Definitions

self-effacing

Fyodor Dostoevsky

[dos-tuh-yef-skee, duhs-; Russ. duh-stuh-yef-skyee]

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (Фёдор Миха́йлович Достое́вский, , sometimes transliterated Dostoyevsky, Dostoievsky, Dostojevskij, Dostoevski or Dostoevskii ) (November 11, 1821February 9, 1881) was a Russian novelist and writer of fiction whose works include Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoevsky's literary output explores human psychology in the troubled political, social and spiritual context of 19th-century Russian society. Considered by many as a founder or precursor of 20th century existentialism, his Notes from Underground (1864), written in the embittered voice of the anonymous "underground man", was called by Walter Kaufmann the "best overture for existentialism ever written.

Biography

Family origins

Dostoevsky was Russian on his mother's side. His paternal ancestors were from a place called Dostoyeve, natives of the guberniya (province) of Minsk, not far from Pinsk. The last name of the paternal family is assumed to be 'Rdishev' prior to its assumption of the township eponym 'Dostoevsky', though the ethnic origins of his paternal ancestors remain in dispute. According to one theory, Dostoevsky's paternal ancestors were Polonized nobles (szlachta) and went to war bearing Polish Radwan Coat of Arms. Dostoevsky (Polish "Dostojewski") Radwan armorial bearings were drawn for the Dostoevsky Museum in Moscow. The family eventually passed into Ukraine.

Early life

Dostoevsky was the second of seven children born to Mikhail and Maria Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky's father Mikhail was a retired military surgeon and a violent alcoholic, who served as a doctor at the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in Moscow. The hospital was situated in one of the worst areas in Moscow. Local landmarks included a cemetery for criminals, a lunatic asylum, and an orphanage for abandoned infants. This urban landscape made a lasting impression on the young Dostoevsky, whose interest in and compassion for the poor, oppressed, and tormented was apparent. Though his parents forbade it, Dostoevsky liked to wander out to the hospital garden, where the suffering patients sat to catch a glimpse of sun. The young Dostoevsky loved to spend time with these patients and hear their stories.

There are many stories of Dostoevsky's father's despotic treatment of his children. After returning home from work, he would take a nap while his children, ordered to keep absolutely silent, stood by their slumbering father in shifts and swatted at any flies that came near his head. However, it is the opinion of Joseph Frank, a biographer of Dostoevsky, that the father figure in The Brothers Karamazov is not based on Dostoevsky's own father. Letters and personal accounts demonstrate that they had a fairly loving relationship.

Shortly after his mother died of tuberculosis in 1837, Dostoevsky and his brother were sent to the Military Engineering Academy at Saint Petersburg. Fyodor's father died in 1839. Though it has never been proven, it is believed by some that he was murdered by his own serfs. According to one account, they became enraged during one of his drunken fits of violence, restrained him, and poured vodka into his mouth until he drowned. Another story holds that Mikhail died of natural causes, and a neighboring landowner invented the story of his murder so that he might buy the estate inexpensively. Some have argued that his father's personality had influenced the character of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the "wicked and sentimental buffoon", father of the main characters in his 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov, but such claims fail to withstand the scrutiny of many critics.

Dostoevsky had epilepsy and his first seizure occurred when he was 9 years old. Epileptic seizures recurred sporadically throughout his life, and Dostoevsky's experiences are thought to have formed the basis for his description of Prince Myshkin's epilepsy in his novel The Idiot and that of Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov, among others.

At the Saint Petersburg Academy of Military Engineering, Dostoevsky was taught mathematics, a subject he despised. However, he also studied literature by Shakespeare, Pascal, Victor Hugo and E.T.A. Hoffmann. Though he focused on areas different from mathematics, he did well on the exams and received a commission in 1841. That year, he is known to have written two romantic plays, influenced by the German Romantic poet/playwright Friedrich Schiller: Mary Stuart and Boris Godunov. The plays have not been preserved. Dostoevsky described himself as a "dreamer" when he was a young man, and at that time revered Schiller. However, in the years during which he yielded his great masterpieces, his opinions changed and he sometimes poked fun at Schiller.

