History of Literature

Fyodor Dostoevsky

"The Idiot"



Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Russian author
in full Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky Dostoyevsky also spelled Dostoevsky

born November 11, [October 30, Old Style], 1821, Moscow, Russia
died February 9 [January 28, O.S.], 1881, St. Petersburg

Russian novelist and short-story writer whose psychological penetration into the darkest recesses of the human heart, together with his unsurpassed moments of illumination, had an immense influence on 20th-century fiction.

Dostoyevsky is usually regarded as one of the finest novelists who ever lived. Literary modernism, existentialism, and various schools of psychology, theology, and literary criticism have been profoundly shaped by his ideas. His works are often called prophetic because he so accurately predicted how Russia’s revolutionaries would behave if they came to power. In his time he was also renowned for his activity as a journalist.

Major works and their characteristics
Dostoyevsky is best known for his novella Notes from the Underground and for four long novels, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed (also and more accurately known as The Demons and The Devils), and The Brothers Karamazov. Each of these works is famous for its psychological profundity, and, indeed, Dostoyevsky is commonly regarded as one of the greatest psychologists in the history of literature. He specialized in the analysis of pathological states of mind that lead to insanity, murder, and suicide and in the exploration of the emotions of humiliation, self-destruction, tyrannical domination, and murderous rage. These major works are also renowned as great “novels of ideas” that treat timeless and timely issues in philosophy and politics. Psychology and philosophy are closely linked in Dostoyevsky’s portrayals of intellectuals, who “feel ideas” in the depths of their souls. Finally, these novels broke new ground with their experiments in literary form.

Background and early life
The major events of Dostoyevsky’s life—mock execution, imprisonment in Siberia, and epileptic seizures—were so well known that, even apart from his work, Dostoyevsky achieved great celebrity in his own time. Indeed, he frequently capitalized on his legend by drawing on the highly dramatic incidents of his life in creating his greatest characters. Even so, some events in his life have remained clouded in mystery, and careless speculations have unfortunately gained the status of fact.

Unlike many other Russian writers of the first part of the 19th century, Dostoyevsky was not born into the landed gentry. He often stressed the difference between his own background and that of Leo Tolstoy or Ivan Turgenev and the effect of that difference on his work. First, Dostoyevsky was always in need of money and had to hurry his works into publication. Although he complained that writing against a deadline prevented him from achieving his full literary powers, it is equally possible that his frenzied style of composition lent his novels an energy that has remained part of their appeal. Second, Dostoyevsky often noted that, unlike writers from the nobility who described the family life of their own class, shaped by “beautiful forms” and stable traditions, he explored the lives of “accidental families” and of “the insulted and the humiliated.”

Dostoyevsky’s father, a retired military surgeon, served as a doctor at the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in Moscow, where he treated charity cases while also conducting a private practice. Though a devoted parent, Dostoyevsky’s father was a stern, suspicious, and rigid man. By contrast, his mother, a cultured woman from a merchant family, was kindly and indulgent. Dostoyevsky’s lifelong attachment to religion began with the old-fashioned piety of his family, so different from the fashionable skepticism of the gentry.

In 1828 Dostoyevsky’s father managed to earn the rank of a nobleman (the reforms of Peter I the Great had made such a change in status possible). He bought an estate in 1831, and so young Fyodor spent the summer months in the country. Until 1833 Dostoyevsky was educated at home, before being sent to a day school and then to a boarding school. Dostoyevsky’s mother died in 1837. Some 40 years after Dostoyevsky’s death it was revealed that his father, who had died suddenly in 1839, might have been murdered by his own serfs; however, this account is now regarded by many scholars as a myth. At the time, Dostoyevsky was a student in the Academy of Military Engineering in St. Petersburg, a career as a military engineer having been marked out for him by his father.

Dostoyevsky was evidently unsuited for such an occupation. He and his older brother Mikhail, who remained his close friend and became his collaborator in publishing journals, were entranced with literature from a young age. As a child and as a student, Dostoyevsky was drawn to Romantic and Gothic fiction, especially the works of Sir Walter Scott, Ann Radcliffe, Nikolay Karamzin, Friedrich Schiller, and Aleksandr Pushkin. Not long after completing his degree (1843) and becoming a sublieutenant, Dostoyevsky resigned his commission to commence a hazardous career as a writer living off his pen.

Early works
The first work Dostoyevsky published was a rather free and emotionally intensified translation of Honoré de Balzac’s novel Eugénie Grandet; and the French writer’s oeuvre was to exercise a great influence on his own fiction. Dostoyevsky did not have to toil long in obscurity. No sooner had he written his first novella, Bednyye lyudi (1846; Poor Folk), than he was hailed as the great new talent of Russian literature by the most influential critic of his day, the “furious” Vissarion Belinsky.

Three decades later, in The Diary of a Writer, Dostoyevsky recalled the story of his “discovery.” After completing Poor Folk, he gave a copy to his friend, Dmitry Grigorovich, who brought it to the poet Nikolay Nekrasov. Reading Dostoyevsky’s manuscript aloud, these two writers were overwhelmed by the work’s psychological insight and ability to play on the heartstrings. Even though it was 4:00 am, they went straight to Dostoyevsky to tell him his first novella was a masterpiece. Later that day, Nekrasov brought Poor Folk to Belinsky. “A new Gogol has appeared!” Nekrasov proclaimed, to which Belinsky replied, “With you, Gogols spring up like mushrooms!” Belinsky soon communicated his enthusiasm to Dostoyevsky: “Do you, you yourself, realize what it is that you have written!” In The Diary of a Writer, Dostoyevsky remembered this as the happiest moment of his life.

Poor Folk, the appeal of which has been overshadowed by Dostoyevsky’s later works, is cast in the then already anachronistic form of an epistolary novel. Makar Devushkin, a poor copying clerk who can afford to live only in a corner of a dirty kitchen, exchanges letters with a young and poor girl, Varvara Dobrosyolova. Her letters reveal that she has already been procured once for a wealthy and worthless man, whom, at the end of the novel, she agrees to marry. The novel is remarkable for its descriptions of the psychological (rather than just material) effects of poverty. Dostoyevsky transformed the techniques Nikolay Gogol used in The Overcoat, the celebrated story of a poor copying clerk. Whereas Gogol’s thoroughly comic hero utterly lacks self-awareness, Dostoyevsky’s self-conscious hero suffers agonies of humiliation. In one famous scene, Devushkin reads Gogol’s story and is offended by it.

In the next few years Dostoyevsky published a number of stories, including Belyye nochi (“White Nights”), which depicts the mentality of a dreamer, and a novella, Dvoynik (1846; The Double), a study in schizophrenia. The hero of this novella, Golyadkin, begets a double of himself, who mocks him and usurps his place. Dostoyevsky boldly narrates the story through one of the voices that sounds within Golyadkin’s psyche so that the story reads as if it were a taunt addressed directly to its unfortunate hero.

Although Dostoyevsky was at first lionized, his excruciating shyness and touchy vanity provoked hostility among the members of Belinsky’s circle. Nekrasov and Turgenev circulated a satiric poem in which the young writer was called, like Don Quixote, “The Knight of the Doleful Countenance”; years later, Dostoyevsky paid Turgenev back with a devastating parody of him in The Possessed. Belinsky himself gradually became disappointed with Dostoyevsky’s preference for psychology over social issues. Always prone to nervous illness, Dostoyevsky suffered from depression.

Political activity and arrest
In 1847 Dostoyevsky began to participate in the Petrashevsky Circle, a group of intellectuals who discussed utopian socialism. He eventually joined a related, secret group devoted to revolution and illegal propaganda. It appears that Dostoyevsky did not sympathize (as others did) with egalitarian communism and terrorism but was motivated by his strong disapproval of serfdom. On April 23, 1849, he and the other members of the Petrashevsky Circle were arrested. Dostoyevsky spent eight months in prison until, on December 22, the prisoners were led without warning to the Semyonovsky Square. There a sentence of death by firing squad was pronounced, last rites were offered, and three prisoners were led out to be shot first. At the last possible moment, the guns were lowered and a messenger arrived with the information that the tsar had deigned to spare their lives. The mock-execution ceremony was in fact part of the punishment. One of the prisoners went permanently insane on the spot; another went on to write Crime and Punishment.

Dostoyevsky passed several minutes in the full conviction that he was about to die, and in his novels characters repeatedly imagine the state of mind of a man approaching execution. The hero of The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, offers several extended descriptions of this sort, which readers knew carried special authority because the author of the novel had gone through the terrible experience. The mock execution led Dostoyevsky to appreciate the very process of life as an incomparable gift and, in contrast to the prevailing determinist and materialist thinking of the intelligentsia, to value freedom, integrity, and individual responsibility all the more strongly.

Instead of being executed, Dostoyevsky was sentenced to four years in a Siberian prison labour camp, to be followed by an indefinite term as a soldier. After his return to Russia 10 years later, he wrote a novel based on his prison camp experiences, Zapiski iz myortvogo doma (1861–62; The House of the Dead). Gone was the tinge of Romanticism and dreaminess present in his early fiction. The novel, which was to initiate the Russian tradition of prison camp literature, describes the horrors that Dostoyevsky actually witnessed: the brutality of the guards who enjoyed cruelty for its own sake, the evil of criminals who could enjoy murdering children, and the existence of decent souls amid filth and degradation—all these themes, warranted by the author’s own experience, gave the novel the immense power that readers still experience. Tolstoy considered it Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece. Above all, The House of the Dead illustrates that, more than anything else, it is the need for individual freedom that makes us human. This conviction was to bring Dostoyevsky into direct conflict with the radical determinists and socialists of the intelligentsia.

In Siberia Dostoyevsky experienced what he called the “regeneration” of his convictions. He rejected the condescending attitude of intellectuals, who wanted to impose their political ideas on society, and came to believe in the dignity and fundamental goodness of common people. He describes this change in his sketch The Peasant Marey (which appears in The Diary of a Writer). Dostoyevsky also became deeply attached to Russian Orthodoxy, as the religion of the common people, although his faith was always at war with his skepticism. In one famous letter he describes how he thirsts for faith “like parched grass” and concludes: “if someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth, and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.”

Dostoyevsky suffered his first attacks of epilepsy while in prison. No less than his accounts of being led to execution, his descriptions of epileptic seizures (especially in The Idiot) reveal the heights and depths of the human soul. As Dostoyevsky and his hero Myshkin experience it, the moment just before an attack grants the sufferer a strong sensation of perfect harmony and of overcoming time. Freud interpreted Dostoyevsky’s epilepsy as psychological in origin, but his account has been vitiated by research showing that his analysis was based on misinformation. In 1857 Dostoyevsky married a consumptive widow, Mariya Dmitriyevna Isayeva (she died seven years later); the unhappy marriage began with her witnessing one of his seizures on their honeymoon.

