Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)


Dostoevsky’s Life:


Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1822, the second son of an Army Surgeon and his wife, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Fyodor and his older brother were educated at a military academy in Moscow, trained in engineering and preparing for a life of service in the army. Dostoevsky’s father used some of the money he had come into through his wife’s family to purchase a fairly sizeable estate in the country. When his wife died in 1837, the father retired to live in the country while the boys completed their training.


Two years later Dostoevsky’s father died. Dostoevsky grew up believing that his father had been murdered by his peasant serfs, and he suffered a nervous breakdown at the news. However, the truth was that his father, grieving for his dead wife, had drunk himself to death.


In 1843 the young cadet finally graduated and received his assignment as a military engineer, but a year later he resigned his post and went to St. Petersburg to make his living as a writer. In 1844 Dostoevsky published his first novel, Poor Folk, and the great critic Vissarion Belinsky, recognizing the young writer’s talent, championed his work. Poor Folk was influenced by the realistic narrative style that had been pioneered by Pushkin and praised by Belinsky, but its characters were right out of Gogol’s great short story “The Overcoat”.  Dostoevsky’s purpose was to present an even deeper naturalistic depiction of poverty by exploring the impact of ghetto life on the psychology of the poor. Belinsky hailed the young writer as a new social critic, and Dostoevsky became a member of the intelligentsia.


Dostoevsky’s next novel The Double (1845-46) again drew inspiration from Gogol’s nightmarish fiction, this time the short story “The Nose”. In this terrifying St. Petersburg tale, the hero Golyadkin breaks down under the pressure of trying to make a name for himself among the social climbers of the Tsar’s bureaucracy. He comes face to face with his double, a doppelganger that has split off from his personality and assumed an autonomous existence. Dostoevsky’s ambitious purpose was to extend Gogol’s art by actually following the stream of his hero’s conflicting thoughts as his psyche splits in two. The Double is a harrowing excursion into psychological extremities, and in it Dostoevsky announced his lifelong interest in psychology as politics. But the novel was not regarded by Belinsky as an appropriate sequel to Poor Folk, and Dostoevsky’s leftist friends criticized the young writer for losing sight of his essential mission: the cause of social reform in Russia.


In 1847 Dostoevsky became involved with the Petrashevski Group, a circle of intellectuals who met to read and discuss the political principals of French utopian socialists like Fourier (“phalanasteries”). The group drank tea, smoked cigars, and discussed in vague and abstract terms the possibility of establishing a communal society. Dostoevsky believed passionately in emancipating the serfs. He became involved with a splinter group of this circle which succeeded in acquiring a printing press and began to publish anti-government propaganda, including Belinsky’s ‘Letter to Gogol’.  Unbeknownst to Dostoevsky, the circle had already been infiltrated by the Tsar’s secret police. In the tense crackdown after the failure of liberal revolution throughout Europe in 1848, the Tsar ordered the arrest of Dostoevsky and his friends. They were charged with treason, and Dostoevsky was sentenced to death. After eight months in solitary confinement in a St. Petersburg  prison, Dostoevsky was led out into a courtyard to be executed by firing squad. At the last moment, a rider galloped in holding a white handkerchief aloft announcing that the writer’s life had been spared. Dostoevsky’s lifelong struggle with epilepsy commenced at that moment. He spent the next ten years in prison: doing five years of forced labor in Siberia, and then four more years of impressed service in the army. During that time Dostoevsky’s leftist ideas underwent a transformation. The experience of living with convicts altered his conception of human nature, and his Russian Orthodox religious beliefs were strengthened by his glimpses of the potential for salvation even in the most hardened of criminals.


Dostoevsky married in 1857 while in the army, and in 1859 he and his wife were allowed to return to St. Petersburg. He immediately began publication, with his brother Mikhail, of a periodical called Time. Dostoevsky established himself as a leading voice among the intelligentsia, and his publication gained wide circulation. Dostovesky’s experiences in proson had made him skeptical of Westernizers, and he affirmed an approach to reform that he called pochvenichestvo. Dostoevsky condemned liberal Westernizers for their devotion to selfish materialism and he condemned the radical Westernizers for their egoism and utilitarian willingness to sacrifice the innocent to their conception of progress. He called for all members of the intelligentsia to return to their Russian roots and embrace the mystical truths at the core of orthodox Christianity, still practiced instinctively by the Russian peasant.


Dostoevsky’s personal life entered a period of crisis during this fertile creative period. He gambled compulsively, drank too much, and was in constant financial distress. Despite his chaotic life, Dostoevsky produced an enormous amount of writing, in part to pay his ever-mounting bills.


Dostoevsky wrote Notes from Underground in1864. He composed the novel while nursing his wife who was dying of tuberculosis. (She became the prototype for Katerina Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment.) That same year Dostoevsky’s beloved brother suddenly died, leaving him another family to support.


In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky ridicules both the liberal and the radical political philosophers who made utility, the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number, the ultimate criterion for social reform.  A very popular novel of ideas entitled What is to Be Done? had recently been published by the radical political philosopher Chernyshevsky.  In it he expressed great optimism in the Enlightenment belief that through the pursuit of reason and self-interest, civilization would progress inexorably into a new golden age. Simply by acting for his own advantage, man would create an ideally balanced socio-economic system. Chernyeshevsky used as his image of the coming mechanized utopia the grand pavilion of the Crystal Palace, a huge structure of glass and steel which had been erected as the centerpiece of a recent world's fair in London. (The structure later burned to the ground.)


