Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 16

“Monsters in Their Misery”

Dostoevsky's views of his fellow convicts changed dramatically between his first days in prison camp and his last. Dostoevsky, the great psychologist, never analyzes his inner state of mind, never discusses the specific modality of his ideological evolution, his transformation from a philanthropic radical with Christian socialist leanings into a resolute believer in the Russian people as the unique national embodiment of the moral ideals he had found so appealing in Utopian Socialism. Reminiscing, in his Diary of a Writer (1873), “on the regeneration of my convictions,” Dostoevsky simply remarks, “It did not occur so quickly, but gradually—and after a long, long time.” 1 He thus did not emerge from prison camp with a firmly defined set of new convictions to replace those he had abandoned. Rather, he tried to make sense out of his exposure to a range of new impressions that had clashed with his preconceived notions, and only subsequently came to understand in a more self-conscious fashion how this experience had changed his ideas. Such “ideas” would have begun to take shape when Dostoevsky, making contact once again with Russian life in the mid-1850s and early 1860s, found it necessary to define an ideological position amid the abrupt transformations of these agitated years.

Notes from the House of the Dead (Zapiski iz mertvogo domca) first appeared in the pages of Dostoevsky's journal Time during 1861–1862, and it is one of the anomalies of the text that it does not include an account of his conversion experience. However, since the focus of the text is impersonal and collective rather than confessional and personal, the process of re-education is never depicted directly. It must be inferred from suggestions and side remarks—such as reactions of surprise on the part of the narrator, and his occasional injunctions to the reader to pay special attention to one or another observation. It was only twenty-six years later, in an article in the February 1876 issue of his Diary of a Writer entitled “The Peasant Marey,” that Dostoevsky supplied the missing pages from his prison memoirs that help to pierce the enigma of “the regeneration of "his" convictions.”

The importance of this article has long been recognized, but no one has examined it in the light of our knowledge of the psychology of conversion to ex

1DW (1873), 152.

-196-

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