Fyodor Dostoevsky

The famed 19th-century Russian author, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), wrote many influential books throughout his life. He drew from his own life experiences, particularly the four years he spent in exile in a Siberian labor camp. Dostoevsky greatly influenced many writers after him for his contributions to the genre of fiction and psychology including Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Fyodor Dostoevsky Fyodor Dostoevsky

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    fyodor Dostoevsky+ Dostoevsky/FyodorDosteovsky Biography+ StudySmarterFyodor Dostoevsky was a 19th-century Russian author

    Biography: Fyodor Dostoevsky

    On November 11, 1821, Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in Moscow, Russia. Dr. Mikhail Dostoevsky and Maria Dostoeskaya, his parents, had a total of eight children and Fyodor was the second oldest. He was raised near the hospital his father worked, which was in the lower class district of Moscow. Literature surrounded Dostoevsky in his childhood. His nanny, Alena Frolovna, read to him many tales, and his mother introduced him to the Bible. He read books from many genres such as Russian literature, Gothic, Greek Epics, and Romantic Literature.

    One of Dostoevsky's favorite authors was Nikolai Gogol (1819-1898), a Russian playwright, known for his grotesque writing style and impressionistic characterizations of people. Dostoevsky mentions Gogol many times in his book, Crime and Punishment (1866).

    Dostoevsky was sent to a French Boarding School in 1833 and the Chermak Boarding School soon after. He was known for being shy and excitable, never fitting in with his aristocratic schoolmates. In May of 1836, Dostoevsky was sent to Nikolayev Military Engineering Institute with his brother, Mikhail. In 1837, his mother died after a battle with tuberculosis. In 1838, Dostoevsky entered the academy and immediately disliked it for its science and math-centered studies. He was quite reclusive but displayed great concern for others, especially the poorer classes.

    His father died in 1839 due to an apoplectic stroke, but some believe he was murdered by the serfs working for him. Dostoevsky would complete his studies in the academy and become an engineer cadet. During this time he'd visit his brother in Reval. There he'd attend the opera and ballet, see plays, and gamble. In 1843, Dostoevsky began work as a lieutenant engineer and completed his first literary publication, a translation of Eugenie Grandet (1833) by Honore de Balzac.

    In 1845, he finished writing Poor Folk (1846), his first book. Poor Folk was shown to Nikolay Nekrasov, a poet. Nekrasov showed the book to Vissarion Belinsky, an influential literary critic. By early 1846, Poor Folk was published in the St. Petersburg Collection. The book was very successful. Around this time, Dostoevsky learned about Socialism and was interested in its value of justice, especially for those in disadvantaged positions.

    Dostoevsky's health began to decline after many of his literary works including the short stories "A Weak Heart" (1848) and "Mr. Prokharchin" (1846), received negative reviews. He was in financial trouble and joined the utopian socialist Betekov circle, which helped him make it through this difficult period. The group dissolved around 1846 so Dostoevsky joined the Petrashevsky circle, recommended to Dostoevsky by the poet Aleksey Plescheyev.

    The Petrashevsky Circle, founded by Mikhail Petrashevksy in 1845, was a progressive group of intellectuals and writers who were mostly against the tsarist autocracy, and Russian serfdom. They often discussed Western Philosophy, which had been banned by Tsar Nikolas I.

    Before Dostoevsky could finish his book, Netochka Nezanova or Nameless Nobody (1845), he was exiled. Liprandi, an official for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, accused Dostoevsky of reading Belinsky's "Letter to Gogol" (1847) , which was banned, and for circulating it. On April 23, 1849, Dostoevsky and his counterparts were arrested and held in the Peter and Paul Fortress.

    After four months of investigation, the arrested members, including Dostoevsky, were sentenced to death by firing squad. They were sent to Semyonov Place in St. Petersburg and placed into three rows. At the last moment, Tsar Nikolas I decided to stop the execution and sent Dostoevsky to exile for four years in the hard labor prison camp Katorga located in Siberia.

    Dostoevsky's period of exile was a brutal period of his life. He was shackled for the majority of the four years and only allowed to read the New Testament. Living conditions were terrible, and Dostoevsky suffered many seizures, which began when he was a young man.

    Dostoevsky was released in 1854 and was helped financially by his brother, Mikhail. That year Dostoevsky was forced to serve for the Siberian Army Corps of the Seventh Line Battalion in Semipalatinsk. There Dostoevsky tutored aristocratic children. He tutored Lieutenant Colonel Belikhov's son and met Belikhov and his wife Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, who he fell in love with. When Belikhov died in 1855, Maria moved with Dostoevsky and her son to Barnaul. They were married in 1857. They had an unhappy marriage and lived most of their time apart.

    After apologizing for his political activities in utopian circles, Dostoevsky was granted permission to publish books. He had to remain under police surveillance for the rest of his life as part of the agreement. In 1859, he was granted leave from the military and allowed to live in St. Petersburg. In 1861 he published The House of the Dead (1861) which was based on his experience in exile.

