Fyodor Dostoevsky: Everlasting literary genius | Sunday Observer

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Everlasting literary genius

28 November, 2021
Fyodor Dostoevsky
Fyodor Dostoevsky

According to many critics, the greatest fiction writer the world has ever produced is Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.

The main reason for categorising him at such level is the psychological profundity of his fiction - they penetrate the darkest recesses of the human heart and give new insights into life with wisdom, questioning the life and the socio-political forces under which a man has to live. His novels such as ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, ‘The House of the Dead’, ‘The Idiot’ and ‘The Possessed’, and his novellas such as ‘Notes from the Underground’ and ‘White Nights’ attest to this fact. For some critics he is the first existentialist in the world. Anyway, this great literary figure’s bicentenary birth anniversary fell on late October 30 which is a landmark of a writer’s literary movement. So, at this juncture, it is of paramount importance to look into this greatest writer’s life and his literary movement.

Early life

First, his name is Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky or Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky – both should be spelled as Dos-toy-ev-sky (is to say ‘toy’ in the middle). He was born on October 30, 1821, in Moscow. His father is Mikhail Andreyevich Dostoevsky who was an army doctor while mother is Maria Fyodorovna Dostoevskaya (born Nechayeva), a house wife. Fyodor was second child – a son – in the family, first was Mikhail. Subsequently, the parents had six more children - Varvara (1822–1892), Andrei (1825–1897), Lyubov (born and died 1829), Vera (1829–1896), Nikolai (1831–1883) and Aleksandra (1835–1889).

Dostoevsky’s father had a successful career as a military doctor, he served in Moscow hospital. Appointed as a senior physician in 1818, he happened to work at a charitable hospital that provided medical services for the very poor. The family was comfortably off, and in 1828, he was promoted to collegiate assessor, a position which raised his legal status to that of the nobility (this change in status was made possible thanks to the reforms of Peter 1 the Great). As a result, he could acquire a small estate from Darovoye in the Tula province, about 150 km away from Moscow - young Fyodor spent there the summer months in 1831.

The family had a house in the hospital complex as well. So, in these places where he spent his childhood, he powerfully exposed to experiences while the other children of his background were usually carefully sheltered. His parents were devout Orthodox Christians like almost everyone in Tsarist Russia.

Until 1833 Dostoyevsky was educated at home, but then he was sent away to a school in Moscow. He got a good education there, though as a child of the tiny professional middle-class he felt out of place among his more aristocratic classmates. In 1837 his mother died when he was away at school. As it was his father’s wish that he should be an engineer, in 1837, soon after his mother’s death, he and his elder brother Mikhail were sent to Petersburg to be placed in the Army Engineering College. Then in 1839, his father also died.

After graduating from the Academy of Military Engineering in St. Petersburg, Dostoevsky began career as a military engineer. He even became a lieutenant. But soon he realised that it is not a suitable occupation for him. So, he resigned the job and commenced a hazardous career as a writer living off his pen.

First Works

Dostoevsky’s first literary efforts were not fiction but dramas. They were two historical dramas, ‘Mary Stuart’, and ‘Boris Godunov’ which he wrote in 1841 when he was 20 years old. He read extracts from them to his brother in the same year. However, these two plays have not been preserved. His first published work is a translation of Balzac’s novel ‘Eugénie Grandet’ which appeared in 1843. Per critics, it was a rather free and emotionally intensified translation of the book. The French writer’s oeuvre was to exercise a great influence on Dostoyevsky’s fiction.

From October, 1844, when Dostoevsky gave up his army career, to April, 1849, when he was arrested and imprisoned in the Petropavlovsk Fortress in Petersburg (within five years), he published ten novels. The first was ‘Poor Folk’ written in 1846 which brought him fame literally overnight. He first gave the manuscript to Dimitry Grigorovich, an apartment-mate of him, who brought it to the poet Nikolay Nekrassov. Nekrassov read aloud it to Grigorovich, and was overwhelmed by the work’s psychological insight and the writer’s ability to play on the heartstrings. Even though it was 4:00 am, they went straight to Dostoevsky to tell him his first novella was a masterpiece.

Later that day, Nekrassov brought ‘Poor Folk’ to the great Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky. “A new Gogol has appeared!” Nekrassov proclaimed, but Belinsky replied to him, “With you, Gogols spring up like mushrooms!” Then Belinsky started to read it. Then he soon communicated his enthusiasm to Dostoyevsky: “Do you, you yourself, realize what it is that you have written!” In ‘The Diary of a Writer’, Dostoevsky remembered this as the happiest moment in his life. After publishing it on January 15, 1846 in the St. Petersburg Collection almanac, it became a commercial success, and Dostoevsky also became a celebrity at the age of 24.

