Biography of Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky (1821-1881)
Russian novelist, journalist, short-story writer, whose psychological penetration into the human soul profoundly influenced the 20th century novel. Dostoevsky's novels have much autobiographical elements, but ultimately they deal with moral and philosophical questions. He presented interacting characters with contrasting views or ideas about freedom of choice, Socialism, atheisms, good and evil, happiness and so forth. Dostoevsky's central obsession was God, whom his characters constantly search through painful errors and humiliations.
"But you're a poet, and I'm a simple mortal, and therefore I will say one must look at things from the simplest, most practical point of view. I, for one, have long since freed myself from all shackles, and even obligations. I only recognize obligations when I see I have something to gain by them. You. of course, can't look at things like that, your legs are in fetters and your taste is morbid. You yearn for the ideal, for virtue. But, my dear friend, I am ready to recognize anything you tell me to, but what shall I do if I know for a fact that at the root of all human virtues lies the most intense egoism?" (Prince Valkovsky in The Insulted and Humiliated, 1861)
Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in Moscow, the second son of a staff doctor at the Hospital for the Poor – later Dostoevsky's father acquired an estate and serfs. Dostoevsky was educated at home and at a private school. With his pious mother he made annual pilgrimages to the monastery of the Trinity and Saint Sergei. Shortly after her death in 1837, he was sent to St. Petersburg, where he entered the Academy for Military Engineers. Dostoevsky was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in 1842 and next years he graduated as a War Ministry draftsman. He had no interest in military engineering but at the academy he could also study Russian and French literature.
Dostoevsky's father Mikhail Andreevich died in 1839, probably of apoplexy, but there was strong rumors that he was murdered by his own serfs in a quarrel. With the help of a small income from the estate, he resigned in 1844 his commission to devote himself to writing. His first novel, Poor Folk (1846), which he wrote in a little over nine months in his small room, gained a great success with the critics, who hailed Dostoevsky as the new Gogol. "We all came from Gogol's overcoat," Dostoevsky said. One critic remarked dryly, "You have Gogols growing like mushrooms." The leading literary critic Vissarion Belinsky called Poor Folk "the first attempt at a social novel we've had".
Poor Folk was followed by The Double (1846), subtitled "A Petersburg Poem", which irritated Dostoevsky's former admirer, Vissarion Belinsky. In the story a man is losing his mind – he is haunted by a look-alike who eventually usurps his position. Belinsky remarked that such atypical "psychopathic" characters belonged in madhouses rather than in works of art.
In 1846 Dostoevsky joined a group of utopian socialists, who gathered Mihail Petrashevsky's home. Petrashevsky was an eccentric and socialist, who once went to a church dressed as a woman. The secret police had placed an agent in the group, and on April 23 in 1849 Dostoevsky was arrested during a reading of Vissarion Belinsky's radical letter 'Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends,' and sentenced to death. With mock execution, which thoroughly shocked the writer, the sentence was commuted to imprisonment in Siberia. Dostoevsky spent four years in hard labor in a stockade, wearing fetters. Many of the other convicts had committed murder. On his release in 1854 he was assigned as a common soldier in Semipalatinsk. Eventually he became an ensign. These experiences provided subject matter for the his future works. His heroes and heroines reflected moral values which were vitally important for the author. They also were men and women of action, whose thoughts influenced deeply the young in Russia. During the years in Siberia Dostoevsky became a monarchist and a devout follower of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Dostoevsky returned to St. Petersburg in 1859 as a writer with a religious mission. He published three works that derive in different ways from his Siberia experiences: The House of the Dead (1861-62), a fictional account of prison life, The Insulted and Injured (1861), which reflects the author's refutation of naive Utopianism in the face of evil, and Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863), his account of trip to Western Europe.
The Insulted and Injured was greeted by Dostoevsky's old and new readers with enthusiasm. It was completed after his penal service and exile, and published on his return to Petersburg. The narrator is Ivan Petrovich, a young aspiring writer. His literary debut, working methods, and social situation were taken from Dostoevsky's own life. The hero falls from the fame into poverty. When the book appeared it was coldly received by the critics. Dostoevsky defended the work in an open letter, writing that he knew for certain that even though the novel should be a failure, there would be poetry in it, and the two most important characters would be portrayed truthfully and even artistically.
In 1857 Dostoevsky married Maria Isaev, a 29-year old widow. He resigned from the army two years later. Between the years 1861 and 1863 he served as the editor of the monthly periodical Time. The paper was later suppressed because of an article on the Polish uprising. In 1862 Dostoevsky went to abroad for the first time, traveling in France and England. He traveled Europe again in 1863 and 1865. During this period his wife and brother died, he was obsessed with gambling, and plagued by debts and frequent epileptic seizures.
From the turmoil of the 1860s emerged Notes from Underground (1864), a psychological study of an outsider. The book marked a watershed in Dostoevsky artistic development. Notes from Underground starts with a confession by the narrator. "I am a sick man.... I am a spiteful man. I am a most unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased." The story continues with the monologue of the Underground man, who reveals his inner self to his imaginary reader. He is humiliated by his former schoolmates in a party and he gets very drunk. In a dark shop, which functions as a brothel in the evenings, he makes impressive speeches to a humble prostitute, Liza. "What are you giving up here? What are you enslaving? Why, you're enslaving your soul; something you don't really own, together with your body! You're giving away your love to be defiled by any drunkard! Love! After all, that's all there is!" He humiliates her, gives money when she only shows her real caring, but eventually she demonstrates her moral superiority. Notes from Underground was followed by Crime and Punishment (1866), an account of an individual's fall and redemption, The Idiot (1868-69), depicting a Christ-like figure, Prince Myshkin, through whom the author revealed the spiritual bankruptcy of Russia, and The Possessed (1872), an exploration of philosophical nihilism.