Works of the 1860s
Upon his return to Russia, Dostoyevsky plunged into literary activity. With his brother Mikhail, he edited two influential journals, first Vremya (1861–63; “Time”), which was closed by the government on account of an objectionable article, and then Epokha (1864–65; “Epoch”), which collapsed after the death of Mikhail. After first trying to maintain a middle-of-the-road position, Dostoyevsky began to attack the radicals, who virtually defined the Russian intelligentsia. Dostoyevsky was repulsed by their materialism, their utilitarian morality, their reduction of art to propaganda, and, above all, their denial of individual freedom and responsibility. For the remainder of his life, he maintained a deep sense of the danger of radical ideas, and so his post-Siberian works came to be resented by the Bolsheviks and held in suspicion by the Soviet regime.

Works of the 1860s Notes from the Underground
In the first part of Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Notes from the Underground) an unnamed first-person narrator delivers a brilliant attack on a set of beliefs shared by liberals and radicals: that it is possible to discover the laws of individual psychology, that human beings consequently have no free choice, that history is governed by laws, and that it is possible to design a utopian society based on the laws of society and human nature. Even if such a society could be built, the underground man argues, people would hate it just because it denied them caprice and defined them as utterly predictable. In the novella’s second part the underground man recalls incidents from his past, which show him behaving, in answer to determinism, according to sheer spite. Dostoyevsky thus makes clear that the underground man’s irrationalist solution is no better than the rationalists’ systems. Notes from the Underground also parodied the bible of the radicals, Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s utopian fiction What Is to Be Done? (1863).

Works of the 1860s Stay in western Europe
For several reasons, Dostoyevsky spent much of the 1860s in western Europe: he wanted to see the society that he both admired for its culture and deplored for its materialism, he was hoping to resume an affair with the minor author Appolinariya Suslova, he was escaping his creditors in Russia, and he was disastrously attracted to gambling. An unscrupulous publisher offered him a desperately needed advance on the condition that he deliver a novel by a certain date; the publisher was counting on the forfeit provisions, which would allow him nine years to publish all of Dostoyevsky’s works for free. With less than a month remaining, Dostoyevsky hired a stenographer and dictated his novel Igrok (1866; The Gambler)—based on his relations with Suslova and the psychology of compulsive gambling—which he finished just on time. A few months later (1867) he married the stenographer, Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina. She at last put his life and finances in order and created stable conditions for his work and new family. They had four children, of whom two survived to adulthood.

Works of the 1860s Crime and Punishment
Written at the same time as The Gambler, Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment) describes a young intellectual, Raskolnikov, willing to gamble on ideas. He decides to solve all his problems at a stroke by murdering an old pawnbroker woman. Contradictory motives and theories all draw him to the crime. Utilitarian morality suggests that killing her is a positive good because her money could be used to help many others. On the other hand, Raskolnikov reasons that belief in good and evil is itself sheer prejudice, a mere relic of religion, and that, morally speaking, there is no such thing as crime. Nevertheless, Raskolnikov, despite his denial of morality, sympathizes with the unfortunate and so wants to kill the pawnbroker just because she is an oppressor of the weak. His most famous theory justifying murder divides the world into extraordinary people, such as Solon, Caesar, and Napoleon, and ordinary people, who simply serve to propagate the species. Extraordinary people, he theorizes, must have “the right to transgress,” or progress would be impossible. Nothing could be further from Dostoyevsky’s own morality, based on the infinite worth of each human soul, than this Napoleonic theory, which Dostoyevsky viewed as the real content of the intelligentsia’s belief in its superior wisdom.

After committing the crime, Raskolnikov unaccountably finds himself gripped by “mystic terror” and a horrible sense of isolation. The detective Porfiry Petrovich, who guesses Raskolnikov’s guilt but cannot prove it, plays psychological games with him until the murderer at last confesses. Meanwhile, Raskolnikov tries to discover the real motive for his crime but never arrives at a single answer. In a famous commentary, Tolstoy argued that there was no single motive but rather a series of “tiny, tiny alterations” of mood and mental habits. Dostoyevsky’s brilliance in part lies in his complex rethinking of such concepts as motive and intention.

Crime and Punishment also offers remarkable psychological portraits of a drunkard, Marmeladov, and of a vicious amoralist haunted by hallucinations, Svidrigailov. Raskolnikov’s friend Razumikhin voices the author’s distaste for an ideological approach to life; Razumikhin’s own life exemplifies how one can solve problems neither by grand ideas nor by dramatic gambles but by slow, steady, hard work.

Quite deliberately, Dostoyevsky made the heroine of the story, Sonya Marmeladova, an unrealistic symbol of pure Christian goodness. Having become a prostitute to support her family, she later persuades Raskolnikov to confess and then follows him to Siberia. In the novel’s epilogue, the prisoner Raskolnikov, who has confessed not out of remorse but out of emotional stress, at first continues to maintain his amoral theories but at last is brought to true repentance by a revelatory dream and by Sonya’s goodness. Critical opinion is divided over whether the epilogue is artistically successful.

Works of the 1860s The Idiot
Dostoyevsky’s next major novel, Idiot (1868–69; The Idiot), represents his attempt to describe a perfectly good man in a way that is still psychologically convincing—seemingly an impossible artistic task. If he could succeed, Dostoyevsky believed, he would show that Christ-like goodness is indeed possible; and so the very writing of the work became an attempt at what might be called a novelistic proof of Christianity.

The work’s hero, Prince Myshkin, is indeed perfectly generous and so innocent as to be regarded as an idiot; however, he is also gifted with profound psychological insight. Unfortunately, his very goodness seems to bring disaster to all he meets, even to the novel’s heroine, Nastasya Filippovna, whom he wishes to save. With a remarkably complex psychology, she both accepts and bitterly defies the world’s judgment of her as a fallen woman. Ippolit, a spiteful young man dying of consumption, offers brilliant meditations on art, on death, on the meaninglessness of dumb brutish nature, and on happiness, which, to him, is a matter of the very process of living. Columbus, he explains, was happy not when he discovered America but while he was discovering it.

Dostoyevsky’s last decade The Possessed
Dostoyevsky’s next novel, Besy (1872; The Possessed), earned him the permanent hatred of the radicals. Often regarded as the most brilliant political novel ever written, it interweaves two plots. One concerns Nikolay Stavrogin, a man with a void at the centre of his being. In his younger years Stavrogin, in a futile quest for meaning, had embraced and cast off a string of ideologies, each of which has been adopted by different intellectuals mesmerized by Stavrogin’s personality. Shatov has become a Slavophile who, like Dostoyevsky himself, believes in the “God-bearing” Russian people. Existentialist critics (especially Albert Camus) became fascinated with Kirillov, who adopts a series of contradictory philosophical justifications for suicide. Most famously, Kirillov argues that only an utterly gratuitous act of self-destruction can prove that a person is free because such an act cannot be explained by any kind of self-interest and therefore violates all psychological laws. By killing himself without reason, Kirillov hopes to become the “man-god” and so provide an example for human freedom in a world that has denied Christ (the God-man).

It is the novel’s other plot that has earned Dostoyevsky the reputation of a political prophet. It describes a cell of revolutionary conspirators led by Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, who binds the group together by involving them in murdering Shatov. (This incident was based on the scheme of a real revolutionary of the time, Sergey Nechayev.) One of the revolutionaries, Shigalyov, offers his thoughts on the emergence of the perfect society: “Starting with unlimited freedom, I arrive at unlimited despotism.” Enforced equality and guaranteed utopia demand the suppression of all individuality and independent thought. In lines that anticipate Soviet and Maoist cultural policy, Pyotr Stepanovich predicts that, when the revolution comes, “Cicero will have his tongue cut out, Copernicus will have his eyes put out, Shakespeare will be stoned,” all in the name of “equality.”

Pyotr is the son and Stavrogin the former student of the novel’s weak but endearing liberal, Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky. Dostoyevsky suggests that the madness of the radical sons derives from their fathers’ liberal skepticism, mockery of traditional morals, and, above all, neglect of the family. The Possessed is a profoundly conservative and Christian work. In contrast to its savage portraits of intellectuals, the novel expresses great sympathy for workers and other ordinary people ill-served by the radicals who presume to speak in their name.

Dostoyevsky’s last decade A Writer’s Diary and other works
In 1873 Dostoyevsky assumed the editorship of the conservative journal Grazhdanin (“The Citizen”), where he published an irregular column entitled Dnevnik pisatelya (“The Diary of a Writer”). He left Grazhdanin to write Podrostok (1875; A Raw Youth, also known as The Adolescent), a relatively unsuccessful and diffuse novel describing a young man’s relations with his natural father.

In 1876–77 Dostoyevsky devoted his energies to Dnevnik pisatelya, which he was now able to bring out in the form he had originally intended. A one-man journal, for which Dostoyevsky served as editor, publisher, and sole contributor, the Diary represented an attempt to initiate a new literary genre. Issue by monthly issue, the Diary created complex thematic resonances among diverse kinds of material: short stories, plans for possible stories, autobiographical essays, sketches that seem to lie on the boundary between fiction and journalism, psychological analyses of sensational crimes, literary criticism, and political commentary. The Diary proved immensely popular and financially rewarding, but as an aesthetic experiment it was less successful, probably because Dostoyevsky, after a few intricate issues, seemed unable to maintain his complex design. Instead, he was drawn into expressing his political views, which, during these two years, became increasingly extreme. Specifically, Dostoyevsky came to believe that western Europe was about to collapse, after which Russia and the Russian Orthodox church would create the kingdom of God on earth and so fulfill the promise of the Book of Revelation. In a series of anti-Catholic articles, he equated the Roman Catholic church with the socialists because both are concerned with earthly rule and maintain (Dostoyevsky believed) an essentially materialist view of human nature. He reached his moral nadir with a number of anti-Semitic articles.

Because Dostoyevsky was unable to maintain his aesthetic design for the Diary, its most famous sections are usually known from anthologies and so are separated from the context in which they were designed to fit. These sections include four of his best short stories—Krotkaya (“The Meek One”), Son smeshnogo cheloveka (“The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”), Malchik u Khrista na elke (“The Heavenly Christmas Tree”), and Bobok—as well as a number of autobiographical and semifictional sketches, including Muzhik Marey (“The Peasant Marey”), Stoletnaya (“A Hundred-Year-Old Woman”), and a satire, Spiritizm. Nechto o chertyakh Chrezychaynaya khitrost chertey, esli tolko eto cherti (“Spiritualism. Something about Devils. The Extraordinary Cleverness of Devils, If Only These Are Devils”).

Dostoyevsky’s last decade The Brothers Karamazov
Dostoyevsky’s last and probably greatest novel, Bratya Karamazovy (1879–80; The Brothers Karamazov), focuses on his favourite theological and philosophical themes: the origin of evil, the nature of freedom, and the craving for faith. A profligate and vicious father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, mocks everything noble and engages in unseemly buffoonery at every opportunity. When his sons were infants, he neglected them not out of malice but simply because he “forgot” them. The eldest, Dmitry, a passionate man capable of sincerely loving both “Sodom” and “the Madonna” at the same time, wrangles with his father over money and competes with him for the favours of a “demonic” woman, Grushenka. When the old man is murdered, circumstantial evidence leads to Dmitry’s arrest for the crime, which actually has been committed by the fourth, and illegitimate, son, the malicious epileptic Smerdyakov.