Beginnings of a literary career

Dostoevsky was made a lieutenant in 1842, and left the Engineering Academy the following year. He completed a translation into Russian of Balzac's novel Eugénie Grandet in 1843, but it brought him little or no attention. Dostoevsky started to write his own fiction in late 1844 after leaving the army. In 1845, his first work, the epistolary short novel, Poor Folk, published in the periodical The Contemporary (Sovremennik), was met with great acclaim. As legend has it, the editor of the magazine, poet Nikolai Nekrasov, walked into the office of liberal critic Vissarion Belinsky and announced, "a new Gogol has arisen!" Belinsky, his followers and many others agreed and after the novel was fully published in book form at the beginning of the next year, Dostoevsky became a literary celebrity at the age of 24.

In 1846, Belinsky and many others reacted negatively to his novella, The Double, a psychological study of a bureaucrat whose alter ego overtakes his life. Dostoevsky's fame began to cool. Much of his work after Poor Folk met with mixed reviews and it seemed that Belinsky's prediction that Dostoevsky would be one of the greatest writers of Russia was mistaken.

Exile in Siberia

Dostoevsky was arrested and imprisoned on April 23 1849 for being a part of the liberal intellectual group, the Petrashevsky Circle. Tsar Nicholas I after seeing the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe was harsh on any sort of underground organization which he felt could put autocracy into jeopardy. On November 16 that year Dostoevsky, along with the other members of the Petrashevsky Circle, was sentenced to death. After a mock execution, in which he and other members of the group stood outside in freezing weather waiting to be shot by a firing squad, Dostoevsky's sentence was commuted to four years of exile with hard labor at a katorga prison camp in Omsk, Siberia. Dostoevsky described later to his brother the sufferings he went through as the years in which he was "shut up in a coffin." Describing the dilapidated barracks which, as he put in his own words, "should have been torn down years ago", he wrote:

He was released from prison in 1854, and was required to serve in the Siberian Regiment. Dostoevsky spent the following five years as a private (and later lieutenant) in the Regiment's Seventh Line Battalion, stationed at the fortress of Semipalatinsk, now in Kazakhstan. While there, he began a relationship with Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, the wife of an acquaintance in Siberia. They married in February 1857, after her husband's death.

Post-prison maturation as writer

Dostoevsky's experiences in prison and the army resulted in major changes in his political and religious convictions. Firstly, his ordeal somehow caused him to become disillusioned with 'Western' ideas; he repudiated the contemporary Western European philosophical movements, and instead paid greater tribute in his writing to traditional, rural-based, rustic Russian 'values'. But even more significantly, he had what his biographer Joseph Frank describes as a conversion experience in prison, which greatly strengthened his Christian, and specifically Orthodox, faith (Dostoevsky would later depict his conversion experience in the short story, The Peasant Marey (1876)).

Dostoevsky now displayed a much more critical stance on contemporary European philosophy and turned with intellectual rigour against the Nihilist and Socialist movements; and much of his post-prison work -- particularly the novel, The Possessed and the essays, The Diary of a Writer -- contains both criticism of socialist and nihilist ideas, as well as thinly-veiled parodies of contemporary Western-influenced Russian intellectuals (Timofey Granovsky), revolutionaries (Sergey Nechayev), and even fellow novelists (Ivan Turgenev). In social circles, Dostoevsky allied himself with well-known conservatives, such as the statesman Konstantin Pobedonostsev. His post-prison essays praised the tenets of the Pochvennichestvo movement, a late-19th century Russian nativist ideology closely aligned with Slavophilism.

Dostoevsky's post-prison fiction abandoned the European-style domestic melodramas and quaint character studies of his youthful work in favor of dark, more complex story-lines and situations, played-out by brooding, tortured characters -- often styled partly on Dostoevsky himself -- who agonized over existential themes of spiritual torment, religious awakening, and the psychological confusion caused by the conflict between traditional Russian culture and the influx of modern, Western philosophy. This, nonetheless, does not take from the debt which Dostoevsky owed to the earlier (Western influenced within Russia Gogol) writers whose work grew from out of the irrational and anti-authoritarian spiritualist ideas contained within the Romantic movement which had immediately preceded Dostoevsky in Europe. However, Dostoevsky's major novels focused on the idea that utopias and positivist ideas being utilitarian were unrealistic and unobtainable.

