Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2

The Family

Of all the great Russian writers of the first part of the nineteenth century— Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Herzen, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Nekrasov—Dostoevsky was the only one who did not come from a family belonging to the landed gentry. This is a fact of great importance, and influenced the view he took of his own position as a writer. Comparing himself with his great rival Tolstoy, as he did frequently in later life, Dostoevsky defined the latter's work as being that of a “historian,” not a novelist. For, in his view, Tolstoy depicted the life “which existed in the tranquil and stable, long-established Moscow landowners' family of the middle-upper stratum.” Such a life, with its settled traditions of culture and fixed moral-social norms, had become in the nineteenth century that of only a small “minority” of Russians; it was “the life of the exceptions.” The life of the majority, on the other hand, was one of confusion and moral chaos. Dostoevsky felt that his own work was an attempt to grapple with the chaos of the present, while Tolstoy's Childhood, Boyhood, Youth and War and Peace (he had these specifically in mind) were pious efforts to enshrine for posterity the beauty of a gentry life already vanishing and doomed to extinction.1

Such a self-definition, made at a later stage of Dostoevsky's career, of course represents the distillation of many years of reflection on his literary position. But it also throws a sharp light back on Dostoevsky's past, and helps us to see that his earliest years were spent in an atmosphere that prepared him to become the chronicler of the moral consequences of flux and change, and of the breakup of the traditional forms of Russian life. The lack, during his early years, of a unified social tradition in which he could feel at home unquestionably shaped his imaginative vision, and we can also discern a rankling uncertainty about status that helps to explain his acute understanding of the psychological scars inflicted by social inequality.

On his father's side, the Dostoevskys had been a family belonging to the Lithuanian nobility. The family name came from a small village (Dostoevo, in

1DW (January 1877); see also, for the self-comparison with Tolstoy, F. M. Dostoevsky, The
Notebooks for
A Raw Youth, ed. Edward Wasiolek, trans. Victor Terras (Chicago, 1969), 425,
544–545.

-5-

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