The youngest legitimate son, Alyosha, is another of Dostoyevsky’s attempts to create a realistic Christ figure. Following the wise monk Zosima, Alyosha tries to put Christian love into practice. The narrator proclaims him the work’s real hero, but readers are usually most interested in the middle brother, the intellectual Ivan.

Like Raskolnikov, Ivan argues that, if there is no God and no immortality, then “all is permitted.” And, even if all is not permitted, he tells Alyosha, one is responsible only for one’s actions but not for one’s wishes. Of course, the Sermon on the Mount says one is responsible for one’s wishes, and, when old Karamazov is murdered, Ivan, in spite of all his theories, comes to feel guilty for having desired his father’s death. In tracing the dynamics of Ivan’s guilt, Dostoyevsky in effect provides a psychological justification for Christian teaching. Evil happens not just because of a few criminals but because of a moral climate in which all people participate by harbouring evil wishes. Therefore, as Father Zosima teaches, “everyone is responsible for everyone and for everything.”

The novel is most famous for three chapters that may be ranked among the greatest pages of Western literature. In “Rebellion,” Ivan indicts God the Father for creating a world in which children suffer. Ivan has also written a “poem,” The Grand Inquisitor, which represents his response to God the Son. It tells the story of Christ’s brief return to earth during the Spanish Inquisition. Recognizing him, the Inquisitor arrests him as “the worst of heretics” because, the Inquisitor explains, the church has rejected Christ. For Christ came to make people free, but, the Inquisitor insists, people do not want to be free, no matter what they say. They want security and certainty rather than free choice, which leads them to error and guilt. And so, to ensure happiness, the church has created a society based on “miracle, mystery, and authority.” The Inquisitor is evidently meant to stand not only for medieval Roman Catholicism but also for contemporary socialism. “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor” contain what many have considered the strongest arguments ever formulated against God, which Dostoyevsky includes so that, in refuting them, he can truly defend Christianity. It is one of the greatest paradoxes of Dostoyevsky’s work that his deeply Christian novel more than gives the Devil his due.

In the work’s other most famous chapter, Ivan, now going mad, is visited by the Devil, who talks philosophy with him. Quite strikingly, this Devil is neither grand nor satanic but petty and vulgar, as if to symbolize the ordinariness and banality of evil. He also keeps up with all the latest beliefs of the intelligentsia on earth, which leads, in remarkably humorous passages, to the Devil’s defense of materialism and agnosticism. The image of the “petty demon” has had immense influence on 20th-century thought and literature.

In 1880 Dostoyevsky delivered an electrifying speech about the poet Aleksandr Pushkin, which he published in a separate issue of The Diary of a Writer (August 1880). After finishing Karamazov, he resumed the monthly Diary but lived to publish only a single issue (January 1881) before dying of a hemorrhage on January 28 in St. Petersburg.

Dostoyevsky’s name has become synonymous with psychological profundity. For generations, the depth and contradictoriness of his heroes have made systematic psychological theories look shallow by comparison. Many theorists (most notably Freud) have tried to claim Dostoyevsky as a predecessor. His sense of evil and his love of freedom have made Dostoyevsky especially relevant to a century of world war, mass murder, and totalitarianism. At least two modern literary genres, the prison camp novel and the dystopian novel (works such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four), derive from his writings. His ideas and formal innovations exercised a profound influence on Friedrich Nietzsche, André Gide, Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux, and Mikhail Bulgakov, to name only a few. Above all, his works continue to enthrall readers by combining suspenseful plots with ultimate questions about faith, suffering, and the meaning of life.

Gary Saul Morson



Notes from the Underground

Fyodor Dostoevsky

As the title suggests, the anonymous narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground is a voice from beneath the daylight world—a troubled consciousness leaking out from a crack in the floorboards of Russian society. The novel is both the apology and the confession of a bitter, misanthropic civic official living alone in St. Petersburg. Divided into two sections, it reflects two key stages in Russian intellectual life during the nineteenth century: the rationalist utilitarianism of the 1860s and the sentimental, literary romanticism of the 1840s. Across these two parts, the narrator launches a series of dazzling, provocative attacks on the many changing orders of his lifetime—aesthetic, religious, philosophical, and political. He is a highly educated but deeply disillusioned soul, savaging both the "beautiful and lofty" romanticism of his youth and the new socialist principles that correspond with his middle age. No target is immune from scorn.
On the one hand, this dark, strange work is a kind of "case study"—an analysis of alienation and self-loathing, a novel that situates itself on the faultline between society and the individual. On the other, it is a tragicomic theater of ideas. It offers a powerful rebuttal to both enlightenment idealism and the promises of socialist utopianism. Votes from the Underground is a shadowy, difficult, and compelling novel, which deserves to be recognized as far more than a critical prelude to Dostoevsky's later, more celebrated works.




The Idiot

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky's second long novel reworks the "holy fool" motif: the apparently naive person who may secretly be wise. The "idiot" in this case is the saintly Prince Myshkin,an epileptic (like the author himself), whom we encounter returning to Russia from a Swiss sanatorium to stay with his distant relative, Mrs.Yepanchin.the wife of a wealthy general. Set in the rapidly developing St. Petersburg of the 1860s, the narrative follows Myshkin's impact upon the Yepanchins and the social milieu they inhabit. The prince serves as a catalyst for conflict between social hypocrisy and the emotions it masks, dealing with money, status, sex, and marriage. Like any good Russian novel, The Idiot includes a long list of characters with difficult names, and roils with intrigue and passion against the backdrop of an emergent bourgeois modernity.
At the outset, Myshkin befriends rich, wilful young buck Rogozhin, his opposite in every way. But the two men subsequently become rivals for the affections of Nastasya Filippovna. She is an orphan adopted by a General Totsky, who, it is strongly hinted, raped her in her adolescence. Her status is thus dubious, a fallen woman, but Myshkin, who can eerily divine inner characters, perceives in her a suffering soul;a spiritual bond forms between them, in sharp contrast to Rogozhin's fierce desire for her. How, Dostoevsky asks, does the ethereal, frequently insufferable spirituality of a Myshkin sit in relation to the more primitive drives of a Rogozhin?



The Brothers Karamazov

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky's profound, gripping, and frequently nightmarish novel deals with four very different brothers: Alyosha the mystic, Dmitry the sensualist, Ivan the intellectual, and the twisted, cunning bastard child, Smerdyakov. This is the compelling story of what happens to them when their morally corrupting father is murdered by one of them. While there is an element of "whodunnit"and of courtroom drama, as well as a sordid love story, this is primarily a philosophical novel. It is both self-conscious and naive, ironical, and serious in its philosophizing, connecting the fate and future of Russian man with no lesser questions than those of the nature of good and evil and the existence and justifiability of God. Notable is the "Grand lnquisitor"sequence, interpreted by some as a prescient criticism of totalitarianism, in which the self-confessed atheist Ivan tries to explain his rejection of God to his saintly brother Alyosha.
The tension between the complexity of Ivan's questioning and the undeveloped simplicity of the answers given by Alyosha, makes the novel intriguing and difficult to pin down. There is evidence that Dostoevsky intended his last and most important work to be a resounding exposition and defense of Christianity against the ungodly doctrines gaining ground in Russia at the time. It is a better novel for falling short of that aim.



Тyре of work: Novel
Author: Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
Type of plot: Impressionistic realism
Locale: Russia
First published: Bratya Karamazovy, 1879-1880 (English translation, 1912)


The anguish caused by man's dual nature reverberates throughout this powerful novel, which tells the story of the effects of greed, passion, and depravity on a father and his sons. Considered to be the author's best work, The Brothers Karamazov is filled with brilliant characterizations which in turn are underpinned by the ethical and psychological probings for which Dostoevski is famous.


Principal Characters

Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov (fyo'dar pav'lovlch ka-ra-ma'zaf), a crude buffoon of a father, the extremist, sensual, materialistic progenitor of a line of doomed sons. As an aging libertine, he is brought into competition with his sons over a woman, money, and status, and also by a sheer determination to live and control his destiny without interference. His manners are as threatening as his brooding appearance, and his debauchery is extreme, unabated even in his dwindling years. He is crafty, greedy, close-fisted, exhibiting a low cunning which speaks of a special kind of intelligence. His pose is artful; his lust for life and his voluptuousness are phenomenal. Obscene as he is, a malignant joker of low order, he has about him an air of magnificence gone to seed in an aging domestic tyrant.
Dmitri (drm'trfy), often called Mitya, his oldest son, who most resembles his father and most despises him for the wrong done the dead mother and himself. Morbidly fearful of his heredity. Dmitri reviles his father not so much for what he has done—cheated his son of both birthright and lover—as for what he is, a cruel, crafty despoiler of all that is decent. Like his father, he is muscular though slender; he is sallow, with large dark eyes. He is a kind of scapegoat, the one on whom the curse of sensuousness falls most heavily, given as he is to strong feelings and actions. He has a brooding Russian personality, an excitability, a violent nature capable of deep emotions and lasting love and antagonisms, though he has also simplicity, natural goodness, an open heart, directness, and awareness.
Ivan (I-van'), his half brother, an intellectual, poet, and atheist, given to visions and flights of fancy, secre-tiveness, and remote aloofness. Five years younger than Dmitri, he seems older, more mature, better poised. He has a subtle mind, both skeptical and idealistic, mercurial and unrealistic. Although none of the boys, having been cared for by relatives, is close to their tempestuous father, Ivan is the least known to Fyodor Karamazov and the one he most fears for qualities so remote from his own.
Though he wills his father's death, he is greatly shocked at the deed and his part in it, and he suffers a guilt complex so great that it unhinges his dualistic mind. He serves as the author's mouthpiece in the long Grand Inquisitor scene and the account of his private devil. Ivan is loved distantly and respected by his brothers for his lucidity and clairvoyance. He inherits the lust, the extremism, the egocentricity of his father, but in a refined, inward way.
Alyosha (a-lyo'shs), or Alexey (a-lek-sa'), Ivan's brother and Dmitri's half brother, the spiritual son who is the peacemaker, the sympathizer, the trusted and beloved brother if not son. Nineteen, healthy, bright, personable, good-looking, Alyosha, out of goodness and love, forms a bond with his unregenerate father and his distrustful brothers. His devotion to the good Father Zossima. his acceptance of his own worldliness at war with his spirituality, and his sheer love of life make him an attractive character, a natural, human person among grotesques.
Grushenka (groo'shen-кэ), beloved by father and son. an intemperate temptress, an earthy type who realizes more than she can communicate. She appears a hussy with all the tricks of her kind, but she is also devoted, loyal in her own way, and loving. Primitive, independent, free of the petty vindictiveness that plagues her lovers, Grushenka enlivens the story with a wholesome, womanly, even motherly quality.
Katerina Ivanovna (ka-ter-Тп'э I-va'novng), beloved by Ivan but engaged to Dmitri, an aristocrat and compulsive lover of great force of character. Willing to beg for love, to buy her beloved, she also has a fierce pride that flames up in revenge. Though she is attractive in a more austere way than Grushenka's, they share many eternally feminine traits.
Smerdyakov (smer-dya'kaf), a half-witted servant, perhaps a natural son of Karamazov, and his murderer. He is scornful and sadistic. As the murderer who cannot live with his guilt, he is seen as more sinned against than sinning, the victim more than the antagonist. He hates his master and Dmitri, but he is curiously drawn to Ivan and in reality dies for him. Smerdyakov hangs himself. Father Zossima (zd'se-тэ), a devout religious ascetic, Alyosha's teacher in the monastery to which the boy retires for a time. Aware of the sensual nature of the Karama-zovs, the old priest advises the boy to go back to the world. Because of his holy example, his followers expect a miracle to occur when Father Zossima dies. Instead, his body decomposes rapidly, a circumstance viewed by other monks as proof that the aged man's teachings have been false.
Marfa (mar'fa), a servant in the Karamazov household and Smerdyakov's foster mother.
Grigory (gri-go're), Marfa's husband.
Lizaveta (lye-za-ve'ts), the half-witted girl who died giving birth to Smerdyakov. Many people in the village believe that Fyodor Karamazov is the father of her child.