Later literary career

In December 1859, Dostoevsky returned to Saint Petersburg, where he ran a series of unsuccessful literary journals, Vremya (Time) and Epokha (Epoch), with his older brother Mikhail. The latter had to be shut down as a consequence of its coverage of the Polish Uprising of 1863. That year Dostoevsky traveled to Europe and frequented the gambling casinos. There he met Apollinaria Suslova, the model for Dostoevsky's "proud women," such as the two characters named Katerina Ivanovna, in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoevsky was devastated by his wife's death in 1864, which was followed shortly thereafter by his brother's death. He was financially crippled by business debts and the need to provide for his wife's son from her earlier marriage and his brother's widow and children. Dostoevsky sank into a deep depression, frequenting gambling parlors and accumulating massive losses at the tables.

Dostoevsky suffered from an acute gambling compulsion as well as from its consequences. By one account Crime and Punishment, possibly his best known novel, was completed in a mad hurry because Dostoevsky was in urgent need of an advance from his publisher. He had been left practically penniless after a gambling spree. Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler simultaneously in order to satisfy an agreement with his publisher Stellovsky who, if he did not receive a new work, would have claimed the copyrights to all of Dostoevsky's writings.

Motivated by the dual wish to escape his creditors at home and to visit the casinos abroad, Dostoevsky traveled to Western Europe. There, he attempted to rekindle a love affair with Suslova, but she refused his marriage proposal. Dostoevsky was heartbroken, but soon met Anna Grigorevna Snitkina, a twenty-year-old stenographer. Shortly before marrying her in 1867, he dictated The Gambler to her. This period resulted in the writing of what are generally considered to be his greatest books. From 1873 to 1881 he published the Writer's Diary, a monthly journal full of short stories, sketches, and articles on current events. The journal was an enormous success.

Dostoevsky is also known to have influenced and been influenced by the philosopher Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov. Solovyov is noted as the inspiration for the character Alyosha Karamazov.

In 1877, Dostoevsky gave the keynote eulogy at the funeral of his friend, the poet Nekrasov, to much controversy. On June 8, 1880, shortly before he died, he gave his famous Pushkin speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin monument in Moscow.

In his later years, Fyodor Dostoevsky lived for a long time at the resort of Staraya Russa in northwestern Russia, which was closer to Saint Petersburg and less expensive than German resorts. He died on February 9 (January 28 O.S.), 1881 of a lung hemorrhage associated with emphysema and an epileptic seizure. He was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg. Forty thousand mourners attended his funeral. His tombstone reads "Verily, Verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." from John 12:24, which is also the epigraph of his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

Works and influence

Dostoevsky's influence has been acclaimed by a wide variety of writers, including Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, Charles Bukowski, Albert Camus, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, Franz Kafka, Henry Miller, Yukio Mishima, Cormac McCarthy, Gabriel García Márquez, Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger, Allen Ginsberg, Orhan Pamuk, and Joseph Heller. American novelist Ernest Hemingway cited Dostoevsky as a major influence on his work in his autobiographical novella A Moveable Feast.

In a book of interviews with Arthur Power (Conversations with James Joyce), James Joyce praised Dostoevsky's influence:

In her essay The Russian Point of View, Virginia Woolf stated that,

Dostoevsky displayed a nuanced understanding of human psychology in his major works. He created an opus of vitality and almost hypnotic power, characterized by feverishly dramatized scenes where his characters are, frequently in scandalous and explosive atmosphere, passionately engaged in Socratic dialogues à la Russe; the quest for God, the problem of Evil and suffering of the innocents haunt the majority of his novels.

His characters fall into a few distinct categories: humble and self-effacing Christians (Prince Myshkin, Sonya Marmeladova, Alyosha Karamazov, Starets Zosima), self-destructive nihilists (Svidrigailov, Smerdyakov, Stavrogin, the underground man), cynical debauchees (Fyodor Karamazov), and rebellious intellectuals (Raskolnikov, Ivan Karamazov, Ippolit); also, his characters are driven by ideas rather than by ordinary biological or social imperatives. In comparison with Tolstoy, whose characters are realistic, the characters of Dostoevsky are usually more symbolic of the ideas they represent, thus Dostoevsky is often cited as one of the forerunners of Literary Symbolism in specific Russian Symbolism (see Alexander Blok).

Dostoevsky's novels are compressed in time (many cover only a few days) and this enables the author to get rid of one of the dominant traits of realist prose, the corrosion of human life in the process of the time flux — his characters primarily embody spiritual values, and these are, by definition, timeless. Other obsessive themes include suicide, wounded pride, collapsed family values, spiritual regeneration through suffering (the most important motif), rejection of the West and affirmation of Russian Orthodoxy and Tsarism. Literary scholars such as Bakhtin have characterized his work as 'polyphonic': unlike other novelists, Dostoevsky does not appear to aim for a 'single vision', and beyond simply describing situations from various angles, Dostoevsky engendered fully dramatic novels of ideas where conflicting views and characters are left to develop unevenly into unbearable crescendo.

