in Moscow on November 11, 1821, Dostoyevsky was the son of a former army
doctor. He had a gloomy childhood. At the age of 17 he was sent to the
military academy in Saint Petersburg. Technical studies bored him, and
on graduation he decided to be a writer.
Dostoyevsky's first novel, Poor Folk (1846), the unhappy love story of a humble government clerk, was highly praised for its sympathetic treatment of the downtrodden. In his next novel, The Double (1846), and in 13 other sketches and stories composed in the following three years, Dostoyevsky continued to explore the humiliations and consequent behavior of the underprivileged.
In 1849 Dostoyevsky's literary career was disastrously
interrupted. He had joined a group of young intellectuals who read and
debated French socialist theories forbidden to be openly discussed in czarist
Russia. A police informer slipped into their secret meetings, and the entire
group was imprisoned. In December 1849, they were taken to a place of execution,
presumably to be shot; at the last minute they were reprieved, and the
punishment was changed to penal exile. Dostoyevsky was sentenced to four
years of hard labor in Siberia and to serve afterward as a common soldier.
The stresses of this period brought on epilepsy, from which Dostoyevsky
suffered the rest of his life.
In The House of the Dead
(1861-62) Dostoyevsky described the sadistic beatings, the filthy conditions,
and the total lack of privacy among the convicts, who treated him, “a gentleman,”
with animosity. He also recorded the change in his spiritual and psychological
outlook. His reading, limited to the Bible, led to the rejection of the
Western-inspired atheistic socialism of his youth. Christ's teachings became
for him the supreme affirmation of the ethical ideal and of the possibility
of salvation through suffering. The brutality of the hardened criminals,
alternating with displays of courage, generosity, and sensitive feelings,
deepened the writer's insight into the complexity of human behavior. Released
from prison in 1854, Dostoyevsky was sent to a garrison town near Mongolia.
Five years later he received permission to return to St. Petersburg with
a young, consumptive widow he had married. The marriage was not a happy
Resuming his literary career,
Dostoyevsky launched with his brother, Mikhayl, a monthly periodical, Time.
The House of the Dead was serialized in it, as was The Insulted and Injured
(1861). In this melodramatic story, which delighted readers, a morbidly
sympathetic treatment of the defenseless characters introduces Dostoyevsky's
famous theme of redemption and happiness through suffering. His first trip
abroad was recorded in the essay “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions”
(1863), which emphasizes the soullessness of Western European culture.
When Time was suppressed because of a supposedly subversive article, the brothers started The Epoch, another short-lived review, in 1864. The beginning of Dostoyevsky's unique philosophical novel Notes from the Underground (1864) was published in the first issue. The work is considered the ideological prologue to Dostoyevsky's major fiction. In the self-lacerating monologue of the nameless narrator of Notes, a rebel against the materialism and conformity of society, Dostoyevsky presented, for the first time in the history of modern literature, the alienated antihero.
After his wife's long illness
and death in 1864, followed by that of his brother, whose financial obligations
he assumed, Dostoyevsky was penniless. In return for a loan from an unscrupulous
publisher, he agreed to forfeit permanently all copyrights if he did not
deliver a new full-length novel by an early date. Two months before the
deadline, he dictated The Gambler (1866), based on his passion for
roulette, to a young stenographer, Anna Snitkina. She soon afterward became
his wife, a loving, considerate companion.
The following years, spent abroad to escape creditors, were marked by physical hardship and poverty but great productivity: the completion of the novels Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868-69), and The Possessed (1871-72). When Dostoyevsky returned to Russia in 1873 he was world-renowned. The last novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80), was completed not long before his death in St. Petersburg on February 9, 1881.
It is on these last four novels, in which Dostoyevsky dramatizes moral and political problems, that his fame ultimately rests. Within skillfully constructed suspense plots, he creates dynamic, autonomous heroes and places them in extreme situations. Each novel is centered on the exploration of their conflicting drives and motivations and the philosophical justification for their existence. For each of these novels Dostoyevsky kept a notebook. Edited and translated in the late 20th century, these journals are an invaluable revelation of his creative methods.
In Crime and Punishment, probably his best-known work, a poor student, Raskolnikov, commits murder to rid the world of a human parasite and to help his indigent family; but his main motive is the testing of his right as an extraordinary individual (as he conceives himself to be) to transgress moral law. Tormented by guilt and isolation, he confesses and is spiritually redeemed. The main protagonist of The Idiot is a Christlike figure, conceived by Dostoyevsky as the positively good man. Prince Mishkin radiates sincerity, compassion, and humility and becomes a mentor to those around him, but is finally broken in spirit by their destructive hatreds and lusts. The Possessed is a novel about a revolutionary conspiracy that uses terrorist tactics. An unlimited propensity for wantonly cruel acts is embodied in the demonic, self-destroying hero, Stavrogin. The Brothers Karamazov, considered one of the masterpieces of world literature, is the most powerful artistic expression of Dostoyevsky's psychological insights and philosophical and religious views. It is plotted as a gripping murder mystery; concerned with the tragedy of patricide, it surges with family tensions.
The profound intellectual
and spiritual significance of the massive novel is gradually revealed in
the confrontations among the Karamazov brothers: the intellectual skeptic,
Ivan; the emotional man of action, Dmitri, a novice from the monastery;
and the saintly boy, Alyosha. The three protagonists—metaphysical symbols
of body, mind, and spirit of the modern human being—engage in passionate
debate, revolving around themes considered in the author's earlier works:
the expiation of sin through suffering, the need for a moral force in an
irrational universe, the struggle between good and evil, the supreme value
of the individual and freedom. The ultimate question is raised of how one
is to live and what one is to live by—to which only fragmentary answers
The symbolic creation of worlds where heroes, pervaded by the tragic sense of life, search for truth and self-fulfillment endows the novels of Dostoyevsky's last creative period with a timeless and universal quality.
modern psychology by his exploration of hidden motives and intuitive understanding
of the unconscious, manifested in the irrational behavior, psychic suffering,
dreams, and lapses into insanity of his characters. He also prepared the
way for the subjective approach of much 20th-century literature and for
surrealistic and existential writing (see Existentialism; Surrealism).
Dostoyevsky is a major influence on most serious contemporary thinkers
and writers. The first major English translation of Dostoyevsky's novels
was made by Constance Garnett between 1912 and 1920.