The Story

In the middle of the nineteenth century in Skotopri-gonyevski, a town in the Russian provinces, Fyodor Karamazov fathered three sons: the eldest, Dmitri, by his first wife, and the other two, Ivan and Alexey, by his second. Fyodor, a good businessman but a scoundrel by nature, abandoned the children after their mothers died. A family servant, Grigory, saw that they were placed in the care of relatives.
Dmitri grew up believing that he would receive a legacy from his mother's estate. He served in the army, where he developed wild ways. Becoming a wastrel, he went to his father and asked for the money he believed to be due him. Ivan, morose but not timid, went from a gymnasium to a college in Moscow. Poverty forced him to teach and to contribute articles to periodicals, and he achieved modest fame when he published an article on the position of the ecclesiastical courts. Alexey, or Alyosha, a boy of a dreamy, retiring nature, entered a local monastery, where he became the pupil of a famous Orthodox church elder, Zossima. When Alyosha asked his father's permission to become a monk, Fyodor, to whom nothing was sacred, scoffed but gave his sanction.
When the brothers had all reached manhood, their paths converged in the town of their birth. Dmitri returned to collect his legacy. Ivan, a professed atheist, returned home for financial reasons.
At a meeting of the father and sons at the monastery, Fyodor shamed his sons by behaving like a fool in the presence of the revered Zossima. Dmitri, who arrived late, was accused by Fyodor of wanting the legacy money in order to entertain a local adventuress to whom he himself was attracted. Dmitri, who was betrothed at this time to Katerina, a colonel's daughter whom he had rescued from shame, raged at his father, saying that the old man was a great sinner and had no room to talk. Zossima fell down before Dmitri, tapping his head on the floor, and his fall was believed to be a portent of an evil that would befall the oldest son. Realizing that the Karama-zovs were sensualists, Zossima advised Alyosha to leave the monastery and go into the world at Zossima's death. There was further dissension among the Karamazovs because of Ivan's love for Katerina, the betrothed of Dmitri.
Marfa, the wife of Grigory, Fyodor's faithful servant, had given birth to a deformed child. The night that Mar-fa's deformed baby died, Lizaveta, an idiot girl of the town, also died after giving birth to a son. The child, later to be called Smerdyakov, was taken in by Grigory and Marfa and was accepted as a servant in the household of Fyodor, whom everyone in the district believed the child's true father.
Dmitri confessed his wild ways to Alyosha. He opened his heart to his brother and told how he had spent three thousand rubles of Katerina's money in an orgy with Grushenka, a local woman of questionable character, with whom he had fallen passionately in love. Desperate for the money to repay Katerina, Dmitri asked Alyosha to secure it for him from Fyodor.
Alyosha found Fyodor and Ivan at the table, attended by the servant Smerdyakov, who was an epileptic. Entering suddenly in search of Grushenka, Dmitri attacked his father. Alyosha went to Katerina's house, where he found Katerina trying to bribe Grushenka into abandoning her interest in Dmitri. Grushenka, however, could not be compromised. Upon his return to the monastery, Alyosha found Zossima dying. He returned to Fyodor, to discover that his father had become afraid of both Dmitri and Ivan. Ivan wanted Dmitri to marry Grushenka so that he himself could marry Katerina. Fyodor wanted to marry Grushenka. The father refused to give Alyosha any money for Dmitri.
Spurned by Dmitri, Katerina dedicated her life to watching over him, although she felt a true love for Ivan. Ivan, seeing that Katerina was pledged to torture herself for life, nobly approved of her decision.
Later, in an inn, Ivan disclosed to Alyosha that he believed in God but that he could not accept God's world. The young men discussed the dual nature of man. Ivan disclosed that he hated Smerdyakov, who was caught between the wild passions of Dmitri and Fyodor and who, out of fear, worked for the interests of each against the other.
The dying Zossima revived long enough to converse once more with his devoted disciples. When he died, a miracle was expected. In the place of a miracle, however, his body decomposed rapidly, delighting certain of the monks, who were anxious that the institution of elders in the Orthodox church be discredited. They argued that the decomposition of his body proved that his teachings had been false.
In his disappointment at the turn of events at the monastery, Alyosha was persuaded to visit Grushenka, who wished to seduce him. He found Grushenka prepared to escape the madness of the Karamazovs by running off with a former lover. The saintly Alyosha saw good in Grushenka; she, for her part, found him an understanding soul.
Dmitri, eager to pay his debt to Katerina, made various fruitless attempts to borrow the money. Mad with jealousy when he learned that Grushenka was not at her home, he went to Fyodor's house to see whether she were there. He found no Grushenka, but he seriously injured old Grigory with a pestle with which he had intended to kill his father. Discovering that Grushenka had fled to another man, he armed himself and went in pursuit. He found Grushenka with two Poles in an inn at another village. The young woman welcomed Dmitri and professed undying love for him alone. During the lovers' subsequent drunken orgy, the police appeared and charged Dmitri with the murder of his father, who had been found robbed and dead in his house. Blood on Dmitri's clothing, his possession of a large sum of money, and passionate statements he had made against Fyodor were all evidence against him. Dmitri repeatedly protested his innocence, claiming that the money he had spent on his latest orgy was half of Katerina"s rubles. He had saved the money to insure his future in the event that Grushenka accepted him, but the testimony of witnesses made his case seem hopeless. He was taken into custody and placed in the town jail to await trial.
Grushenka fell sick after the arrest of Dmitri, and she and Dmitri were plagued with jealousy of each other. As the result of a strange dream, Dmitri began to look upon himself as an innocent man destined to suffer for the crimes of humanity. Ivan and Katerina, in the meantime, worked on a scheme whereby Dmitri might escape to America.
Before the trial, Ivan interviewed Smerdyakov three times. The servant had once told Ivan that he was able to feign an epileptic fit; such a fit had been Smerdyakov's alibi during the search for the murderer of Fyodor. The third interview ended when Smerdyakov confessed to the murder, insisting, however, that he had been the instrument of Ivan, who by certain words and actions had led the servant to believe that the death of Fyodor would be a blessing for everyone in his household. Smerdyakov, depending on a guilt complex in the soul of Ivan, had murdered his master at a time when all the evidence would point directly to Dmitri. He had believed that Ivan would protect him and provide him with a comfortable living. At the end of the third interview, he gave the stolen money to Ivan, who returned to his rooms and fell ill with fever and delirium, during which he was haunted by a realistic specter of the devil that resided in his soul. That same night, Smerdyakov hanged himself.
The Karamazov case had attracted widespread attention throughout Russia, and many notables attended the trial. Prosecution built up what seemed to be a strong case against Dmitri, but the defense, a city lawyer, refuted the evidence piece by piece. Doctors declared Dmitri to be abnormal; in the end, however, they could not agree. Katerina had her woman's revenge by revealing to the court a letter Dmitri had written to her, in which he declared his intention of killing his father to get the money he owed her. Ivan, still in a fever, testified that Smerdyakov had confessed to the murder. Ivan gave the money to the court, but he negated his testimony when he lost control of himself and told the court of the visits of his private devil.
Despite the defense counsel's eloquent plea on Dmitri's behalf, the jury returned a verdict of guilty amid a tremendous hubbub in the courtroom.
Katerina was haunted by guilt because she had revealed Dmitri's letter; furthermore, she felt that she was responsible for the jealousy of the two brothers. She left Ivan's bedside and went to the hospital, where Dmitri, also ill of a fever, had been taken. Alyosha and Grushenka were present at their interview, when Katerina begged Dmitri for his forgiveness.
Later, Alyosha left Dmitri in the care of Grushenka and went to the funeral of a schoolboy friend. Filled with pity and compassion for the sorrow of death and the misery of life, Alyosha gently admonished the mourners. most of them schoolmates of the dead boy, to live for goodness and to love the world of man. He himself was preparing to go with Dmitri to Siberia, for he was ready to sacrifice his own life for innocence and truth.


