Themes in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's writings

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Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky in 1872 painted by Vasily Perov

The themes in the writings of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which surpass novels, novellas, short stories, essays, epistolary novels, poetry,[1] spy fiction[2] and suspense,[3] include suicide, poverty, human manipulation and morality. Religious themes are found throughout his works, especially after his release from prison in 1854. His early works emphasised realism and naturalism, as well as social issues such as the differences between the poor and the rich. Influences from other writers are evident especially, in his early works, leading to accusations of plagiarism, but his style gradually developed over his career. Elements of gothic fiction, romanticism and satire can be found in his writings. Dostoyevsky was "an explorer of ideas",[4] greatly affected by the sociopolitical events occurring during his lifetime. After his release from prison, his writing style changed drastically, moving away from his earlier "sentimental naturalism", and featuring more psychological and philosophical themes. Much of his later works are characterised by autobiographical elements.

Themes and style[edit]

Manuscript of Demons

Dostoyevsky was a representative of literary realism, a genre which depicted contemporary life and society. He saw himself as a "fantastic realist",[5] while Apollon Grigoryev called him a "sentimental naturalist". Dostoyevsky was described as "an explorer of ideas"; his life "coincided with a particularly tumultuous period in Russian history, and was undoubtedly shaped by the sociopolitical happenings he witnessed".[4] Beside his writings on human psychology and religion, Dostoyevsky was known for his frequent use of satire; critic Harold Bloom stated that "satiric parody is the center of Dostoyevsky's art."[6]

Dostoyevsky's use of space and time were analysed by philologist Vladimir Toporov, who stated that "the unexpected not only is possible but also always happens".[7] Toporov compares time and space in Dostoyevsky with film scenes: the Russian word vdrug (suddenly) appears 560 times in the Russian edition of Crime and Punishment, and provides the reader with impressions of tension, inequality and nervousness, all characteristic elements of the structure of his books.[7] Dostoyevsky's works often utilise extremely precise numbers (at two steps ... , two roads to the right), as well as high and rounded numbers (100, 1000, 10000). Critics such as Donald Fanger[8] and Roman Katsman, writer of The Time of Cruel Miracles: Mythopoesis in Dostoevsky and Agnon, call these elements "mythopoeic".[9] Dostoyevsky's characters' growth occurs through repetition, events, and memory, despite how painful they may be for the characters.[7]

Dostoyevsky investigated human nature. According to his good friend, the Russian philosopher Strakhov, "All his attention was directed upon people, and he grasped at only their nature and character", because he was "interested by people, people exclusively, with their state of soul, with the manner of their lives, their feelings and thoughts". Philosopher and Dostoyevsky researcher Nikolai Berdyaev stated that he "is not a realist as an artist, he is an experimentator, a creator of an experimential metaphysics of human nature". His characters live in an unlimited, irrealistic world, beyond borders and limits. Berdyaev remarks that "Dostoevsky reveals a new mystical science of man", limited to people "which have been drawn into the whirlwind".[10]

Dostoyevsky's works explore irrational dark motifs, dreams, emotions and visions, all typical elements of Gothic fiction. He was an avid reader of the Gothic and enjoyed the works of Radcliffe, Balzac, Hoffmann, Charles Maturin and Soulié. Among his first Gothic works was "The Landlady". The stepfather's demonic fiddle and the mysterious seller in Netochka Nezvanova are Gothic-like. In Humiliated and Insulted, the villain has a typical demonic appearance. Other roots of this genre can be found in Crime and Punishment; for example the dark and dirty rooms and Raskolnikov's Mephistophelian character, or the vampire-like Nastasia Filippovna in The Idiot and femme-fatale Katerina Ivanovna in The Brothers Karamazov.[11]

Based on his analysis of Dostoyevsky's style, Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin developed the concept of literary polyphony, describing a style in which independent, equal voices speak for an individual self, in a context in which they can be heard, flourish and interact together. Bakhtin also argues that many of Dostoyevsky's works have elements of menippean satire. According to Bakhtin Dostoyevsky revived satire as a genre combining comedy, fantasy, symbolism and adventure and in which mental attitudes are personified. A Writer's Diary and "Bobok" are "one of the greatest menippeas in all world literature", but examples can be found in "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man", the first encounter between Raskolnikov and Sonja in Crime and Punishment, which is "an almost perfect Christianised menippea", and in "The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor".[12]

Suicides are found in several of Dostoyevsky's books. The 1860s–1880s marked a near-epidemic period of suicides in Russia, and many contemporary Russian authors wrote about suicide. Dostoyevsky's suicide victims and murderers are unbelievers or tend towards unbelief: the Underground Man in Notes from Underground, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Ippolit in The Idiot, Kirillov in Demons, and Ivan Karamazov and Smerdiakov in The Brothers Karamazov. Disbelief in God and immortality and the influence of contemporary philosophies such as positivism and materialism are seen as important factors in the development of the characters' suicidal tendencies. Dostoyevsky felt that a belief in God and immortality was necessary for human existence.[13][14]