Crime and Punishment was serialized in Ruskii vestnik (The Russian Messenger) from January through December 1866 and appeared in a book form next year. On one level the novel belongs to the genre of detective fiction, but Dostoevsky's interest lies on the criminal – the sinner. The story is set in St. Petersburg, which Dostoevsky called the "most fantastic city in the world". The city, with its mythology, also becomes the accomplice of the protagonist, Raskolnikov, a young resentful student. An assiduous readers of newspapers, Dostoevsky saw in the crime reports symbolic meanings, signs of the hidden ills of the whole society.
Raskolnikov kills a pawnbroker, a greedy old woman, and her half-witted stepsister as well. He attempts to justify the murder in terms of its advantageous social consequences. He argues that each age gives birth to a few superior beings who are not constrained by ordinary morality – and he is one of such beings. The core of the novel is dialogue, as its is in Dostoevsky's other major works. Under the influence of the meek, Christian prostitute Sonia, Raskolnikov confronts the hollowness of his thoughts, which eventually leads to confession and redemption. Raskolnikov's nemesis is Porfiry Petrovich, a police investigator, who knows his guilt. In the demonic Svidrigailov, who commits suicide, Raskolnikov sees his own picture. "You know," confesses Svidrigailov to Raskolnikov, "from the very beginning I always thought it was a pity that your sister had not chanced to be born in the second or third century of our era, as the daughter of a ruling prince somewhere, or some governor or proconsul in Asia minor. She would doubtless have been one of those who suffered martyrdom, and she would, of course, have smiled when they burned her breast with red-hot pinchers. She would have deliberately brought it on herself." In his agony Raskolnikov realizes, that in murdering he has killed the essentially human in himself. Raskolnikov goes to Siberia for seven years. Sonia follows him to his imprisonment. – The novel has been filmed several times. Josef von Sternberg's version from 1935, starring Peter Lorre as Raskolnikov, was primarily a detective story. In the same year Pierre Chenal made his adaptation, Crime et châtiment. Denis Sanders moved the action to contemporary California in 1959. Lev Kulidjanov's version from 1969 was long – 3 hours and 20 minutes – and the most ambitious of all.
Dostoevsky married in 1867 Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, his 22-years old stenographer, who seems to have understood her husband's manias and rages. To avoid his creditors Dostoevsky left Russia with her and spent time in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, mostly in poverty. He was obsessed with gambling, but in Russia his literary fame only grew. When The Possessed turned out to be a success, he returned to Russia, and purchased a house in the provincial town of Staraya Russa. From 1873 to 1874 Dostoevsky was editor of the conservative weekly Citizen. Among his friends was Konstantin Pobedonostsev, a reactionary and the tutor to the czarevitch Alexander. In 1876 he founded his own monthly, The Writer's Diary. From its writings he collected The Diary of a Writer (1876).
Dostoevsky's short story from this period 'The Gentle Maiden' (1876) inspired later Robert Bresson's film Une Femme Douce (1969). In the story, narrated in first-person, a husband searches the reason for his wife's suicide and goes through their life together. "How it has happened I cannot tell, I try, again and again, to explain it to myself. Ever since six o'clock I have been trying to explain it, yet cannot bring my thoughts to a focus. Perhaps it is through trying so much that I fail." Gradually his narration reveals him as pompous, cruel, and tyrannical man. "She could go nowhere without my leave," he says, and the reader realizes that suicide offered her the only way to escape from her domineering husband.
By the time of The Brothers of Karamazov (1879-80), Dostoevsky was recognized in his own country as one of its great writers. He enjoyed his role as a prophet, an original public voice in the crisis period of his country. Dostoevsky final novel culminated his lifelong obsession with patricide – the assumed murder of his father had left deep marks on the author's psyche. The novel is constructed around a simple plot, dealing with the murder of the father of the Karamazov family. One of the sons, Dmitri, is arrested. The brothers represent three aspects of man's being: reason (Ivan), emotion (Dmitri) and faith (Alesha). This material is transcended into a moral and spiritual statement of contemporary society.
An epileptic all his life, Dostoevsky died in St. Petersburg on February 9 (New Style), 1881. He was buried in the Aleksandr Nevsky monastery, St. Petersburg. Anna Grigoryevna devoted the rest of her life to cherish the literary heritage of her husband. Dostoevsky's novels anticipated many of the ideas of Nietzsche and Freud. Dostoevsky himself was strongly influenced by such thinkers as Aleksandr Herzen and Vissarion Belinsky. He saw that great art must have liberty to develop on its own terms, but it always deals with central social concerns. He supported the Russian war against Turkey, and like much later Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, he emphasized more the spiritual transformation of the individual than social revolution. In the notorious essay 'The Jewish Question' the author did not hide his anti-Semitism. Dostoevsky's novels have been read in many ways – according to some biographical interpretations, he raped a young girl, which he revealed in a fictionalized form in his writings. Dostoevsky nerver met his great contemporary writer Leo Tolstoy. The Westernizing Turgenev was in many ways his opposite.