Critical Evaluation

Fyodor Dostoevski published The Brothers Karamazov a year before he died. Almost a thousand pages long, the book was intended as the first volume in a fictional trilogy on the topics of religious faith, the nature of evil, and the existence of God. Like his contemporary Leo Tolstoy, Dostoevski believed that Russia had a divine mission: to bring to the world a renewed and invigorated Christianity. Both writers believed that the technological wonders of nineteenth century society had been accompanied by spiritual ills. Rationalism, socialism, nihilism, and other modern "isms" had alienated humanity from its spiritual dimension. To enable Russia to lead in the spiritual regeneration of Europe, Dostoevski took on the task of plumbing the depths of the Russian soul and revealing its powers as well as limitations. Once probed, ravaged, and cleansed, the nation's soul would be ready for its holy mission. Though Dostoevski did not live to complete the project, his ambitious plan and sense of high purpose make The Brothers Karamazov an extraordinary novel. Plotted as a sensational, intriguing detective story about the search for Fyodor Karamazov's murderer, it is also a profound inquiry into the great questions of psychology, philosophy, and theology.
Like good detective fiction, The Brothers Karamazov gradually—almost teasingly—reveals the circumstances of the crime. It follows the processes of a police investigation and criminal trial. Readers eavesdrop on the interrogations of suspects and listen as prosecutors and defense attorneys present their cases. Readers observe how individual delusions, peculiar motives, and accidental evidence all contribute to Dmitri's conviction—a verdict that is factually wrong. To neither the novelist nor the characters who know the truth is this misleading verdict a miscarriage of justice. For Dostoevski, the investigation into Fyodor's murder points to larger problems than the reliability of the criminal justice system: The Karamazov case bares the great difficulty that human reason has in determining truth. The cause of reason's limitation is the very nature of human beings.
The Karamazov family is Dostoevski's composite portrait of human nature. The name derives from the Russian word for dirt or earth; clearly, Fyodor represents humanity in its simple, physical state. He pursues money to ensure his security, and he pursues women and drink to ensure his pleasure. He watches out only for himself; he abandons his sons and does not—indeed cannot—participate civilly in society. Fyodor is the physical impulse to survive and pursue pleasure.
Fyodor's radically different sons represent the other aspects of human nature. Dmitri embodies the emotions: He knows the ecstasy of joy, the passions of lust and anger, and the misery of guilt. Ivan personifies the intellect, the rational ability to dissect and analyze the motives and ideals of human conduct. Alyosha incarnates spirituality, which strives to get beyond the self to touch divinity. Smerdyakov, who is probably Fyodor's bastard son, is closest to the father; he is the flesh which is weak, craven, unreliable, and ultimately rebellious. Though Smerdyakov actually kills Fyodor, all the brothers are implicated: Dmitri is legally guilty, and Ivan and Alyosha are morally guilty. In murder as in any other human action, the whole person participates.
Though this schema for the human soul seems Dostoevski's conclusion, it is actually only the springboard for the investigation of flesh, emotion, intellect, and spirit. Dostoevski's insight is that none of these dimensions of human nature is static. Traditional moral psychology, on the other hand, interpreted these dimensions as having a consistent value: The yearning spirit always strives to point the shortsighted emotions toward eternal goals; the prudent intellect prods the imprudent flesh to put off gratification. These constant parts of the self constantly war against each other. Dostoevski sees, however, that the battle is also joined within each dimension. All of Fyodor's sons experience inner as well as outer conflict. Through these internal struggles, Dostoevski explores issues of good, evil, morality, and faith.
Dmitri is a study in the puzzles of behavior and motivation. He is impulsively good and impulsively wicked. He is at times brave and generous, yet at other moments he is unable to control passion or anger. He is at a loss to explain his behavior. He hurts Katerina. whom he loves, and sinks to the sinfulness of his father, whom he hates. Is he a creature of heredity or a creature of environment? Is his inability to control his actions by his will a sign of moral corruption or of moral freedom?
Ivan is a study in the dilemmas of logic. The questions that torment him are more abstract but equally intense. His internal intellectual debate drives him one time into delirium, another time into literary creation. Is Christianity or socialism salvation for humanity? Is the church fated to outlive and replace the state, or will the state make the church redundant and obsolete? If there is no God, is everything and anything lawful? Unable to resolve such questions, the intellect alternates endlessly between confidence and doubt.
Alyosha is a study in the foundations of faith. The issues that perplex him are religious and transcendent. How is one to be saved, by the Christlike sacrifice of self for others in an admittedly corrupt world or by observation of the church's rules and doctrines away from the world? How does God manifest Himself to the world? Why does He seem to ignore the innocent suffering of children in war or natural disaster while concentrating on showy but ineffectual tricks like preserving a holy man's corpse? Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha show that in all aspects of human life, duality rather than unity is the reality.
Dostoevski's character and thematic complexities strain the limits of traditional narrative methods and force the novelist into a multilayered structure of storytelling. In some of the novel, the narrator is an eyewitness chronicler, an inhabitant of Skotoprigonyevski who knows the Karamazovs personally and witnesses the events of the investigation. This chronicler reports the outward appearance of things. At other times the storyteller is an omniscient narrator who enters the minds and hearts of lesser characters or focuses on the actions of various major characters, in turn, for extended stretches. Yet even the omniscient narrator cannot fully explore the recesses of Ivan, Dmitri, and Alyosha. Readers gain access there only through Dmitri's confession, Ivan's "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor," and Alyosha's transcription of Father Zossima's autobiography. If one judge's verdict cannot explain the full facts of Fyodor's murder, one narrator cannot describe the full truth of humanity's nature.
Dostoevski remains widely read. His approaches to issues of behavior, ethics, and belief have attracted psychologists, philosophers, and theologians as well as literary critics. Ironically, The Brothers Karamazov was intended to pose questions that subsequent volumes would answer. Instead, it left questions that a century of investigation and inquiry has not yet resolved.



Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment is a masterpiece of Russian and world fiction, as captivating as it is, in the end, mysterious. Quite near the novel's beginning, the protagonist Raskolnikov commits, for reasons opaque to himself and to the reader, a double murder. For the rest of the book he walks, rambles, or staggers through the streets of St. Petersburg. He is constantly in doubt as to whether his crime—which he barely regards as a crime at all—will be discovered. The concrete world he sees around him is constantly dissolving into the stuff of dreams.
It is often said that Crime and Punishment is a study of guilt, but this is not strictly accurate: Raskolnikov does not feel guilt, but he does feel terror and an extraordinary depth of alienation from the rest of humanity. Even though friends make their best efforts to help him, he is unable to accept their help. He is even unable to understand their feelings of love and sympathy, because he regards himself as an outcast—his ability to kill is the embodiment of that alienation rather than its cause or effect.
The other characters in the novel, because they are seen through the distorted lens of Raskolnikov's perception, are largely ciphers. As readers we are plunged into one man's delirium, a symbol for the incomprehension which might overtake us all if we looked closely enough at our fellow human beings. The novel is full of half-conversations; we are never certain whether Raskolnikov fully understands anything that is said to him, and certainly the other characters, because they are kept away from his secret, rarely understand anything he says to them. Although written in 1866, Crime and Punishment stands as the great antecedent to the twentieth-century literature of alienation represented in figures such as Camus and Beckett.



Type of work: Novel
Author: Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevski (1821-1881)
Type of plot: Psychological realism
Time of plot: Mid-nineteenth century
Locale: Russia
First published: Prestupleniye i nakazaniye, 1866 (English translation, 1886)

Crime and Punishment is a powerful story of sin, suffering, and redemption; Dostoevski's theme is that man inevitably pays for his crimes against his fellows by suffering, and by that suffering he may ultimately be purified. The character ofRaskolnikov is a tremendous study of a sensitive intellectual driven by poverty to believe that he is exempt from moral law.


Principal Characters

Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov (rod! on ro-ma" пэ-vich ras-кбГуш-кэО, called Rodya, a psychologically complex young law student who murders not for wealth but as an experiment, to see if he is one of those who can circumvent society's restrictions. Impoverished and weakened by illness and hunger, he decides to rid society of a worthless person in order to preserve his genius for posterity, to relieve his devoted mother and sister from compromising themselves, and to prove that he is above conscience. He kills Alonya Ivanovna, a miserly old crone, and her sister. Later, in his loss of illusions, of peace of mind, and of the wealth he sought, he learns through suffering. Important changes result from acceptance of his inward punishment. His humanitarian instincts are brought out; his deep love of family and friends is revealed, and his belief that life must be lived is renewed. The study of his psychoses from the time he conceives his mad theory to his attempt at expiation in Siberia is a masterfully drawn portrait of a tormented mind and shattered body. The study is one of contrasts, of good and evil, within all mankind.
Pulcheria Alexandrovna (podlyche'ri-уэ a-lek-san'drsvna), his long-suffering mother whose faith in her son sustains her but whose mind gives way under the strain of his deed and guilt. A handsome, middle-aged woman of distinction, a widow who has supported her family and urged her son to make his way in life, Pulcheria is a study of motherhood thwarted, a woman tortured by her inability to fathom her favorite's depravity.
Avdotya Romanovna (avdot'ys ro-ma'ngvna), called Dounia (doo'nya), her daughter and the younger sister who has aided in her mother's effort to make something of the brother through working and skimping. A mirror of her mother's fortitude and faith, Dounia is the beautiful, impoverished, clear-sighted savior of her family. In spite of attempted seductions, the devoted sister continues her efforts to sustain her beloved brother in his reversals and suffering.
Dmitri Prokofitch Razumihin (dml'trl proko'flch ra-zoo'mi-hin), Raskolnikov's devoted friend. Enamored of Dounia, he is the savior of the family honor. Like Dounia, he has all the normal responses of a generous nature and works unceasingly to discover and repair the tragic situation of his friend. Affianced to the beautiful Dounia, he founds a publishing company to aid the hapless girl, mother, and brother. He is one of the few characters with a sense of humor; his good deeds lighten a psychologically gloomy and depth-insighted plot.
Piotr Petrovitch Luzhin (pyo'tr petro'vich lyooz'hln), a minor government official betrothed to Dounia, a man filled with a sense of his own importance. Raskolnikov objects to his suit. Dounia herself loses interest in him after she meets Razumihin, whom she later marries.
Sofya Semyonovna Marmeladov (so'fys se-myo' nav-пэ mar-me'la-daf), called Sonia, the daughter of a drunken clerk and stepdaughter of the high-strung Kater-ina Ivanovna. It is her father who brings the luckless prostitute to Rodya's attention and whose funeral the unstable student finances. From gratitude the benevolent though soiled child of the streets comforts the murderer and supports him in his transgressions so that he finally will confess. Forced to support her father, her stepmother, and their three children, she remains unsullied and her spirit transcends these morbid conditions. With great depth of character and faith, Sonia follows the criminal to Siberia, where she inspires the entire prison colony with her devotion and goodness.
Marmeladov (mar-me'la-dgf), Sonia's father, an impoverished ex-clerk and drunkard. He is killed when struck by a carriage. Raskolnikov, who witnesses the accident, gives Marmeladov's wife some money to help pay for his friend's funeral expenses.
Katerina Ivanovna (kater-т'э Iva'novns), Marmeladov's wife, slowly dying of tuberculosis. She collapses in the street and dies a short time later.
Arkady Ivanovitch Svidrigai'lov (ar-ka'dly I-va'ngvlch svl-drlg'i-lsf), the sensualist in whose house Dounia had been a governess. He is both the would-be seducer and savior of Dounia, and through her of Sonia's orphaned half sisters and brother, when he gives her money as atonement for his conduct. A complicated character, sometimes considered, with Raskolnikov, one of the alter egos of the writer, he is obsessed by guilt and driven by libido.
Porfiry Petrovitch (por-fi'riy pet-ro-vich), a brilliant detective more interested in the rehabilitation than the prosecution of the murderer. Somewhat disturbed and neurotic himself, Porfiry seconds Sonia's influence and causes Raskolnikov to confess his crime and thus begin his redemption.
Alonya Ivanovna (a-lyo'nya i-va'nov-пэ), a miserly old pawnbroker and usurer, murdered by Raskolnikov.
Llzaveta Ivanovna (lye-za-ve'ta i-va'nov-пэ), a seller of old clothes and Alonya Ivanovna's sister, also killed by Raskolnikov.