    In 1862, Dostoevsky went to many Western European cities. During this trip, Dostoevsky wrote "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions" (1863). In this essay, he criticized many things including Catholicism, Protestantism, Capitalism, modernization, and materialism. In 1863, on a second trip to Western Europe, he met Polina Suslova, who he fell in love with. He also gambled all his money.

    In 1864 after his wife and brother died, Dostoevsky gained responsibility for both his brother's family and his stepson. Dostoevsky was nearing financial ruin during this period. In 1866, he published his famed book Crime and Punishment in The Russian Messenger.

    He returned to St. Petersburg and promised his publisher a book titled The Gambler (1866) but found it difficult to write. He hired Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, a stenography pupil, to help him. After 26 days they finished the book. They got married in 1867. Despite receiving royalties for his book Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky was still in debt, so Anna had to sell many of her valuables.

    They honeymooned in Germany with the little money they had. In 1868-1869, he published The Idiot (1869). That same year, Dostoevsky and Anna's three-month-old daughter, Sofya died, which left Dostoevsky in a state of despair. In 1871, Dostoevsky returned to Russia in financial ruin and was forced to sell most of his family's possessions. After a failed attempt at renting out apartments, he raised the prices on his copyrights.

    Around this time, Dostoevsky was exposed to more conservative politics, which greatly differed from his progressive views prior. In 1872, Dostoevsky published his book Demons through his self-founded Dostoevsky Publishing Company.

    Demons was inspired by the murder of Ivan Ivanov, a member of the socialist revolutionary group People's Vengeance. He was murdered by another member of the group.

    Dostoevsky sold around 3,000 copies of the book, which helped with his insufficient funds. For some time he worked for The Citizen but left in March of 1874. During the 15 months he worked there, he was taken to court twice. Dostoevsky began writing A Writer's Diary for Notes of the Fatherland (1993), which was a collection of his periodicals, as his health began to decline rapidly. In 1877, he had four seizures.

    In 1881, Tsar Alexander II's secret police searched Dostoevsky's home in search of members of the Narodnaya Volya terrorist organization. The next day Dostoevsky had a pulmonary hemorrhage which was followed by two more. When Dostoevsky died, he was buried near the poets Nikolay Karamzin and Vasily Zhukovsky.

    Fyodor Dostoevsky's Philosophy

    The two main philosophical beliefs that Fyodor Dostoevsky ascribed to was Orthodox Christianity and Utopian Socialism, however, he was heavily critical of both throughout his lifetime. Dostoevsky heavily believed in the concept of Christian love, in which God's love is spread to everyone. He also believed in alleviating the suffering of the lower classes through the tenents of socialism. Together, these two philosophical frameworks appear frequently in his works, especially as seen in his characters.

    In Crime and Punishment, the character Sonya is an example of how Dostoevsky revealed his philosophical beliefs in his writing.

    Sonya is forced into prostitution due to her family's lower financial status. Sonya is also deeply religious and encourages Raskolnikov to confess to his crime. She is a characterization of how good and religious people are forced into socially unacceptable occupations due to inequalities.

    Books by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    Fyodor Dostoevsky is considered one of the most important Russian authors of the 19th century. Dostoevsky wrote many books over his lifetime. Below are three of his books: Crime and Punishment (1866), The Brothers Karamazov (1880), and The Idiot (1869).

    Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    Rodion Raskolnikov is a poor, ex-student who decides he will commit a terrible crime. He murders Alonya, the pawnbroker, and her sister. Throughout the book, told from a third-person omniscient point of view, Raskolnikov must grapple with the mental and moral dilemmas he faces following his crime. The book features themes of morality and criminality, the Superman complex which is the idea that a person's actions, even if morally bad, are done for the greater good, and nihilism and utilitarianism.

    Quote from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment

    I’ve known Rodion for a year and a half: sullen, gloomy, arrogant, proud; recently (and maybe much earlier) insecure and hypochondriac. Magnanimous and kind. Doesn’t like voicing his feelings, and would rather do something cruel than speak his heart out in words" (Part 3, Chapter 2).

    This quote reveals the character of Raskolnikov as spoken by Raskolnikov's friend Razumikhin. It reveals the contradictory nature of Raskolnikov and the internal strife he feels throughout the book.

    The Idiot (1869) by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    Myshkin, a Russian Prince, has just returned to Russia from a sanitarium. He finds himself in a love triangle with two women, Nastasya and Algaia. He loses both of them to a wealthy, corrupt man named Rogozhin, and Myshkin is thrown into the world of competition and the impulse to reach one's goals. The book contains themes on Christianity, passion, violence, and morality.

    Quote from Dostoevsky's The Idiot

    What is in all this beauty for me when every minute, every second I am obliged, forced to know that even this tiny gnat, buzzing near me in the sunlight now, is taking part in all this banquet and chorus, knows its place in it, loves it, and is happy, and I alone am an outcast" (Part 3, Chapter 7).

