Fyodor Dostoevsky

Russian novelist


November 11, 1821
February 9, 1881
Related topics
Criticism, interpretation, etc., Manners and customs, Dostoyevsky, Fyodor,--1821-1881, Biography, Literature,


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Born in Moscow's Foundling Hospital, where his father was a resident physician, Dostoevsky grew up showing an early interest in literature. After serving a year in the Engineering Corps, he resigned to devote himself to writing. His first novel, Poor Folk (1846), was a tremendous success.

Soon afterward, Dostoevsky and some others were arrested for participating in a study group that discussed, among other things, the writings of the utopian socialist Charles Fourier. They were led before a firing squad, then given a last-minute reprieve from the czar with a sentence of four years' exile to Siberia to be followed by five years in the army That incident left Dostoevsky permanently scarred psychologically.

While imprisoned, Dostoevsky was allowed to read only one book, the Bible, which had also played a significant part in his early education. He emerged from prison an ardent Russian nationalist and a Christian bound to the tenets of the Russian Orthodox Church. He gave a realistic account of his prison and exile experiences in The House of the Dead (1861).

Years of poverty followed his release, during which he published Notes from Underground (1864), which maturely treats his principal themes: the eccentric and self-conscious protagonist; the bankruptcy of humanism, rationalism, materialism, and socialism; suffering and humiliation; and salvation in Christ (although the specifically Christian passages were cut by the czar's censors). Both his wife and his brother died during that time, leaving him with a large family to support. Not financially solvent until ten years before his death, Dostoevsky fought a debilitating epilepsy and worked tirelessly at his novels, often dictating them at a feverish rate. In 1867 he married the young woman whom he had hired as a stenographer.

His two most famous novels, Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880), are philosophical detective stories in which both the murderer and the meaning of life are simultaneously pursued. In The Brothers Karamazov, his last novel, Dostoevsky portrayed the relationships of four brothers to their depraved and spiteful earthly father on the one hand, and to a mysterious, often ambivalent heavenly Father on the other. Throughout, Dostoevsky was concerned with the justice of God and the idea that "if God does not exist, then everything is permitted."

Dostoevsky's novels anticipated later theories of the complexity and contradictions in human personality . He also wrote two other great novels, The Idiot (1868-1869) and The Possessed.

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