The Story

Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished student in St. Petersburg, dreamed of committing the perfect crime. He murdered an old widowed pawnbroker and her stepsister with an ax and stole some jewelry from their flat.
Back in his room, Raskolnikov received a summons from the police. Weak from hunger and illness, he prepared to make a full confession. The police, however, had called merely to ask him to pay a debt his landlady had reported to them. When he discovered what they wanted, he collapsed from relief. Upon being revived, he was questioned; his answers provoked suspicion.
Raskolnikov hid the jewelry under a rock in a courtyard. He returned to his room, where he remained for four days in a high fever. When he recovered, he learned that the authorities had visited him while he was delirious and that he had said things during his fever which tended to cast further suspicion on him.
Luzhin, betrothed to Raskolnikov's sister Dounia, came to St. Petersburg from the provinces to prepare for the wedding. Raskolnikov resented Luzhin because he knew his sister was marrying to provide money for her destitute brother. Luzhin visited the convalescent and left in a rage when the young man made no attempt to hide his dislike for him.
A sudden calm came upon the young murderer; he went out and read the accounts of the murders in the papers. While he was reading, a detective joined him. The student, in a high pitch of excitement caused by his crime and by his sickness, talked too much, revealing to the detective that he might well be the murderer. No evidence, however, could be found that would throw direct suspicion on him.
Later, witnessing a suicide attempt in the slums of St. Petersburg, Raskolnikov decided to turn himself over to the police; but he was deterred when his friend, a former clerk named Marmeladov, was struck by a carriage and killed. Raskolnikov gave the widow a small amount of money he had received from his mother. Later, he attended a party given by some of his friends and discovered that they, too, suspected him of complicity in the murder of the two women.
Back in his room, Raskolnikov found his mother and his sister, who were awaiting his return. Unnerved at their appearance and not wanting them to be near him. he placed them in the care of his friend, Razumihin. who. upon meeting Dounia, was immediately attracted to her.
In an interview with Porfiry, the chief of the murder investigation, Raskolnikov was mentally tortured by questions and ironic statements until he was ready to believe that he had been all but apprehended for the double crime. Partly in his own defense, he expounded his theory that any means justified the ends of a man of genius and that sometimes he believed himself a man of genius.
Raskolnikov proved to his mother and Dounia that Luzhin was a pompous fool, and the angry suitor was dismissed. Razumihin had by that time replaced Luzhin in the girl's affections.
Meanwhile Svidrigailov, who had caused Dounia great suffering while she had been employed as his governess. arrived in St. Petersburg. His wife had died, and he had followed Dounia, as he explained, to atone for his sins against her by settling upon her a large amount of money.
Razumihin received money from a rich uncle and went into the publishing business with Dounia. They asked Raskolnikov to join them in the venture, but the student. whose mind and heart were full of turmoil, declined; he said good-bye to his friend and to his mother and sister and asked them not to try to see him again.
He went to Sonia, the prostitute daughter of the dead Marmeladov. They read Sonia's Bible together. Raskolnikov was deeply impressed by the wretched girl's faith. He felt a great sympathy for Sonia and promised to tell her who had committed the murders of the old pawnbroker and stepsister. Svidrigailov, who rented the room next to Sonia's, overheard the conversation; he anticipated Raskolnikov's disclosure with interest.
Tortured in his own mind, Raskolnikov went to the police station, where Porfiry played another game of cat-and-mouse with him. His conscience and his imagined insecurity had resulted in immense suffering and torment of mind for Raskolnikov.
At a banquet given by Marmeladov's widow for the friends of her late husband, Luzhin accused Sonia of stealing money from his room. He had observed Ras-kolnikov's interest in Sonia, and he wished to hurt the student for having spoken against him to Dounia. The girl was saved by the report of a neighbor who had seen Luzhin slipping money into Sonia's pocket. Later, in Sonia's room, Raskolnikov confessed his crime and admitted that in killing the two women he had actually destroyed himself.
Svidrigailov had overheard the confession and disclosed his knowledge to Raskolnikov. Believing that Porfiry suspected him of the murder and realizing that Svidrigailov knew the truth, Raskolnikov found life unbearable. Then Porfiry told Raskolnikov outright that he was the murderer, at the same time promising Raskolnikov that a plea of temporary insanity would be placed in his behalf and his sentence would be mitigated if he confessed. Raskolnikov delayed his confession.
Svidrigailov had informed Dounia of the truth concerning her brother, and he now offered to save the student if Dounia would consent to be his wife. He made this offer to her in his room, which he had locked after tricking her into the meeting. He released her when she attempted unsuccessfully to shoot him with a pistol she had brought with her. Convinced at last that Dounia intended to reject him, Svidrigailov gave her a large sum of money and ended his life with a pistol.
Raskolnikov, after being reassured by his mother and his sister of their love for him, and by Sonia of her undying devotion, turned himself over to the police. He was tried and sentenced to serve eight years in Siberia. Dounia and Razumihin, now successful publishers, were married. Sonia followed Raskolnikov to Siberia, where she stayed in a village near the prison camp. In her goodness to Raskolnikov and to the other prisoners, she came to be known as Little Mother Sonia. With her help, Raskolnikov began his regeneration.


Critical Evaluation

Crime and Punishment was Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevski's first popularly successful novel after his nine-year imprisonment and exile for alleged political crimes (the charges were of doubtful validity) against the czar. After his release from penal servitude, Dostoevski published novels, short stories, novellas, and journalistic pieces, but none of these brought him the critical and popular acclaim which in 1866 greeted Crime and Punishment—possibly his most popular novel. This book is no simple precursor of the detective novel, no simplistic mystery story to challenge the minds of Russian counterparts to Sherlock Holmes's fans. It is a complex story of a man's turbulent inner life and his relationship to others and to society at large. The book must be considered within the matrix of Dostoevski's convictions at the time he wrote the novel, because Dostoevski's experience with czarist power made a lasting impression on his thinking. Indeed, Dostoevski himself made such an evaluation possible by keeping detailed notebooks on the development of his novels and on his problems with fleshing out plots and characters.
Chastened by his imprisonment and exile, Dostoevski shifted his position from the youthful liberalism (certainly not radicalism), which seemed to have precipitated his incarceration, to a mature conservatism which embraced many, perhaps most, of the traditional views of his time. Thus, Dostoevski came to believe that legal punishment was not a deterrent to crime because he was convinced that criminals demanded to be punished; that is, they had a spiritual need to be punished. Today, that compulsion might be called masochistic; but Dostoevski, in his time, related the tendency to mystical concepts of the Eastern Orthodox church, an establishment institution. With a skeptical hostility toward Western religion and culture, born of several years of living abroad, Dostoevski became convinced that the Western soul was bankrupt and that salvation—one of his major preoccupations—was possible only under the influence of the church and an ineffable love for Mother Russia, a devotion to homeland, to the native soil, which would brook neither logic nor common sense: a dedication beyond reason or analysis. Thus, expiation for sins was attained through atonement, a rite of purification.
The required expiation, however, is complicated in Crime and Punishment by the split personality—a typically Dostoevskian ploy—of the protagonist. The schizophrenia of Raskolnikov is best illustrated by his ambivalent motives for murdering the pawnbroker. At first, Raskolnikov views his heinous crime as an altruistic act which puts the pawnbroker and her sister out of their misery while providing him the necessary financial support to further his education and mitigate his family's poverty, thus relieving unbearable pressures on him. He does intend to atone for his misdeed by subsequently living an upright life dedicated to humanitarian enterprises. Raskolnikov, however, shortly becomes convinced of his own superiority. Indeed, he divides the human race into "losers" and "winners": the former, meek and submissive; the latter, Nietzschean supermen who can violate any law or principle to attain their legitimately innovative and presumably beneficial ends. Raskolnikov allies himself with the "superman" faction. He intends to prove his superiority by committing murder and justifying it on the basis of his own superiority. This psychological configuration is common enough, but, unlike most paranoid schizophrenics, Raskolnikov carries his design through—a signal tribute to the depth of his convictions.
The results are predictably confusing. The reader is as puzzled about Raskolnikov's motives as he is. Is it justifiable to commit an atrocity in the name of improvement of the human condition? This essential question remains unanswered in Crime and Punishment; Raskolnikov, ego-centrically impelled by pride, cannot decide whether or not he is superior, one of those supermen entitled to violate any law or any principle to serve the cause of ultimate justice, however justice might be construed. In his notebooks, Dostoevski implied that he, too, was ambivalent about Raskolnikov's motives. Yet he added that he was not a psychologist but a novelist who plumbed the depths of men's souls; in other words, he had a religious not a secular orientation. He was thus more concerned with consequences than with causality. This carefully planned novel therefore expands upon a philosophical problem embodied in the protagonist.
The philosophical problem in Crime and Punishment constitutes the central theme of the novel: the lesson Raskolnikov has to learn, the precept he has to master in order to redeem himself. The protagonist finally has to concede that free will is limited. He has to admit that he cannot control and direct his life solely with his reason and intellect, as he tried to do, for such a plan leads only to emptiness and to sinful intellectual pride. The glorification of abstract reason precludes the happiness of a fully lived life; happiness must be earned, and it can be earned only through suffering—another typically Dostoevskian mystical concept. The climactic moment in the novel, therefore, comes when Raskolnikov confesses his guilt at the police station, for Raskolnikov's confession is tantamount to a request for punishment for the crime and acceptance of his need to suffer.
The epilogue—summarizing the fates of other characters; Raskolnikov's trial, his sentencing, and his prison term; and Sonia's devotion to Raskolnikov during his imprisonment—confirms the novel's central theme. Artistically, however, the epilogue is somewhat less than satisfactory or satisfying. First, Dostoevski's notes indicate that he had considered and rejected an alternate ending in which Raskolnikov committed suicide. Such a conclusion would have been logical in an existential sense, and it would have been psychologically sound. The very logicality of Raskolnikov's suicide, however, would have suggested a triumph of reason over the soul. That idea was not consonant with Dostoevski's convictions; thus, he dropped the plan. Second, the ending which Dostoevski finally wrote in the epilogue implies that the meek and submissive side of Raskolnikov's personality emerged completely victorious over the superman. Such an ending contradicts Raskolnikov's persistent duality throughout the novel. Raskolnikov's dramatic conversion thus strains credulity, for it seems too pat a resolution of the plot. For the sophisticated reader, however, it does not greatly detract from the powerful psychological impact of the novel proper or diminish the quality of a genuinely serious attempt to confront simultaneously a crucial social problem and a deeply profound individual, human one.




Type of work: Novel
Author: Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevski (1821-1881)
Type of plot: Psychological realism
Time of plot: Mid-nineteenth century
Locale: Russia
First published: Besy, 1871-1872 (English translation, 1913)


The Possessed is Dostoevski's answer to Turgenev's treatment of Russian nihilism in Fathers and Sons. Using a large number of characters representing all classes of Russian society, the author shows how an idle interest in nihilism brings on robbery, arson, and murder in a Russian community.


