Fyodor Dostoyevsky Biography, Works and Summary of Books


Who is Fyodor Dostoyevsky? Information on Fyodor Dostoyevsky biography, life story, works, summary of books, Fyodor Dostoyevsky novels.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky; (1821-1881), Russian novelist and one of the most seminal writers in European literature. He has profoundly influenced not only the modern novel but also the thought of modern man. His role as iconoclastic thinker has been so potent because it found expression in creative rather than abstract thought. “I am weak in philosophy,” he wrote to a friend on June 6, 1870, a statement that becomes all too obvious when he tries to make his heroes into the mouth-pieces of his own extreme views.


Dostoyevsky was born in Moscow on Nov. 11 (Oct. 30, Old Style), 1821, the second son of a former army doctor, who was at the time attached to the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor and Aged. The boy was educated at a Moscow private boarding school and, shortly after the death of his mother in February 1837, was sent to St. Petersburg, where he entered the Army Engineering College. He received a commission in 1843 and was attached to the Army Engineering Corps in St. Petersburg. In 1844 he resigned his commission to devote himself to literature.

In the spring of 1846, Dostoyevsky joined the group of utopian socialists led by Mikhail Butashevich-Petrashevsky, a disciple of François Marie Charles Fourier (q.v.). In April 1849, Dostoyevsky and other members of the group were arrested and imprisoned for eight months in the Petropavlovsk Fortress in St. Petersburg. On November 16, Dostoyevsky was sentenced to death, but the death sentence was commuted to four years hard labor in a Siberian prison. However, he and the other prisoners were not informed of their reprieve. Instead, on Dec. 22, 1849, they were taken to a parade ground and made to endure the ceremonies preliminary to their execution before their reprieve was read to them. After his release from prison in February 1854, he did his compulsory army service in Siberia. On Feb. 6, 1857, he married Maria Isaev, a 29-year old widow.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky Biography, Works and Summary of Books

In March 1859, Dostoyevsky resigned from the army and was granted permission to return to European Russia. Two years after his return to St. Petersburg, at the end of 1859, he founded the monthly periodical Time under the nominal editorship of his elder brother Mikhail. In June 1862 he went abroad for the first time. He returned to St. Petersburg that August, and in May of the following year Time was suppressed because of an article on the Polish uprising. In August 1863 he went abroad again, returning in October to join his dying wife in Moscow. In January 1864 he founded his second periodical, Epoch, which lasted only one year.

The death of his brother Mikhail in July 1865 involved Dostoyevsky in debts that drove him abroad to seek refuge from his creditors. In February 1867, Dostoyevsky married Anna Snitkin, his 22-year old stenographer; the couple went abroad and stayed until July 1871. From January 1873 to February 1874 he was editor of the conservative weekly Citizen. In 1876 he founded and edited his own monthly, The Writer’s Diary. An epileptic all his life, Dostoyevsky died in St. Petersburg on Feb. 9 (Jan. 28, Old Style), 1881, from a burst blood vessel in his lungs aggravated by an attack of epilepsy.


Between 1844, when he resigned his army commission, and 1849, when he was imprisoned, Dostoyevsky wrote 10 long and short stories. The first, Poor People ( 1845), was acclaimed by the influential critic Vissarion Belinsky as “the first attempt at a Russian social novel.” Belinsky singled out three most characteristic features of Dostoyevsky’s fiction: the minute accuracy of the descriptions of everyday life, the masterly delineation of character and social conditions, and the profound, intuitive understanding of the tragic element in life. Dostoyevsky’s second story, The Double (1846), a brilliant study of schizophrenia, was not appreciated by either Belinsky or a reading public that found it too obscure and diffuse.