Early writing[edit]

Dostoyevsky's early works were influenced by contemporary writers, including Pushkin, Gogol and Hoffmann, which led to accusations of plagiarism. Several critics pointed out similarities in The Double to Gogol's works The Overcoat and The Nose. Parallels have been made between his short story "An Honest Thief" and George Sand's François le champi and Eugène Sue's Mathilde ou Confessions d'une jeune fille, and between Dostoyevsky's Netochka Nezvanova and Charles Dickens' Dombey and Son. Like many young writers, he was "not fully convinced of his own creative faculty, yet firmly believed in the correctness of his critical judgement."[15]

Dostoyevsky, 1859

Dostoyevsky's translations of Balzac's Eugénie Grandet and Sand's La dernière Aldini differ from standard translations. In his translation of Eugénie Grandet, he often omitted whole passages or paraphrased significantly, perhaps because of his rudimentary knowledge of French or his haste.[16] He also used darker words, such as "gloomy" instead of "pale" and "cold", and sensational adjectives, such as "horrible" and "mysterious". The translation of La desnière Aldini was never completed because someone already published one in 1837.[17] He also abandoned working on Mathilde by Sue due to lack of funds.[18] Influenced by the plays he watched during this time, he wrote verse dramas for two plays, Mary Stuart by Schiller and Boris Godunov by Pushkin, which have been lost.[19][20]

Dostoyevsky's debut novel, Poor Folk, describes in the form of an epistolary novel the relationship between the elderly official Makar Devushkin and the young seamstress Varvara Dobroselova, a remote relative. They write letters to each other and through the tender, sentimental adoration for his relative and her confident, warm friendship with him, they seem to prefer a life in a higher society, although it forced them into poverty. Critic Vissarion Belinsky called the novel "Russia's first social novel",[21] favourising the depiction of poor and downtrodden people.[22] Dostoyevsky's success would not continue with his next work, The Double, which centres on a shy protagonist Yakov Golyadkin discovering how his doppelgänger, who has achieved the success denied to him, has slowly destroyed his life. The novel was panned by critics and readers alike; Belinsky commented that the work had "no sense, no content and no thoughts", and that the novel was boring due to the protagonist's garrulity, or tendency towards verbal diarrhoea.[23] He and other critics stated that the idea for The Double was brilliant, but that its external form was misconceived and full of multi-clause sentences.[24][25]

The short stories Dostoyevsky wrote after this period but before prison have similar themes as Poor Folk and The Double.[26] For example, his short story "White Nights", "features rich nature and music imagery, gentle irony, usually directed at the first-person narrator himself, and a warm pathos that is always ready to turn into self-parody". The first three parts of his unfinished novel Netochka Nezvanova chronicle the trials and tribulations of Netochka, stepdaughter of a second-class fiddler, and in "A Christmas Tree and a Wedding", Dostoyevsky switches to social satire.[15]

Later years[edit]

After his release from prison, Dostoyevsky's writing style changed drastically, moving away from the "sentimental naturalism" of Poor Folk and The Insulted and Injured, towards more psychological and philosophical themes.[27] Even though he spent four years in prison in poor conditions, Dostoyevsky wrote two humorous books; the novella Uncle's Dream and the novel The Village of Stepanchikovo.[28] The novel Notes From the Underground, which he partially wrote in prison, was his first secular book, with few references to religion. Later, he wrote about his reluctance to remove religious themes from the book, stating, "The censor pigs have passed everything where I scoffed at everything and, on the face of it, was sometimes even blasphemous, but have forbidden the parts where I demonstrated the need for belief in Christ from all this".[29]

Terras speculated that Dostoyevsky's concern with the downtrodden after the publication of Notes from the Underground was "motivated not so much by compassion as by an unhealthy curiosity about the darker recesses of the human psyche, ... by a perverse attraction to the diseased states of the human mind, ... or ... by sadistic pleasure in observing human suffering".[5] Humiliated and Insulted was similarly secular; only at the end of the 1860s, beginning with the publication of Crime and Punishment, did Dostoyevsky's religious themes resurface.[30]

The House of the Dead is a semi-autobiographical memoir written while Dostoyevsky was in prison and includes a few religious themes. Characters from the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Islam and Christianity– appear in it, and while the Jewish character Isay Fomich and characters affiliated with the Orthodox Church and the Old Believers are depicted negatively, the Muslims Nurra and Aley from Dagestan are depicted positively. Aley is later educated by reading the Bible, and shows a fascination for the altruistic message in Christ's Sermon on the Mount, which he views as the ideal philosophy.[30]