Principal Characters

Stepan Trofimovich Verhovensky (stephan' tro-fi-'тэ-vich ver-ho-ven'skl), a former professor of history, a free thinker, a mild liberal, and an old-fashioned, dandified intellectual. The protege of Varvara Petrovna Stav-rogina, a wealthy provincial aristocrat, he has lived for years on her country estate, first as the tutor of her impressionable son, later as the companion and mentor of his temperamental, strong-willed friend. At times he and his patroness quarrel violently, but usually their relationship is one of mutual understanding and respect. One of the old man's claims to fame is the fact that a poem he had written in his student days was seized by the authorities in Moscow, and he still believes that he is politically suspect. Weak-willed, opinionated, hedonistic in a mild way, he has indulged his own tastes and personal comfort while allowing his only son to be reared by distant relatives. At the end, appalled by the revelation of his son's nihilistic and criminal activities, and seeing himself in the role of an intellectual buffoon in the service of Varvara Petrovna, he wanders off to search for the true Russia. Like Lear, he is ennobled by suffering, and he dies with a deeper knowledge of himself and his unhappy country, divided between the moribund tradition of the past and the revolutionary spirit of the younger generation. Dostoevsky seems to make Stepan Trofimovich an illustration of the way in which a generation of sentimental, theorizing, intellectual liberals bred a new generation of nihilists and terrorists who believed only in violence and destruction.
Pyotr Stepanovitch Verhovensky (pyo'tr ste-pan' э-vich ver-ho-ven'ski), Stepan's nihilistic, revolutionary, despicable son, who has traveled widely and engaged in a number of political intrigues. Really an antihero, he is an early model of the modern, exacting, scientific, psychological fanatic and iconoclast. A monster in his capacity for irreligiosity, deception, and destruction, he undermines the moral integrity of his friend, Nikolay Vsy-evoldovitch Stavrogin, creates discord between his father and Varvara Petrovna, conducts a campaign of terrorism in the provincial town to which he returns after a number of years spent in study and travel, and foments criminal activities that include arson and murder. If his father's chief trait is self-delusion, Pyotr's is the ability to delude others and lead them to their ruin; and he is always sure of his mission, fanatical in his singleminded belief in dissent and destruction, and convinced that the end justifies any means. Filled with a sense of his own power, he is totally wicked and corrupt, although he is not without charm to those who do not know his real nature.
Varvara Petrovna Stavrogin (var-va'ra pet'rav-пэ stavro'gan), a wealthy woman who indulges her son, befriends Stepan Trofimovitch, pays for the schooling of Pyotr Stepanovitch, and takes into her household as her companion the daughter of a former serf. Tall, bony, yellow-complexioned, she is impressive in her outspoken, autocratic behavior. Abrupt and unsentimental for the most part, she is also capable of deep feeling. Her strength of character is shown at the end of the novel when she begins to rebuild her life after revelations of Stepan Trofimovitch's dilettantish intellectualism, her son's weakness and waywardness, and the ruthless violence of the revolutionary group. Her final blow is her son's suicide.
Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch Stavrogin (niko-ll' vsye-vo-16'd3-vich), the son of Varvara Petrovna. A mixture of the sensitive and the coarse, the sensual and the spiritual, he has lived abroad for a number of years. There he has engaged in revolutionary activities and debauchery with a number of women, including Marya Timofyevna Lebyadkin, the crippled, weakminded woman whom he married to show his mocking contempt for social conventions, and Marya Ignatyenva Shatov, who is carrying his child. His friendship with Pyotr Stepanovitch leads to the formation of a revolutionary group that he establishes in his native village. Though he is ostensibly the leader, his friend is the real power within the group, and Pyotr Stepanovitch's wild dream is to make Stavrogin a false pretender who will lead Russia back into barbarism. Handsome in appearance, Stavrogin makes his presence felt everywhere, and his reputation makes him feared. Loved by some, hated by others, he has lost all capacity for deep feeling; he tries only to experience violently contrasting sensations as a means of escaping boredom. The night Lizaveta Nikolaevna Tushin spends with him makes him see himself as a spiritually sterile and physically impotent man aged before his time. Hoping to escape from his condition of moral torpor, he asks Darya, the sister of Ivan Shatov, to start a new life with him. She agrees, but before they can leave the village he commits suicide.
Ivan Shatov (ё-van' sha-tof), the liberated and liberal-minded son of a former serf on the Stavrogin estate. Tutored by Stepan Trofimovitch and sent away by Var-vara Petrovna for further education, he has traveled and worked in America. Disillusioned by Pyotr Stepanovich and his revolutionary group, Shatov still worships Stavrogin for the image of idealism he evokes. He represents the emancipated, educated Russian who in spite of the disordered life about him clings to his elemental feelings for home, friends, the countryside, ideals of liberty, and passion for independence. Unable to accept the nihilism for which Pyotr Stepanovitch stands, he announces his intention to believe in a human Christ, a Christ of the people. When his wife, from whom he has been separated, returns to give birth to her child, Shatov welcomes her with joy and the child as a token of the future. Because of fears that Shatov will betray the activities of the revolutionary group, Pyotr Stepanovitch has him murdered. Dostoevski uses Shatov as a spokesman for some of his own views on politics and religion.
Marya Ignatyevna Shatov (та'гуэ Ig-na'tev-пэ sha'tof), Ivan's wife, who returns to his home to bear her child, fathered, it is suggested, by Stavrogin.
Alexey Nilitch Kirillov (a-lek-sa' ni'lich kl-rfl'af), a member of the revolutionary group. Existentialist in his beliefs, he is able neither to accept God nor to endure the human condition. He has reached a state of negation in which his only hope is to commit suicide and thus to become God by exercising his will over life and death. Before he shoots himself Pyotr Stepanovitch persuades him to sign a false confession to the murder of Shatov, killed by the revolutionaries because they are afraid he will betray them to the authorities after the murder of Ignat Lebyadkin and his sister.
Ignat Lebyadkin (Ig-nat' le-byat'kin), a retired army captain, pompous in manner, ridiculous in his pride, crafty in his schemes for extorting money from Stavrogin, his brother-in-law. A would-be gallant, he makes approaches to Lizaveta Nikolaevna Tushin. Pyotr Stepanovitch sees Lebyadkin and his sister as threats to his plans for Stavrogin, and he arranges to have them killed. Their bodies are found by horrified, indignant villagers in the smoldering embers of their house.
Marya Timofyevna Lebyadkin (та'гуэ timo-fyev' пэ), a girl of weak mind and a cripple, Captain Lebyadkin's sister, who Stavrogin has married in order to show his contempt for his position in society and to perpetrate a cruel joke on the girl and himself. He has kept the marriage secret, however, and the efforts to determine his relation with Marya agitate his family and friends after his return to the village. He treats her with a mixture of amused condescension and ironic gallantry.
Lizaveta Nikolaevna Tushin (Hzave'tg niko-la'ev-пэ tu'shsn), also called Liza, the daughter of Praskovya Ivanovna Drozdov, Varvara Petrovna's friend, by a previous marriage. High-spirited and unconventional, she is strongly attracted to Stavrogin and is for a time interested in the proposed publication of a magazine by the revolutionary band. On the night that Captain Lebyadkin and his sister are killed, she gives herself to Stavrogin, only to discover that he is no more than the empty shell of a man. Stopping by to view the smoking ruins of the Lebyadkin house, she is beaten to death by the angry villagers because of her association with Stavrogin.
Praskovya Ivanovna Drozdov (praskd v ' у э ё - van' ё v - пэ droz'daf), Lizaveta Nikolaevna's mother. She and Varvara Petrovna have reached an understanding for the marriage of Liza and Stavrogin, but the young people have quarreled, possibly over Darya Shatov, possibly because of Stavrogin's friendship with Pyotr Stepanovitch, while all were living in Switzerland. Not knowing the reason, Praskovya blames Stavrogin for the disagreement and is filled with resentment against him.
Darya Paulovna Shatov (da'rys pav'bvns sha-tof), also called Dasha and Dashenka, Ivan Shatov's meek, pretty sister, who has grown up in the Stavrogin household, half companion, half servant to Varvara Petrovna. During a visit to Switzerland, her mistress leaves the girl behind as a companion to Liza. On her return Varvara Petrovna plans for a time to marry the girl to Stepan Trofimovitch, and Darya meekly consents. When Stavrogin, with whom she is secretly in love, asks her to go away with him, she readily agrees. He commits suicide before they can arrange for their departure.
Andrey Antonovitch von Lembke (andra' anto'ns-vlch van lem'ke), the new governor of the province.
Yulia Mikhailovna von Lembke (п'И-уэ me-hi'lavng van lem'ke), the governor's vulgar, ambitious wife.
Semyon Yakovelitch Karmazinov (semyon' yakov-le-vlch kar-ms-zi'nsf), a pompous, foolish, elderly writer who makes a ridiculous spectacle of himself at a literary fete. He is Dostoevski's satirical portrait of Turgenev.
Liputin (li-po'tyln), a slanderer and zealous reformer, Erkel (er'kel), a youthful enthusiast, Virginsky (vir-jin'ske), a civil clerk, and Shigalov (shi'gs-ldf), his brother, members of the revolutionary group.
Lyamshin (lyam'shan), the member of the group who confesses and reveals the activities of the band to the authorities.
Arina Prohorovna Virginsky (ari'na pro-ho'rsvna vfr-jin'ske), a midwife.
Artemy Pavlovitch Gaganov (ar-tyom'e pavte-vich ga-ga-naf), the local aristocrat with whom Stavrogin fights a duel.
Andrey Antonovich Blum (an-dra' anto'na-vlchblom), the assistant to Governor von Lembke.
Sofya Matveyevna Ulitin (sof'ys matveyef'na п'1Иэп), the young widow who aids Stepan Trofimovitch during his wanderings. She goes to live with Varvara Petrovna.
Anton Lavrentyevitch G---------------v (an-ton' lav-ren'tye-vlch), the friend of Stepan Trofimovitch and the narrator of this story of violence and passion.


