Fyodor Dostoyevsky Biography (1821-1881)

Dostoyevsky(born November 11, [October 30, Old Style], 1821, Moscow, Russia—died February 9 [January 28, O.S.], 1881, St. Petersburg) Russian and short-story whose psychological penetration into the darkest recesses of the human heart, together with his unsurpassed moments of illumination, had an immense influence on 20th-century fiction.

Dostoyevsky is usually regarded as one of the finest novelists who ever lived. Literary modernism, existentialism, and various schools of psychology, theology, and literary criticism have been profoundly shaped by his ideas. His works are often called prophetic because he so accurately predicted how Russia’s revolutionaries would behave if they came to power. In his time he was also renowned for his activity as a journalist.
Major works and their characteristics

Dostoyevsky is best known for his novella Notes from the Underground and for four long novels, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed (also and more accurately known as The Demons and The Devils), and The Brothers Karamazov. Each of these works is famous for its psychological profundity, and, indeed, Dostoyevsky is commonly regarded as one of the greatest psychologists in the history of literature. He specialized in the analysis of pathological states of mind that lead to insanity, murder, and suicide and in the exploration of the emotions of humiliation, self-destruction, tyrannical domination, and murderous rage. These major works are also renowned as great “novels of ideas” that treat timeless and timely issues in philosophy and politics. Psychology and philosophy are closely linked in Dostoyevsky’s portrayals of intellectuals, who “feel ideas” in the depths of their souls. Finally, these novels broke new ground with their experiments in literary form.
Background and early life

The major events of Dostoyevsky’s life—mock execution, imprisonment in Siberia, and epileptic seizures—were so well known that, even apart from his work, Dostoyevsky achieved great celebrity in his own time. Indeed, he frequently capitalized on his legend by drawing on the highly dramatic incidents of his life in creating his greatest characters. Even so, some events in his life have remained clouded in mystery, and careless speculations have unfortunately gained the status of fact.

Unlike many other Russian writers of the first part of the 19th century, Dostoyevsky was not born into the landed gentry. He often stressed the difference between his own background and that of Leo Tolstoy or Ivan Turgenev and the effect of that difference on his work. First, Dostoyevsky was always in need of money and had to hurry his works into publication. Although he complained that writing against a deadline prevented him from achieving his full literary powers, it is equally possible that his frenzied style of composition lent his novels an energy that has remained part of their appeal. Second, Dostoyevsky often noted that, unlike writers from the nobility who described the family life of their own class, shaped by “beautiful forms” and stable traditions, he explored the lives of “accidental families” and of “the insulted and the humiliated.”

Dostoyevsky’s father, a retired military surgeon, served as a doctor at the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in Moscow, where he treated charity cases while also conducting a private practice. Though a devoted parent, Dostoyevsky’s father was a stern, suspicious, and rigid man. By contrast, his mother, a cultured woman from a merchant family, was kindly and indulgent. Dostoyevsky’s lifelong attachment to religion began with the old-fashioned piety of his family, so different from the fashionable skepticism of the gentry.

In 1828 Dostoyevsky’s father managed to earn the rank of a nobleman (the reforms of Peter I the Great had made such a change in status possible). He bought an estate in 1831, and so young Fyodor spent the summer months in the country. Until 1833 Dostoyevsky was educated at home, before being sent to a day school and then to a boarding school. Dostoyevsky’s mother died in 1837. Some 40 years after Dostoyevsky’s death it was revealed that his father, who had died suddenly in 1839, might have been murdered by his own serfs; however, this account is now regarded by many scholars as a myth. At the time, Dostoyevsky was a student in the Academy of Military Engineering in St. Petersburg, a career as a military engineer having been marked out for him by his father.

Dostoyevsky was evidently unsuited for such an occupation. He and his older brother Mikhail, who remained his close friend and became his collaborator in publishing journals, were entranced with literature from a young age. As a child and as a student, Dostoyevsky was drawn to Romantic and Gothic fiction, especially the works of Sir Walter Scott, Ann Radcliffe, Nikolay Karamzin, Friedrich Schiller, and Aleksandr Pushkin. Not long after completing his degree (1843) and becoming a sublieutenant, Dostoyevsky resigned his commission to commence a hazardous career as a writer living off his pen.
Early works

The first work Dostoyevsky published was a rather free and emotionally intensified translation of Honoré de Balzac’s novel Eugénie Grandet; and the French writer’s oeuvre was to exercise a great influence on his own fiction. Dostoyevsky did not have to toil long in obscurity. No sooner had he written his first novella, Bednyye lyudi (1846; Poor Folk), than he was hailed as the great new talent of Russian literature by the most influential critic of his day, the “furious” Vissarion Belinsky.

Three decades later, in The Diary of a Writer, Dostoyevsky recalled the story of his “discovery.” After completing Poor Folk, he gave a copy to his friend, Dmitry Grigorovich, who brought it to the poet Nikolay Nekrasov. Reading Dostoyevsky’s manuscript aloud, these two writers were overwhelmed by the work’s psychological insight and ability to play on the heartstrings. Even though it was 4:00 , they went straight to Dostoyevsky to tell him his first novella was a masterpiece. Later that day, Nekrasov brought Poor Folk to Belinsky. “A new Gogol has appeared!” Nekrasov proclaimed, to which Belinsky replied, “With you, Gogols spring up like mushrooms!” Belinsky soon communicated his enthusiasm to Dostoyevsky: “Do you, you yourself, realize what it is that you have written!” In The Diary of a Writer, Dostoyevsky remembered this as the happiest moment of his life.

Poor Folk, the appeal of which has been overshadowed by Dostoyevsky’s later works, is cast in the then already anachronistic form of an epistolary novel. Makar Devushkin, a poor copying clerk who can afford to live only in a corner of a dirty kitchen, exchanges letters with a young and poor girl, Varvara Dobrosyolova. Her letters reveal that she has already been procured once for a wealthy and worthless man, whom, at the end of the novel, she agrees to marry. The novel is remarkable for its descriptions of the psychological (rather than just material) effects of poverty. Dostoyevsky transformed the techniques Nikolay Gogol used in “The Overcoat,” the celebrated story of a poor copying clerk. Whereas Gogol’s thoroughly comic hero utterly lacks self-awareness, Dostoyevsky’s self-conscious hero suffers agonies of humiliation. In one famous scene, Devushkin reads Gogol’s story and is offended by it.

In the next few years Dostoyevsky published a number of stories, including “Belyye nochi” (“White Nights”), which depicts the mentality of a dreamer, and a novella, Dvoynik (1846; The Double), a study in schizophrenia. The hero of this novella, Golyadkin, begets a double of himself, who mocks him and usurps his place. Dostoyevsky boldly narrates the story through one of the voices that sounds within Golyadkin’s psyche so that the story reads as if it were a taunt addressed directly to its unfortunate hero.

Although Dostoyevsky was at first lionized, his excruciating shyness and touchy vanity provoked hostility among the members of Belinsky’s circle. Nekrasov and Turgenev circulated a satiric poem in which the young writer was called, like Don Quixote, “The Knight of the Doleful Countenance”; years later, Dostoyevsky paid Turgenev back with a devastating parody of him in The Possessed. Belinsky himself gradually became disappointed with Dostoyevsky’s preference for psychology over social issues. Always prone to nervous illness, Dostoyevsky suffered from depression.

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