Dostoyevsky, Feodor Mikhailovich

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Dostoyevsky, Feodor Mikhailovich

Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky (fyô´dər mēkhī´ləvĬch dəstəyĕf´skē), 1821–81, Russian novelist, one of the towering figures of world literature.

Early Life and Work

Dostoyevsky was born and raised in Moscow by Russian Orthodox parents. His father, a military surgeon and an alcoholic of harsh, despotic temperament, was brutally slain (1839) by his own serfs. This event haunted Dostoyevsky all his life and perhaps accounts in part for the preoccupation with murder and guilt in his writings. Dostoyevsky attended military engineering school in St. Petersburg and upon graduation entered government service as a draftsman. He soon abandoned this career for writing.

Dostoyevsky's first published work, Poor Folk (1846), which brought him immediate critical and public recognition, reveals his characteristic compassion for the downtrodden. His second novel, The Double (1846), less favorably received, shows the profound insight into human character that dominates his later works.

At about this time Dostoyevsky became involved with a group of radical utopians. The discovery of their illegal printing press brought about their arrest and condemnation. The prisoners were reprieved but were forced to take part in a pre-execution ceremony before the reprieve was read to them. Dostoyevsky was sentenced to four years at hard labor in a Siberian penal colony. During this harrowing period he suffered great physical and mental pain, including repeated attacks of epilepsy. The prison experience worked a profound change of heart in him. He abandoned his belief in the liberal, atheistic ideologies of Western Europe and turned wholeheartedly to religion and to the belief that Orthodox Russia was destined to be the spiritual leader of the world.

After several years of obligatory military service in Siberia, he was allowed to return to St. Petersburg. With him was the widow he had married in Siberia and her son. Dostoyevsky joined his beloved brother Mikhail in editing the magazine Time, which serialized The Insulted and The Injured (1861–62) and the record of his experience in the penal colony, The House of the Dead (1862). He made several trips to Western Europe. One result was Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863), reflecting his severely anti-Western attitudes.

Financial troubles, combined with a turbulent love affair and a passion for roulette, led to a nightmarish period in Germany, partly described in the short novel The Gambler (1866). In 1864 his unhappy marriage ended with the death of his wife. The same year his financial problems increased when his brother died and Dostoyevsky assumed responsibility for the remaining family. In 1867 he married his young secretary, who gave him profound affection and understanding and greatly enriched his later years.

Mature Works

Notes from the Underground (1864), a detailed study of neurotic suffering, began the greatest period of Dostoyevsky's literary career. Crime and Punishment, a brilliant portrait of sin, remorse, and redemption through sacrifice, followed in 1866. His next novel, The Idiot (1868), concerns a Christ figure, a meek, human epileptic whose effect on those around him is tragic.

The Possessed (1871–72) is a violent denunciation of the leftists and revolutionaries that Dostoyevsky had previously admired. In A Raw Youth (1875) he described decay within family relationships and the inability of science to deal with the primary need of human beings: a purpose for living beyond the mere struggle for sustenance. Both of these themes are central to the enormously complex plot and character development of his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov (1879–80), generally thought to be one of the finest novels ever written.

A profound psychologist and philosopher, Dostoyevsky depicted with remarkable insight the depth and complexity of the human soul. His powerful though generally humorless narrative style, his understanding of the intricacies of character, especially the pathological conscience, and his amplification of sin and redemption made him a giant among novelists and, in the realm of ideas, a precursor of Freudian psychological analysis. Dostoyevsky died of a lung hemorrhage complicated by an attack of epilepsy.

Bibliography

See his Diary of a Writer (tr. 1949) and diaries and notebooks from 1860 to 1881, ed. by C. R. Proffer (1972); his letters, ed. by E. C. Mayne (1964); the notebooks for his novels, ed. by E. Wasiolek (5 vol., tr. 1967–71); biographies by E. J. Simmons (1940), A. Yarmolinsky (1971), and J. Frank (5 vol., 1976–2002; 1 vol. abr. ed., 2009); studies by V. Rozanov (1891, tr. 1972), K. Mochulsky (1947, tr. 1967), and E. Wasiolek (1964); collection of critical essays, ed. by R. Wellek (1962).

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