The Karamazov Brothers

By Fyodor Dostoevsky; Ignat Avsey | Go to book overview
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IT is a commonly held view that Dostoevsky is an excessively pessimistic, even dour writer, obsessed with analysing the criminal tendencies of human nature, 'heavy' and difficult to read. But Dostoevsky stands out first and foremost as a reader's writer, who always seeks to present his themes in a palatable form as an integral part of an absorbing plot in which humour is often a key element. He was never sure, however, of being able to win the critics over to his side, and to the very end of his life he remained decidedly on the defensive. In his correspondence with the Procurator of the Holy Synod, the formidable Konstantin Pobedonostsev, tutor to Aleksander III and to the future Tsar Nicholas II, Dostoevsky wrote: 'I am coming to the end of The Karamazovs. This last part, I can see and feel this, is so unusual and different from what other people are writing that I definitely do not expect any plaudits from the critics.'1

Dostoevsky's strong urge to shock the 'genteel' readership may provide a clue to his entire creative approach, may even be the principal factor in determining his choice of subject. Sigmund Freud argued that Dostoevsky's preoccupation with the nether side of human nature stemmed from criminal tendencies in his own soul.2 This, surely, is to misjudge the tree by its fruit. An alternative explanation is that Dostoevsky acted on the principle of 'why should the devil have all the best tunes?', and, being a true artist with an eye for what is popular, he served his readers such fare as was calculated to satisfy their appetites. The price he had to pay was that Turgenev proclaimed him to be a latter-day de Sade, his fictional heroes became bywords for depravity and degeneration, and the Russian language was 'enriched' by such cult terms as Karamazovshchina and even Dostoevshchina, which are associated with sexual profligacy, violence, psychological deviation, and the breakdown of conventional

To K. Pobedonostev, 16 Aug. 1880, Collected Works, 30/pt 2, 209, (henceforth CW--see 'Texts used' for full citation).
Sigmund Freud, "'Dostoievski and Parricide'", trans. by D. F. Tait, The Realist, 1/2 ( 1929), 19.


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