His third story, Mr. Prokharchin (1846), was a desperate attempt to nıatch the success of Poor People by a return to the same environment of the St. Petersburg slums. It met with the annihilating criticism of Belinsky, as did his next story, The Landlady (1847). There followed several other stories that were equally unsuccessful. In 1848 he published four other stories: White Nights, a sentimental tale of a young dreamer, remarkable for its gentle humor and touches of genuine feeling; The Honest Thief, the embryo of the idea that was to be fully developed in Crime and Punishment; the satirical story The Christmas Tree and the Wedding, a savage indictment of success in an acquisitive society; and an unfinished novel Netochka Nezvanova.

While imprisoned in the Petropavlovsk fortress, Dostoyevsky wrote The Little Hero, a story remarkable for its analysis of the mentality of an 11-year-old boy and for its deeply sympathetic characterization of a young erring wife. Immediately on his release from the Siberian prison, Dostoyevsky wrote two long short stories: My Uncle’s Dream, a lighthearted comic picture of socialites in a remote provincial town; and The Village of Stepanchikovo, whose hero was a first sketch of “a perfect man” who, 10 years later, was to be given a much more satisfactory embodiment in Prince Myshkin, the hero of The Idiot. Both these stories show signs of Dostoyevsky’s desire to ingratiate himself with the author-ities and reveal all too clearly the change in his political orientation from a red radicalism to a dyed-in-the-wool conservatism.

The most important works published after his return to St. Petersburg were the novel The Insulted and the Injured (1861) and the autobiographical The House of the Dead (1861-1862), a vivid description of the nightmare world of the Siberian prison. In the latter work, Dostoyevsky for the first time developed the theme of spiritual regeneration through suffering and expressed his admiration for religious meekness and “active” love, the two qualities that were to become the distinguishing characteristics of Myshkin in The Idiot and Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoyevsky continued his attack on the liberals in his short story An Unpleasant Incident (1862). In his Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863) he described life in London and Paris and set down the conclusion that Russia alone could bring about “the brotherhood of man.” He continued his attack on Westem civilization in Notes from the Underground (1864), in which he rejected the panaceas of the utilitarians and claimed that redemption could be achieved by religion alone.

Crime and Punishment. 

Between 1864 and 1866, Dostoyevsky worked on Crime and Punishment and, to meet a publisher’s deadline, dashed off The Gambler, a melodramatic and superficial work in which he tried to give an account of his own mania for gambling. Dostoyevsky intended Crime and Punishment (1866) as “a psychological study of crime” as well as “a novel of contemporary life.” He began to write the novel in the first person, in the form of a confession. But in November 1865 he decided to jettison that plan and start again. He expanded his original idea, that happiness could be “bought” only by suffering, and conceived of Raskolnikov, the Central figure, as a man of immense pride who, although he has only contempt for society, wants to acquire power over society for its own good. This leads to Raskolnikov’s plan of murder for money and Dostoyevsky’s exploration of the Napoleonic theme—the theory that there are a few extraordinary men who stand above the law.

Dostoyevsky’s first intention was that Raskolnikov should accept his punishment to expiate his crime. But because this was not a decision Raskolnikov would logically have taken, Dostoyevsky introduced Sonia to embody the Christian concept of penance through suffering.

Dostoyevsky used the mechanism of dreams to add a fourth dimension to his novel. Raskolnikov dreams of a peasant whipping an old horse and is horrified by the violence; at that very moment he is planning to murder the money lender. Raskolnikov also dreams prophetically of a world in which the Napoleonic idea, if realized, leads to dictatorships and ideological warfare.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky Biography, Works and Summary of Books

The Idiot. 

During his four years abroad between February 1867 and July 1871, Dostoyevsky wrote his two great novels The Idiot and The Devils. He fînished The Idiot in January 1869. “The main idea of the novel,” he wrote to a correspondent, “is to depict a positively perfect man. There is nothing more difficult in the world than this.” In his notebooks, Dostoyevsky describes Prince Myshkin, the hero of The Idiot, as “Prince-Christ.” The Christian virtues of meekness and humility are most characteristic of him.