Doestoevsky's Underground Man rebelled against utopian rationalism and the scientific determinism at the core of Enlightenment philosophy. In Part One of his diatribe against reason, the underground man explained his own philosophy based on the concept of Free Will, 'the fatal fantastic element', and in the second part of his tale, his actions demonstrate the irrational behaviors which doom glib hopes for human perfectibility. The Underground Man argues that it is freedom itself that is the key to our self-esteem, not happiness nor the desire for social harmony. We demand freedom at any cost, even if it is impossible to attain, and it is human freedom which has led society into chaos and misery, hardly a new golden age.


Notes from Underground can be seen as the first act in Dostoevsky’s grand five-act tragedy about the problem of freedom. In his novels Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1867), The Possessed (1871) and finally his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Dostoevsky struggled to find a moral answer to Russia’s political crisis.


Crime and Punishment (1866)


Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment in 1866. He was simultaneously working on another novel entitled The Gambler which needed to be churned out quickly so that Dostoevsky could escape a contract with an unscrupulous publisher. By day he would dictate this more conventional crime novel while by night he worked on Crime and Punishment, perhaps the most original murder mystery ever written. To get these novels finished on deadline, Dostoevsky hired a stenographer before whom he would act out the titanic debates that form the bulk of his psychological fiction. This young woman became an active collaborator in the creation of his fiction. Dostoevsky later married his young stenongrapher, Anna Grigorievna Snitkina, and her influence helped steady his life so that he could complete his grand project.


Crime and Punishment continues Dostoevsky critique of the utilitarian and nihilist political philosophies striving for dominance within the intelligentsia during the mid-1860’s. However, radical thinkers had pushed their ideology to a new extreme. Not only did they continue to reject traditional social institutions, moral principles, and any idea that smacked of liberal idealism, but they heightened their glorification of the individual will. The ultra-radical nihilists divided society itself into two essential groups: the submissive masses who prefer mediocrity, conform to civilized moral standards, and fear taking control of their lives; and the few extraordinary individuals, the Supermen, who free themselves from traditional religious standards, create their own moral values, and give full expression to all human impulses, even the darkest. A few years later Frederich Nietzsche would organize this assault on Christianity and liberal values into a systematic philosophy. The trials of Dostoevsky’s tortured student Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment represent the writer’s vision of the terrible consequences which would ensue from trying to implement this theory of human nature.


Crime and Punishment (1866)

by Fyodor Dostoevsky


Part One:


                                Chapter 1:                             The Threshold

                                Chapter 2:                             Marmeladov’s Aria

                                Chapter 3:                             Pulcheria’s Letter: Dounia, Svidrigaylov and Luzhin

                                Chapter 4:                             Raskolnikov Rejects Dounia’s Sacrifice

                                Chapter 5:                             Raskolnikov’s Terrible Dream

                                Chapter 6:                             The Origin and Growth of the Idea of Murder

                                Chapter 7:                             Across the Threshold: The Murders


Part One


Chapter One                         The Threshold


Describe Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. What does he look like?



What is he thinking about as he counts the 730 steps between his flat and the old pawnbroker’s flat?




What have been the circumstances of Raskolnikov’s life since he dropped out of the university?




Describe the setting, the streets of St. Petersburg’s Haymarket. What role will the city itself play in this story?




What narrative point of view does Dostoevsky use? Through whose eyes do we see St. Petersburg?




Chapter 2              Marmeladov’s Aria



Describe Marmeladov, the drunk whom Raskolnikov meets when he ducks into the tavern. Where has Marmeladov been during the last few days?




What is the greatest horror of poverty? How do the beggars in St. Petersburg behave?




Why is Marmeladov so concerned about ‘honor’ and ‘nobility of the soul’?




What unforgivable transgression has Marmeladov committed?  Why did he do it?





What is Dostoevsky telling us about human nature? What does Marmeladov prefer to do rather than the right thing?






Chapters 3 and 4:                Pulcheria’s Letter



What happened to Raskolnikov’s sister Dounia while she was working as a governess for Svidrigaylov and his family?




How was Dounia’s reputation  restored?




To whom is Dounia now betrothed? Why is she marrying this man?




What resolution does Rakolnikov make? How can he achieve this goal?




What happens to Raskolnikov when he goes back on to the street?




To whom does he turn to talk about his situation?





Chapter 5              Raskolnikov’s Terrible Dream



Where does Raskolnikov fall asleep?




What happens in his dream? What details are particularly affecting? 




Unpack the dream’s meaning. How would you diagnose Raskolnikov’s mental state?




What connection does Raskolnikov instantly make when he awakens?




With whom does Raskolnikov have a chance encounter as he returns home?






Chapter 6              The Idea of Murder



What coincidences have occurred during the last few weeks which, Raskolnikov believes, have shepherded forward the idea of murder?




How does Raskolnikov defend the idea of murder? What philosophical belief does he use to defend this action?




How does Raskolnikov behave as he walks toward the landlady’s apartment once again? What happens to all of his careful planning?




Chapter 7              Across the Threshold


Contrast  Raskolnikov’s behavior just before and in the frenzied minutes after the murder.



What mistakes does he make?



How is the actual killing of Lizaveta different?



What happens at the threshold ?



How does Raskolnikov escape?




Can Raskolnikov grasp what he has done? What inner force directs Raskolnikov’s steps? To what extent is he responsible for his actions?