The Story

Stepan Verhovensky, a self-styled progressive patriot and erstwhile university lecturer, was footloose in a provincial Russian town until Varvara Stavrogin hired him to tutor her only son, Nikolay. Although Stepan's radicalism, which was largely a pose, shocked Varvara, the two became friends. When Varvara's husband died, Stepan even looked forward to marrying the widow. They went together to St. Petersburg, where they moved daringly in radical circles. After attempting without success to start a literary journal, they left St. Petersburg, Varvara returning to the province and Stepan, in an attempt to assert his independence, going to Berlin. After four months in Germany, Stepan, realizing that he was in Varvara's thrall emotionally and financially, returned to the province in order to be near her.
Stepan became the leader of a small group that met to discuss progressive ideas. Among the group were Shatov, the independent son of one of Varvara's serfs, a liberal named Virginsky, and Liputin, a man who made everyone's business his business.
Nikolay Stavrogin, whom Stepan had introduced to progressivism, went on to school in St. Petersburg and from there into the army as an officer. He resigned his commission, however, returned to St. Petersburg, and went to live in the slums. When he returned home, at Varvara's request, he proceeded to insult the members of Stepan's group. He bit the ear of the provincial governor during an interview with that dignitary. Obviously mentally unbalanced, Nikolay was committed to bed. Three months later, apparently recovered, he apologized for his actions and again left the province.
Months later Varvara was invited to visit a childhood friend in Switzerland, where Nikolay was paying court to her friend's daughter, Lizaveta. Before the party returned to Russia, however, Lizaveta and Nikolay broke their engagement because of Nikolay's interest in Dasha, Varvara's servant woman. In Switzerland, Nikolay and Stepan's son, Pyotr, met and found themselves in sympathy on political matters.
Meanwhile, in the province there was a new governor, von Lembke. Stepan, lost without Varvara, visibly deteriorated during her absence. Varvara arranged with Dasha, who was twenty years old, to marry Stepan, who was age fifty-three. Dasha, who was the sister of Shatov, submitted passively to her mistress' wishes. Stepan reluctantly consented to the marriage, but he balked when he discovered from a member of his group that he was being used to cover up Nikolay's relations with the girl.
New arrivals in the province were Captain Lebyadkin and his idiot, crippled sister, Marya. One day Marya attracted the attention of Varvara in front of the cathedral. and Varvara took the cripple home with her. She learned that Nikolay had known the Lebyadkins in St. Petersburg. Pyotr assured Varvara, who was suspicious, that Nikolay and Marya Lebyadkin were not married.
By his personal charm and a representation of himself as a mysterious revolutionary agent returned from exile. Pyotr began to dominate Stepan's liberal friends and became, for his own scheming purposes, the protege of Yulia, the governor's wife. Nikolay at first followed Pyotr in his political activities, but he turned against the revolutionary movement and warned Shatov that Pyotr's group was plotting to kill Shatov because of information he possessed. Nikolay confessed to Shatov that on a bet he had married Marya Lebyadkin in St. Petersburg.
As a result of a duel between Nikolay and a local aristocrat who hated him, a duel in which Nikolay emerged victorious without killing his opponent, Nikolay became a local hero. He continued to be intimate with Dasha. Lizaveta having announced her engagement to another man. Meanwhile, Pyotr sowed seeds of dissension among all classes in the town; he disclosed von Lembke's possession of a collection of radical manifestos; he caused a break between his father and Varvara; and he secretly incited the working people to rebel against their masters.
Yulia led the leaders of the town in preparations for a grand fete. Pyotr saw in the fete the opportunity to bring chaos into an otherwise orderly community. He brought about friction between von Lembke, who was an inept governor, and Yulia, who actually governed the province through her salon.
At a meeting of the revolutionary group, despair and confusion prevailed until Pyotr welded it together with mysterious talk of orders from higher revolutionary leaders. He talked of many other such groups engaged in like activities. Shatov, who attended the meeting, denounced Pyotr as a spy and a scoundrel and walked out. Pyotr disclosed to Nikolay his nihilistic beliefs and proposed that Nikolay be brought forward as the Pretender when the revolution had been accomplished.
Blum, von Lembke's secretary, raided Stepan's quarters and confiscated all of Stepan's private papers, among them some political manifestos. Stepan went to the governor to demand his rights under the law and witnessed in front of the governor's mansion the lashing of dissident workers who had been quietly demonstrating for redress of their grievances. Von Lembke appeased Stepan by saying that the raid on his room was a mistake.
The fete was doomed beforehand. Many agitators without tickets were admitted. Liputin read a comic and seditious poem. Karmazinov, a great novelist, made a fool of himself by recalling the follies of his youth. Stepan insulted the agitators by championing the higher culture. When an unidentified agitator arose to speak, the afternoon session of the fete became a bedlam, so that it was doubtful whether the ball would take place that night. Abetted by Pyotr, Nikolay and Lizaveta eloped in the afternoon to the country house of Varvara.
The ball was not canceled, but few of the landowners of the town or countryside appeared. Drunkenness and brawling soon reduced the ball to a rout which came to a sorry end when fire was discovered raging through some houses along the river. Captain Lebyadkin, Marya, and their servant were discovered murdered in their house, which remained unburned. When Pyotr informed Nikolay of the murders, Nikolay confessed that he had known of the possibility that violence would take place but that he had done nothing to prevent it. Horrified, Lizaveta went to see the murdered pair; she was beaten to death by the enraged townspeople because of her connections with Nikolay. Nikolay left town quickly and quietly.
When the revolutionary group met again, they all mistrusted one another. Pyotr explained to them that Fedka, a former convict, had murdered the Lebyadkins for robbery, but he failed to mention that Nikolay had all but paid Fedka to commit the crime. He warned the group against Shatov and said that a fanatic named Kirillov had agreed to cover up the proposed murder of Shatov. After Fedka denounced Pyotr as an atheistic scoundrel, Fedka was found dead on a road outside the town.
At the same time, Marie, Shatov's wife, returned to the town. The couple had been separated for three years; Marie was ill and pregnant. When she began her labor, Shatov procured Virginsky's wife as midwife. The couple were reconciled after Marie gave birth to a baby boy, for the child served to regenerate Shatov and make him happy once more.
Shatov left his wife and baby alone in order to keep an appointment with the revolutionary group, an appointment made for the purpose of separating himself from the plotters. Attacked and shot by Pyotr, his body was weighted with stones and thrown into a pond. After the murder Pyotr went to Kirillov to get Kirillov's promised confession for the murder of Shatov. Kirillov, who was Shatov's neighbor and who had seen Shatov's happiness at the return of his wife, at first refused to sign, but Pyotr finally prevailed upon him to put his name to the false confession. Kirillov, morally bound to end his life, shot himself. Pyotr left the province.
Stepan, meanwhile, left the town to seek a new life. He wandered for a time among peasants and at last became dangerously ill. Varvara went to him, and the two friends were reconciled before the old scholar died. Varvara disowned her son. Marie and the baby died of exposure and neglect when Shatov failed to return home. One of the radical group broke down and confessed to the violence that had been committed in the town at the instigation of the completely immoral Pyotr. Liputin escaped to St. Petersburg, where he was apprehended in a drunken stupor in a brothel.
Nikolay wrote to Dasha, the servant, suggesting that the two of them go to Switzerland and begin a new life. Before Dasha could pack her things, however, Nikolay returned home secretly and hanged himself in his room.


Critical Evaluation

Fyodor Dostoevski was nearly fifty years old when the final version of The Possessed (also translated as The Devils) appeared. (His poverty had forced him to write the book first in serial form for a Moscow literary review.) Because the novel rages so wildly against liberalism and "atheistic" socialism, many readers decided that its once-progressive author had now become a confirmed reactionary. Dostoevski himself lent credibility to this notion by his public statements. In a famous letter to Alexander III, Dostoevski characterized The Possessed as a historical study of that perverse radicalism which results when the intelligentsia detaches itself from the Russian masses. In another letter he proclaimed that "He who loses his people and his nationality loses his faith in his country and in God. This is the theme of my novel."
Further, given the nature of Dostoevski's personal history, a movement toward thoroughgoing conservatism could seem almost predictable. An aristocrat by birth, Dostoevski involved himself deeply in the Petrashevski Circle, a St. Petersburg discussion group interested in Utopian socialism. Part of this group formed a clandestine revolutionary cadre, and Dostoevski was arrested for his participation in the conspiracy. There followed a mock execution, four years of imprisonment, and another four years of enforced service as a private in the Siberian army. Although freed in 1858, Dostoevski remained under surveillance, and his right to publish was always in jeopardy. He thus had every inducement to prove to government censors his utter fidelity to the ancien regime and "safe" principles.
In fact, The Possessed is not a reactionary novel. Dostoevski does not defend the institutions of monarchy, aristocracy, or censorship. He upholds Russian orthodoxy in a way that suggests a theocratic challenge to the status quo. His exaltation of the peasantry affords no comfort for capitalism or imperialism. While appearing to embrace Russian nationalism, he presents an image of small-town culture which, to say the least, does not inspire Russophilia. His portrait of the ruling class is as devastating as any essay on the subject by Marx or Engels. Thus, Dostoevski's critique of radical political ideas proceeds from a basis other than that of extremist conservatism. But what is that basis?
The answer is partially revealed in Shatov's statement that half-truth is uniquely despotic. The Possessed is at once a criticism of a variety of political and philosophical half-truths and a searching toward a principle of Wholeness, a truth which will reunite and compose man's fragmented psyche, his divided social and political order, and his shattered relationship with God. Dostoevski does not describe that truth, partly because the truth is too mysterious and grand to be expressed in human language. Rather, he merely points to it by showing the defects and incompleteness in positions which pretend to be the truth.
It is through the enigmatic character of Stavrogin that Dostoevski most fully carries out his quest for Wholeness, for Stavrogin has embraced and discarded all the philosophies which Dostoevski deems inadequate. As a result, Stavrogin is the embodiment of pure negativity and pure emptiness. He is also pure evil, more evil still than Pyotr, who at least has his absolute devotion to Stavrogin as a ruling principle in his life. From Stepan Verhovensky, Stavrogin learned skepticism and the tolerant principles of "higher liberalism." In St. Petersburg, he advances to Utopian socialism and a more passionate faith in salvation-through-science. The elitism and shallow rationalism of this faith, however, cause Stavrogin to take up messianic Russian populism. Yet he is led even beyond this stage to an investigation of orthodox theology. Unable to commit himself to the Christian faith, he perpetrates the hideous crime he later confesses to Father Tihon.
At each step in his development, Stavrogin trains disciples who both propagate his teachings and carry them out to their logical extremes. Pyotr belongs partly to Stav-rogin's "Socialist period," while Shatov embraces the populist creed and Kirillov elaborates the themes of the theological phase. In Pyotr, Socialist criticism of traditional society has produced a monomaniacal fascination with the revolutionary destruction and violence by which the new order shall emerge. Modeling this character after the infamous Russian terrorist, Sergey Nechayev, Dostoevski suggests that Pyotr is the natural outcome of socialism's faith in the power of reason to establish absolute values. Shigolov's "rational" defense of a Socialist tyranny shows how thoroughly rational structures rely on nonrational premises. For Pyotr, then, the absence of rational certainties means that all behavior is permissible and all social orders are equally valid. He thus chooses to fight for a society based on men's hunger for submission, their fear of death, their longing for a messiah. Like Machiavelli, he decides that only by founding society on the most wretched aspects of human nature can anything really lasting and dependable be built. As his messiah, Pyotr has chosen Stavrogin, whose awesome and arbitrary will could be the source of order in a new society.
Kirillov elevates Pyotr Verhovensky's fascination with strength of will into a theological principle. Kirillov is not content with man's limited transcendence of the determinisms of nature: He aspires to the total freedom of God. Paradoxically, this freedom can only be achieved through suicide, that act which overcomes the natural fear of death by which God holds man in thrall. Not until all men are prepared at every moment to commit suicide can humanity take full responsibility for its own destiny. The great drawback in Kirillov's view is that it causes him to suppress his feelings of love and relatedness to his fellowman. Shatov's nationalistic theology is an attempt to do justice to these feelings. Rebelling against Kirillov's isolated quest for godhood, Shatov wishes to achieve the same goal by submerging himself in the life of a "God-bearing people." Yet Shatov's creed remains abstract and sentimental until Marya returns, providing him with a real person to love.
The birth of Marya's child and Stepan Verhovensky's "discovery" of the Russian people—these are the symbols by which Dostoevski reveals his own answer to Nikolay Stavrogin. The child is for Shatov an unimaginable act of grace. Significantly, Kirillov experiences a sudden serenity and a confirmation of his mystical insight that "everything is good." For Dostoevski, the source of this grace is God, who brings exquisite order to the most corrupted human situations. Shatov's rapturous love stands in utter contradiction to Stavrogin's empty indifference. In that the child's real father is Stavrogin, Shatov's love is all the more wondrous. Stavrogin's final inability to respond to Liza's love is the logical result of his long struggle to free himself of dependency on his family, his people, his church. He boasts that he does not need anyone; from that claim comes spiritual and moral death. All that Stavrogin has touched is, in the end, dead—even Shatov.
The magnificence of Dostoevski's artistry is nowhere more apparent than in the conclusion to The Possessed. For he does not finally embody his great theme—human wholeness through human dependence—in a titanic character like Stavrogin or Kirillov, but in the all-too-human Stepan. This quixotic buffoon, who is both laughable and pitiable, ultimately attains the dignity he seeks. He himself, however, is surprised by it all, for it comes in a way he least expected it: through an encounter with his people, reunion with Varvara, and the administration of the sacrament.



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