Dostoyevsky's later works are also characterised by autobiographical elements. According to Norwegian Slavist and vice president of the International Dostoevsky Association, Geir Kjetsaa, "Dostoyevsky's life is a novel". The Idiot, perhaps Dostoyevsky's most autobiographical work, has many similarities to his life; for example, the viewing of Holbein's painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, Prince Myshkin's skilled handwriting and similarities between the fictional and real-life characters.[31]

The works Dostoyevsky published in the 1870s explore human beings' capacity for manipulation. The Eternal Husband and "The Meek One" describe the relationship between a man and woman in marriage, the first chronicling the manipulation of a husband by his wife; the latter the opposite. "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man" raises this theme of manipulation from the individual to a metaphysical level.[32] Philosopher Strakhov agreed that Dostoyevsky "a great thinker and a great visionary ... a dialectician of genius, one of Russia's greatest metaphysicians."[33]


Dostoyevsky's works were often called "philosophical" despite his lack of knowledge about philosophy; he described himself as "weak in philosophy".[34] "Fyodor Mikhailovich loved these questions about the essence of things and the limits of knowledge", Strakhov wrote.[34] Although theologian George Florovsky described Dostoyevsky as a "philosophical problem" because it is unknown whether Dostoyevsky believed in what he wrote, many philosophical thoughts are found in books such as A Writer's Diary and The Brothers Karamazov because he often wrote in the first person. He might have been critical of rational and logical thinking because he was "more a sage and an artist than a strictly logical, consistent thinker."[35] He represented Kierkegaardian irrationalism, in works such as House of the Dead, Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment and Demons. His irrationalism is mentioned in William Barrett's Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy and in Walter Kaufmann's Existentialisms from Dostoevsky to Sartre.[36]


  1. ^ "Достоевский Федор Михайлович: Стихотворения" [Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky: Poems] (in Russian). Retrieved 22 September 2012. 
  2. ^ Cicovacki 2012, p. 80.
  3. ^ Lantz 2004, p. 170.
  4. ^ a b Terras 1998, p. 59.
  5. ^ a b Terras 1998, p. preface.
  6. ^ Bloom 2004, p. 10.
  7. ^ a b c Vladimir Toporov (1995). Мив. Ритуал. Симбол. Образ. [Myth. Ritual. Symbol. Image] (in Russian). Прогресс (Progress). pp. 193–211. ISBN 5-01-003942-7. 
  8. ^ Donald Fanger, Dostoevsky and Romantic Realism: A Study of Dostoevsky in Relation to Balzac, Dickens, and Gogol, Northwestern University Press, 1998, p. 14
  9. ^ Boris Sergeyevich Kondratiev. "Мифопоэтика снов в творчестве Ф. М. Достоевского" [Mythopoetic Dreams in the Creativity of F. M. Dostoyevsy]. Retrieved 2 August 2012. 
  10. ^ Nikolay Berdyaev (1918). "The Revelation About Man in the Creativity of Dostoevsky". Retrieved 18 August 2012. 
  11. ^ Lantz 2004, pp. 167–170.
  12. ^ René Wellek. "Bakhtin's View of Dostoevsky: "Polyphony" and "Carnivalesque"". University of Toronto. Retrieved 3 June 2012. 
  13. ^ Paperno 1997, pp. 123–6.
  14. ^ Lantz 2004, pp. 424–8.
  15. ^ a b Terras 1998, pp. 14–30.
  16. ^ Lantz 2004, p. 29.
  17. ^ Catteau 1989, pp. 12–13.
  18. ^ Lantz 2004, p. 419.
  19. ^ Sekirin 1997, p. 51.
  20. ^ Carr 1962, p. 20.
  21. ^ Bloom 2004, p. 12.
  22. ^ Lantz 2004, p. 334-35.
  23. ^ Belinsky 1847, p. 96.
  24. ^ Reber 1964, p. 22.
  25. ^ Terras 1969, p. 224.
  26. ^ Frank 2009, p. 103.
  27. ^ Catteau 1989, p. 197.
  28. ^ Terras 1998, pp. 32–50.
  29. ^ Pisma, XVIII, 2, 73
  30. ^ a b Bercken 2011, p. 23-6.
  31. ^ Kjetsaa 1989, pp. 220–8.
  32. ^ Neuhäuser 1993, pp. 94–5.
  33. ^ Scanlan 2002, p. 2.
  34. ^ a b Anna Dostoyevskaya, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii F. M. Dostoevskogo, St. Petersburg, 1882–83, 1:225
  35. ^ Vladimir Solovyov, Sobranie sochinenii Vladimira Sergeevicha Solov'eva, St. Petersburg, Obshchestvennaia Pol'za, 1901–07, 5:382
  36. ^ Scanlan 2002, p. 3-6.


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