Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 53

The Great Debate

The first installment of The Brothers Karamazov was published on February 1, 1879. A few days later the governor-general of Kharkov—a cousin of the anarchist revolutionary Peter Kropotkin—was killed, and in March an unsuccessful attempt was made on the life of the new head of the secret police, the successor of General Mezentsev, as he was driving his carriage through the center of Petersburg. In April, a revolutionary acting on his own, but with the knowledge of the Populist Land and Liberty, attempted to assassinate the tsar as he was taking his morning walk in the Winter Palace grounds. The would-be assassin, Alexander Solovyev, missed his mark and was publicly hanged in May. It was in this atmosphere of murder and mayhem that Dostoevsky's novel was being written and read. It was also the atmosphere in which he and Turgenev appeared together at benefit readings and banquets to represent the two extremes of the great debate that was taking place in the minds and hearts of all educated Russians—the debate between a despotic tsarism, unwilling to yield an inch of its authority, and the longing for a liberal, Western-style constitution that would allow for greater participation of the public in government affairs.

Just how intensively Dostoevsky was working at this time may be judged from the dispatch of Chapters 6–11 of The Brothers Karamazov on January 31, even before the first installment had been published. The galleys of the first two chapters had just arrived, and he enlisted the help of Elena Shtakenshneider with the proofreading. She returned the proofs along with a request to send back a borrowed copy of Zola's L'Assomoir. Dostoevsky evidently wished to keep up to date, and The Brothers Karamazov contains ironic references to the physiologist and psychologist Claude Bernard, the main source of Zola's theories about heredity and environment. The literary prominence given by Zola to Bernard's deterministic theories of human character imparted to the French novel an ideological as well as a literary significance. Dostoevsky was writing his own family novel, with its defense of the freedom of the human personality, in direct competition with Zola's deterministic Rougon-Macquart series.

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