Dostoyevsky, Fyodor Mikhaylovich

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor Mikhaylovich

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor Mikhaylovich (1821-1881) Russian novelist

During the golden age of the Russian novel, Fyodor Dostoyevsky composed psychological works reflecting the inhumanity of the Russian Empire. A Muscovite born to a military surgeon and a cultured mother, the author understood the effects of poverty and the value of piety to a stable character. He read European romances and GOTHIC fiction, sources of his rebellion against his father's demand that he serve the army as an engineer. The popular success of his first publication, the epistolary novel Poor Folk (1846), derives from its 55 letters outlining the despair of Makar Djevuschkin, an underpaid copyist. The protagonist attempts to soothe with words his correspondent Varvara Alexeyevna, the concubine of Squire Bykov, an aristocrat who forces her into wedlock. Dostoyevsky depicts the terror of a debauched girl on her honeymoon departure to the steppes with Bykov, a bored landowner who “amused himself hunting hares” (Dostoyevsky 1894, 171), a parallel to the rabbitlike demeanor of Varvara. The narrative establishes a sympathy with the underdog that underlies the author's humanism, a quality he shares with the French social novelist Victor Hugo and the English author CHARLES DICKENS. In Dostoyevsky's Pages from the Journal of an Author (1864), he spells out his hatred of opportunism, “an abstract sorrow for slavery in mankind: it must not be, it is uncivilised” (Dostoyevsky 1916, 88).

At age 26, Dostoyevsky anticipated the collapse of the Russian Empire and entered a period of meditation on undeserved suffering and indignities. He debated utopianism with intellectuals in the Petrashevsky Circle and associated with propagandists and radicals. In 1849, during the extensive spying and informing system formed by Czar Nicholas I, agents arrested Dostoyevsky for conspiracy. He served an eight-month prison sentence in solitary confinement at Peter Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. His incarceration concluded on December 22, 1847, before a fake firing squad in Semyonovsky Square. This trauma triggered a return of the epilepsy he suffered throughout his life. After four years in a Siberian gulag and five years as an army conscript in the Imperial Russian Army, he wrote The House of the Dead (1862), the origin of Russian PRISON LITERATURE. In that novel, the sadism of the guards and the torment of children generates humiliation and indecency among inmates.

With the existential novella Notes from the Underground (1864), Dostoyevsky stated his doctrinal differences with revolutionaries and liberals. The popularity of his Notes extended through France, Germany, Great Britain, and North America and influenced the 20th-century Russian prison exposes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the concept of the “underground man” in psychological novels by Anton Chekhov, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, and Joseph Heller.

Crime Literature

The author's terror at his mock execution inspired Crime and Punishment (1866), perhaps the most celebrated novel of conscience in Western literature. Its popularity boosted the schizoid student Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov to a prototype of morbid bestiality, a doomed serial killer whose experience parallels the panic disorder of the dreamer Yevgeny in ALEKSANDR PUSHKIN'S The Bronze Horseman (1833). Through perverted rationalism, Raskolnikov wars against conventionality by hacking an elderly female pawnbroker to death. The ax murderer's tortured psyche contrasts with the alcoholic delusions of Semyon Marmeladov, the hallucinations of the morally destitute sensualist Arkady Svidrigailov, and the Christian goodness of Sonya Marmeladov, Raskolnikov's rescuer.

With The Possessed (1872), Dostoyevsky developed his belief in civil liberties and in the spirituality of Russian laborers. In 1881, he published The Brothers Karamazov, which expanded his musings on wickedness, faith, human suffering, and liberty. His psychological study of intelligence and conscience later influenced Solzhenitsyn; the South African libertarian NADINE GORDIMER; and the writers Aldous Huxley, GEORGE ORWELL, and Yevgeny Zamyatin.

In 1881, Dostoyevsky published Buried Alive; or, Ten Years of Penal Servitude in Siberia, a fictionalized memoir of his incarceration. He described the perversity of prison jailers who “fly into a rage because their victim would not scream or ask for mercy, thereby infringing an ancient custom, which demands that every culprit who is being whipped should scream as loud as he can, and ask for mercy” (Dostoyevsky 1881, 255). The punishment for failure to beg is lashing, 50 strokes above the official number, an almost certain death from trauma, shock, and blood loss. For the author's realism and integrity, he won the regard of the psychologists Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud; of the Russian poets ANNA AKHMATOVA and JOSEPH BRODSKY; and of the novelists Albert Camus, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Jean-Paul Sartre, ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER, and IVAN TURGENEV. Dostoyevsky's fiction flourishes in the films The Possessed (1970), Notes from the Underground (1995), and Crime and Punishment (1998, 2002). A 1958 adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov features the actors Yul Brynner, Maria Schell, Claire Bloom, Lee J. Cobb, and Richard Basehart.


Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Buried Alive; or, Ten Years of Penal

Servitude in Siberia. Translated by Marie von Thilo. London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1881.

------- . Notes from the Underground. Translated by Jane

Kentish. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.  . Pages from the Journal of an Author. Translated

by S. Koteliansky and J. Middleton Murry. Boston: John W. Luce, 1916.

----- . Poor Folk. Translated by Lena Milman. London: Elkin Matthews and John Lane, 1894.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 18601865. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988.