He is an epileptic and the first impression he produces is that of “an idiot.” At the same time, everyone he comes across feels Myshkin’s moral superiority. This inspires love in some of the characters, such as Nastasya Filippovna, one of the most powerful characters created by Dostoyevsky, and intense hatred in others, particularly Rogozhin, the embodiment of destructive, egoistic passion, who is madly in love with Nastasya Filippovna and in the end murders her. The contact with a Christhke figure such as Prince Myshkin does not, therefore, result in anything but tragedy; both saint and sinner are in the end turned into’ incurable lunatics.

Dostoyevsky was dissatisfied with The Idiot because it had failed as a convincing vehicle for his ideas. Realizing that some of these ideas were so extreme that he would make himself ridiculous if he advocated them seriously, he put them into the nıouths of his avowedly ridiculous characters. It was only when he felt very strongly about a subject that he did not hesitate to make his hero the exponent of his own ideas. Thus, Prince Myshkin, contrary to his character, is made to deliver a violent diatribe against the Roman Catholic Church. He enlarged on these ideas in his Writer’s Diary and in the speech he delivered at the unveiling of the Pushkin memorial in Moscow shortly before his death.

The Devils. 

The political ferment in Russia, culminating in the murder of a young student by a terrorist organization in Moscow, led Dostoyevsky to write his “tendentious” novel, The Devils (also called The Possessed; 1872). its two chief characters, Nikolai Stavroghin and Pyotr Verkhovensky, are pegs on which Dostoyevsky hung his two most violent dislikes, his dislike of the Russian aristocracy and his dislike of the revolutionaries. The other conspirators in the novel are quite terrifyingly alive as people but only caricatures as revolutionaries.

It was only in a character like Shatov, who like Dostoyevsky himself had turned his back on his liberal past and embraced a philosophy based on autocracy and the church, that Dostoyevsky saw the possibility of salvation for a world rent by disoprd and hatred. Dostoyevsky cut out the vision of the Golden Age, originally assigned to Stavroghin, and transferred it partly to his next novel, The Adolescent (also called The Ram Youth, 1875), and partly to his fantastic “science fiction” story The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (1877).

Dostoyevsky’s hatred not only of his opponents but also of all imaginary “enemies” of Russia was entirely in line with his religious views. He was not able to overcome this feeling in The Devils, as is shown by his lampoon of Ivan Turgenev. This is a serious blot on a novel that, in spite of its structural and artistic blemishes, possesses a tremendous vitality as well as moments of great tenderness. Therefore, while it would be absurd to take seriously Dostoyevsky’s political views as expressed in The Devils, it would be no less absurd to overlook his moments of great illumination, his amazing insight into the human heart, and his shattering criticism of those aspects of man’s character that profoundly affect human thought and behavior.

A Writer’s Diary. 

In 1873, Dostoyevsky began publishing his Writer’s Diary, a commentary on politics and life. In it he also included some of his fînest short stories, such as A Gentle Creature, remarkable for the immense pity he felt for the meek and the helpless, and The Peasant Marey, whose hero is an idealized peasant figure from the author’s early childhood. Dostoyevsky’s attitude toward the Russian peasants, as it appears from the Writer’s Diary, was somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, he depicted the peasant as an inhuman beast in his description of the flogging of a peasant woman by her husband, and, on the other, as a human being “whose only love is Christ whose image he adores to the point of suffering.” He did his best, however, to reestablish himself in the eyes of the liberal and left-wing writers, whom he had alienated by The Devils, by offering his next novel, The Adolescent, for serialization in Home Annals, the left-wing monthly published by the poet Nikolai Nekrasov.

The Adolescent. 

The main theme of The Adolescent was formulated by Dostoyevsky as “the disintegration of family life.” As usual, Dostoyevsky made use of some of the more sensational court cases, including the trial in 1874 of the members of a small revolutionary group, but he treated it with a great deal less rancor than he did the trial of the revolutionaries in The Devils. In his notes to the novel, however, his argument against the utilitarians is much more outspoken. He makes Versilov say to his adolescent son: “Even if you discovered the secrets of the exact sciences . . . the question would stili remain: What shall we do then? With that amount of comfort what is there to live for? What is to be our aim? Mankind would stili yearn for a great idea. I admit that, so far as the feeding of mankind is concerned, to feed and share out equally is at the moment also a great idea. But it is a minor and a subsidiary one, for after man has been fed he will most surely ask what he has to live for.” This argument had not so far been formulated as profoundly as it would be four years later in “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov (1878-1880).

