participation in a mildly subversive group, the Petrashevsky Circle, and sentenced first to prison and then to a harsh exile in Siberia for a total of ten years. These experiences–and especially his last-minute reprieve from an expected execution–led him to embrace more fervently his Orthodox religious values and to reject the West as a model for Russian society. Along with the consumptive wife he had married, he returned to St. Petersburg in 1859 and there entered upon the major phase of his literary career.

A number of works of indifferent quality–A Friend of the Family (1859), The Uncle’s Dream (1859), Memoirs from the House of the Dead (1860-61), and The Insulted and Injured (1861)– preceded Notes From the Underground (1864), a powerful work that is considered the philosophical testament of existentialism as well as the prologue to Dostoyevsky’s great tragic novels. The Underground Man is a cynical denizen of St. Petersburg, alienated from his surroundings and his fellow man, who nevertheless poses a powerful challenge to the impersonal forces of rationalism, progress, and social engineering. He is an intransigent champion of free will.

In 1866, Dostoyevsky published CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, a novel of redemption through suffering that in many respects dramatizes the philosophic principles put forth in Notes from the Underground. Raskolnikov’s motive for committing the murder that is the focus of his story is as hard to get at as is Hamlet’s motive for delaying the avenging of his father. The novel represents a “testing” of the limits of individual freedom and is a gripping metaphysical detective story.

In 1867, Dostoyevsky traveled to Germany and Switzerland with his new bride, Anna Grigorievna Snitkina. He remained abroad until 1871 and there completed The IDIOT (1868), the warmly ironic story of Prince Mishkin, a saintly epileptic, a man who is ineffectual because of his positive goodness. His next novel, The Possessed (1871-72), reflects Dostoyevsky’s negative reaction to the political changes that had occurred in Russia between the 1840s and 1860s, more specifically to the radicalism that had supplanted the liberalism of the 1840s. He had no sympathy for the radicals’ contempt for established authority, religion, the family, and most humanistic values. In the first part of the 1870s, Dostoyevsky attempted to reconcile himself with the liberal elements in Russia; The Adolescent, or A Raw Youth (1875) is the fruit of this attempt. In 1876 he began publication of The Journal of a Writer, a monthly miscellany with comments on politics, international news, literary events, some fiction, and matters of general interest. This journalistic endeavor became the worksheet for his last and greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In 1877 he discontinued publication of The Journal of a Writer in order to work exclusively on The Brothers Karamazov, which he completed in 1880.

One of the triumphs of world literature, The Brothers Karamazov is a summation of Dostoyevsky’s beliefs and concerns and develops his greatest themes: rationalism versus irrationalism; the struggle between love and hatred, faith and unfaith; the dangers represented by socialism and the attempt to engineer human happiness; the power of sensuality; the reality and unreality of God; and the conflict between generations. The central drama of the novel is the struggle between the repulsive father, Fyodor Karamazov, and his four sons. Each of the sons represents a universal trait of humanity: Alyosha, saintliness; Dmitri, passion and sensuality; Ivan, the intellect; and Smerdyakov, ugliness of body, mind, and spirit. Dostoyevsky explores the right of a child to raise his hand against his father and, by extension, the right of man to raise his hand against God. The novel seems to encompass the breadth of the human condition and its capabilities; here, Dostoyevsky’s art and vision reached their peak.

Since his death Dostoyevsky’s fame has continued to grow. No 19th-century writer had greater psychological insight or philosophical depth or as systematically plumbed the mysteries of the human soul. None speaks more immediately to the mood and tone of the present century. In fact, it might be said that Western civilization in the second half of the 20th century has become “Dostoyevskian.”

Edward Wasiolek

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