    This quote is spoken by Hippolite who is dying of tuberculosis and is extorting money from Myshkin. Hippolite is angry that he will die and does not feel joy as others such as Myshkin do in nature. He feels that God's creation of nature is responsible for his untimely death. This contrasts with Myshkin, who although an outcast from society, is able to find the joy and beauty in nature.

    The Brothers Karamazov (1880) by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    Fyodor Karamazov has been murdered and each of his three sons is accused of murdering him. The three sons all have different philosophical viewpoints that motivate them. Dmitri believes in motivation through passion, Ivan is motivated by intellect, and Alexei is motivated by his religious faith. Everybody believes it is Dmitri who committed the crime, and he is arrested and put on trial. The books contain themes such as faith, freedom, and discussions on evil.

    Quote from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

    Turn them into bread and mankind will run after you like sheep, grateful and obedient, though eternally trembling lest you withdraw your hand and your loaves cease for them" (Book 5, Chapter 5).

    Chapter 5 is a recitation of a story of the Grand Inquisitor by Ivan to his brother Alexei. He recites the story to question the idea of a benevolent god. In this quote, the Grand Inquisitor makes the point that if you make people obedient to a god by providing them with something they need, such as food, they will only be obedient out of fear of losing that necessity. He makes the point that people aren't religious because they love God, but rather because they fear him.

    Fyodor Dostoevsky: Genre

    Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote mainly in the realism and naturalism genre of literature, as his works focused on social issues such as the wealth gap between the very rich and the very poor. Dostoevsky was highly involved with the political thoughts and ideologies that were circulating in Russia during his lifetime, and these ideologies often appeared in his work. Later in his career, he began to write psychological fiction/thrillers, the most notable example being Crime and Punishment.

    Realism is a literary movement that focuses on the accurate portrayal of everyday and mundane experiences. It is often unembellished and objective, lacking the subjectiveness of Romanticism.

    Naturalism is a type of realism that focuses on the realistic depiction of social, environmental, and heredity influences on human nature.

    Dostoevsky is unique in his presentation of the realism genre. Rather than simply focus on daily life, he chooses to focus on the nearly unbelievable experiences of human nature. He does so with dramatic suspension, unpredictable outcomes, and a dynamic style so that the reader sees what may happen, rather than what will probably happen. This builds suspense which adds to the internal anguish felt by many of his characters. His characters are often written on extreme ends of a morality scale that forces the reader to pay attention to the moral dilemmas the protagonists must grapple with.

    For example in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, the protagonist Raskolnikov spends the majority of the novel trying to justify his crimes, which involved the murder of two women. He battles fantastical visions, dreams, and hallucinations and at times is so riddled with repressed guilt, that he falls ill. He represents the extreme and destructive nature of existing in the extremes.

    Fyodor Dostoevsky: Writing Style

    Dostoevsky writes in a free narrative style, that can be called chaotic. This chaos and freedom are meant to reflect the chaos and freedom found in human nature. Dostoevsky does not always write his narratives in chronological or linear structures. At times, he embeds his narratives with fragmentary pieces, dreams, visions, or fantastical allegories. He also writes his narratives from the third person omniscient point of view, which allows the narrator to see everything that is happening, including all of the character's inner thoughts.

    Third Person Omniscient point of view is when an outside narrator is telling the story and is all-knowing. This means they know everything that is happening in the story and each character's thoughts.

    Overall, Dostoevsky had a unique and distinctive writing style that spoke to the reader's sense of suspense and thrill while also exploring key themes such as human nature, morality, religion, and social class.

    Fyodor Dostoevsky - Key takeaways

    • Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in Russia in 1821 and was surrounded by literature from an early age.
    • After spending time in The Academy and as a lieutenant, Dostoevsky joined many utopian socialist circles such as the Petrashevsky Circle. He was arrested for circulating the banned "Letter to Gogol" and nearly executed by firing squad.
    • His death sentence was commuted and he spent four years in exile in a Siberian labor camp. This experience inspired some of his most famous books such as Crime and Punishment.
    • Dostoevsky ascribed to Orthodox Christain and Utopian Socialist philosophies but was critical of both.
    • He wrote in the Realism, Naturalism, and Psychological Fiction/Thriller genres and had a distinctive, psychological writing style.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Fyodor Dostoevsky

    Why is Fyodor Dostoevsky important? 

    Dostoevsky is an important Russian author for his contributions to Russian Literature and specifically in the genres of Realism, Naturalism, and Psychological Fiction/Thriller. 

    Why did Fyodor Dostoevsky write Crime and Punishment (1866)?

    Fyodor Dostoevsky began writing Crime and Punishment after his gambling and growing debts pushed him into financial insecurity. 

    What did Fyodor Dostoevsky believe in? 

    Fyodor Dostoevsky believed in Orthodox Christianity and Utopian Socialism but was heavily critical of both. 

    Who is Fyodor Dostoevsky?

    Fyodor Dostoevsky is a Russian author from the 19th century. 

    When was Fyodor Dostoevsky born?

    Fyodor Dostoevsky was born on November 11, 1821.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What literary genre does Crime and Punishment fall under?

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