The Brothers Karamazov. 

During 1876 and 1877, Dostoyevsky was wholly occupied with the publication of The Writer’s Diary. He embarked on it mainly because, as he explained, he was getting ready to write The Brothers Karamazov and wished “to immerse himself in the study of the details of current life.” He was also anxious to thrash out his argument against the theories of the materialists, whom he identified more and more with the “seminarists,” such as Rakitin in The Brothers Karamazov—that is to say, the extreme radical writers, most of whom were the sons of priests and former seminarians.

“You understand, of course,” he wrote in one of the issues of the Diary, “that science is stili in its infancy . . . but what if all knowledge, the scientifîc discoveries which our sages don’t even dream of, were suddenly disclosed to mankind? … At first they would feel that they had been showered with blessings …. [We are told that] there would no longer be any need for continuous labor to earn the bare necessities of life. … I doubt, however, if all these ecstasies would last for one generation. Men would suddenly discover that they had no life, no freedom of spirit, no freedom of will and personality. . . , and man would realize that he had become a brute. Man would be covered with festering sores and would bite his tongue in torment when he saw that life had been taken from him for bread, for ‘stones made into bread.’ . . . People would become depressed and bored, everything had been done and there was nothing more left to do, everything was known and there was nothing more left to know. . . . Then perhaps men would cry out to God: ‘Thou art right, O Lord. Man shall not live by bread alone.’”

The central idea of The Brothers Karamazov, embodied in the parable “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” had, tiıerefore, already taken shape in Dostoyevsky’s mind at the beginning of 1876. Dostoyevsky continued the argument, later expressed in artistic form in the parable, in his reply to a correspondent who asked him the meaning of his reference to “stones made into bread.” It was, Dostoyevsky explained, the first temptation dıe Evil Spirit presented to Christ. Contemporary socialism in Europe eliminated Christ and was concerned above all with bread. It maintained that the cause of all men’s troubles was poverty, the struggle for existence, and the bad influence of the environment. To that, Christ replied that man did not live by bread alone, that is, he propounded the axiom of tlıe spiritual origin of man. If man had no spiritual life, no ideal of beauty, he fell into a state of boredom and was in danger of becoming insane, of “indulging in all sorts of pagan fantasies.”

Other themes in The Brothers Karamazov deal with the disintegration of family life and the maltreatment of children, “the universal disorder” reigning everywhere in the leading ideas and convictions of society, the twilight of the Roman Catholic Church, the claim that socialism is a union of mankind brought about by force, and trial by jury, which Dostoyevsky ridiculed. In this novel Dostoyevsky seems also to have drawn a line between the Orthodox faith and the Orthodox Church, as personified by its priests. Zosima, the idealized holy man, is neither priest nor monk, but an “elder” (starets, a somewhat suspect figure in the Orthodox world), whom Dostoyevsky took great pains to put across as one of God’s chosen spirits.

The towering characters of The Brothers Karamazov are a more compact and condensed variation of a whole number of his most important characters: the perfect man (Zosima); the great sinner (Fyodor Karamazov); the man of unrestrained passion and honesty, selfishness and self-torture (Dmitri); the young thinker and iconoclast (Ivan); the embodiment of Christian meekness and active love (Alyosha); the nihilist seminarist (Rakitin); the tragic courtesan (Grushenka); the proud and haughty fiancee (Katerina); and the hysterical girl (Lise). But what makes this novel so monumental a work of fiction is that in it Dostoyevsky succeeded in achieving his greatest triumph both as a creative artist and as a profound and fearless thinker.

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