Dostoevsky and the other giant of late 19th century Russian literature, Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, never met in person, even though each praised, criticized and influenced each other (Dostoevsky remarked of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina that it was a "flawless work of art"; Henri Troyat reports that Tolstoy once remarked of Crime and Punishment that, "Once you read the first few chapters you know pretty much how the novel will end up"). There was, however, a meeting arranged, but there was a confusion about where the meeting place was and they never rescheduled. Tolstoy reportedly burst into tears when he learnt of Dostoevsky's death. A copy of The Brothers Karamazov was found on the nightstand next to Tolstoy's deathbed at the Astapovo railway station. Since their time, the two are considered by the critics and public as two of the greatest novelists produced by their homeland.

Dostoevsky has also been noted as having expressed anti-Semitic sentiments. In the recent biography by Joseph Frank, The Mantle of the Prophet, Frank spent much time on A Writer's Diary - a regular column which Dostoevsky wrote in the periodical The Citizen from 1873 to the year before his death in 1881. Frank notes that the Diary is "filled with politics, literary criticism, and pan-Slav diatribes about the virtues of the Russian Empire, [and] represents a major challenge to the Dostoevsky fan, not least on account of its frequent expressions of anti-Semitism. Frank, in his foreword that he wrote for the book Dostoevsky and the Jews, attempts to place Dostoevsky as a product of his time. Frank notes that Dostoevsky did make anti-semitic remarks, but that Dostoevsky's writing and stance by and large was one where Dostoevsky held a great deal of guilt for his comments and positions that were anti-semitic. Steven Cassedy, for example, alleges in his book, Dostoevsky's Religion, that much of the points made that depict Dostoevsky’s views as an anti-Semite, do so by denying that Dostoevsky expressed support for the equal rights of and for the Russian Jewish population, a position that was not widely supported in Russia at the time. Cassedy also notes that this criticism of Dostoevsky also appears to deny his sincerity in the statements that Dostoevsky made, that he was for equal rights for the Russian Jewish populace, and the Serfs of his own country (since neither group at that point in history had equal rights). Cassedy further notes that the criticism maintains that Dostoevsky was insincere when he stated that he did not hate Jewish people and was not an Anti-Semite. According to Cassedy, this position was maintained without taking into consideration Dostoevsky's expressed desire to peacefully reconcile Jews and Christians into a single universal brotherhood of all mankind.

Dostoevsky and Existentialism

With the publication of Crime and Punishment in 1866, Fyodor Dostoevsky became one of Russia's most prominent authors in the nineteenth century. Dostoevsky has also been called one of the founding fathers of the philosophical movement known as existentialism. In particular, his Notes from Underground, first published in 1864, has been depicted as a founding work of existentialism. For Dostoevsky, war is the rebellion of the people against the idea that reason guides everything. And thus, reason is the ultimate principle of guidance for neither history nor mankind. Having been exiled to the city of Omsk (Siberia) in 1849, many of Dostoevsky's works entail notions of suffering and despair.

Nietzsche referred to Dostoevsky as "the only psychologist from whom I have something to learn: he belongs to the happiest windfalls of my life, happier even than the discovery of Stendhal." He said that Notes from the Underground "cried truth from the blood." According to Mihajlo Mihajlov's "The great catalyzer: Nietzsche and Russian neo-Idealism", Nietzsche constantly refers to Dostoevsky in his notes and drafts throughout the winter of 1886-1887. Nietzsche also wrote abstracts of several of Dostoevsky's works.

Freud wrote an article entitled Dostoevsky and Parricide that asserts that the greatest works in world literature are all about parricide (though he is critical of Dostoevsky's work overall, the inclusion of The Brothers Karamazov in a set of the three greatest works of literature is remarkable).

Novels

Short stories

Non-fiction

  • Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863)
  • A Writer's Diary (Дневник писателя) (1873-1881)

See also

References

External links

  • FyodorDostoevsky.com - The definitive Dostoevsky fan site: discussion forum, essays, e-texts, photos, biography, quotes, and links.

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