Aftermath of the mock execution

The few minutes that he underwent with full conviction to death affected Dostoevsky’s whole life. His fictional characters repeatedly imagine the state of mind of a man approaching execution. The short story ‘The Peasant Marey’ is a biographical account of his life in prison. It was published in February, 1876, in ‘A Writer’s Diary’, a monthly periodical “without contributors or programme” which he published between 1876 and 1878.

The prison episode is described at much greater length in his novel ‘The House of the Dead’, published in 1861. As Gary Saul Morson reveals to the ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’, the novel was the first book that initiated the Russian tradition of prison camp literature:

“(The book) describes the horrors that Dostoevsky actually witnessed: the brutality of the guards who enjoyed cruelty for its own sake, the evil of criminals who could enjoy murdering children, and the existence of decent souls amid filth and degradation—all these themes, warranted by the author’s own experience, gave the novel the immense power that readers still experiences. Tolstoy considered it Dostoevsky’s masterpiece.”

‘The House of the Dead’ highlights the need for individual freedom which makes us human. His conviction brought Dostoevsky into direct conflict with the radical determinists and socialists of the intelligentsia. Definitely, Siberian experiences gave him the “regeneration” of his convictions.

After being released, he became a passionate adherent of the most reactionary forces in Russia. He rejected all the condescending attitude of intellectuals, who wanted to impose their political ideas on society, and began to believe in the dignity and fundamental goodness of common people. In other words, the mock execution led Dostoevsky to appreciate the very process of life as an incomparable gift and, in contrast to the prevailing determinist and materialist thinking of the intelligentsia, to value freedom, integrity, and individual responsibility all the more strongly.

The change in him is described in his short story ‘The Peasant Marey’ which appeared in ‘The Diary of a Writer’. As David Magarshack puts, “Before his release from prison he wrote a number of ‘Odes’ to members of the Czar’s family, couched in the most fulsomely servile language.”

Major works

It is also important to note that though he was released from prison in March, 1854, he was not allowed to return to Petersburg until the end of 1859. However, between 1859 and 1861 he published three novels, including his comic masterpiece ‘The Village of Stepanchikova’.

Dostoyevsky is best known for his two novellas ‘Notes from the Underground’ and ‘White Nights’, and for four long novels, ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘The Idiot’, ‘The Possessed’ (more accurately known as ‘The Demons and The Devils’) and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’.

Through the ‘Notes from the Underground’ (1864), Dostoyevsky aims at philosophies of progress and improvement – which were highly popular in his age (as they continue to be in ours). There he attacks our habit of telling ourselves that if only this or that thing were different, we could leave suffering behind. The editorial of the ‘School of Life’ web magazine titled ‘Fyodor Dostoevsky’ analyses the story along with Dostoevsky’s world view as follows:

“If we got that great job, changed the government, could afford that great house, invented a machine to fly us faster around the world, could get together with (or get divorced from) a particular person, then all would go well. Dostoevsky argues that it is a total delusion, suffering always pursues us.

Schemes for improving the world, he says, always contain a flaw: they won’t eliminate suffering, they will only change the things that cause us pain. Life can only ever be a process of changing the focus of pain, never removing pain itself. Stop people starving, says Dostoevsky – with calculated wickedness – and you’ll soon find there’s a new range of agonies: they’ll start to suffer from boredom, greed or intense melancholy that they haven’t been invited to the right party. The book attacks on all ideologies of technical or social progress which aspire to the elimination of suffering.”

The editorial brings forth five things that Dostoyevsky wanted to highlight through his fiction. The first is the value of suffering. The second is our ignorance - ‘we don’t know ourselves’. The third one point out that nice people do some terrible things. The fourth is enabling people to appreciate the beauty of life while the fifth is reiterating that idealism has its limits.


Through the most of his life Dostoyevsky suffered from epilepsy. The first attack of it happened when he was in the prison. Because of this there are many descriptions of epileptic seizures in his novels. They, especially in the ‘The Idiot’, reveal the heights and depths of the human soul. Sigmund Freud interprets Dostoyevsky’s epilepsy as psychological in origin, but his account has been vitiated by research showing that his analysis was based on misinformation.

In 1857 Dostoyevsky married a consumptive widow, Mariya Dmitriyevna Isayeva (she died seven years later); But during the honeymoon, Dostoevsky was seized by an epilepsy. So some biographers of Dostoevsky argue that his unhappy marriage began with her witnessing one of his seizures on their honeymoon.

After getting ill with the epileptic seizures for the last time, there began a haemorrhage in Dostoevsky which gradually turned worse after a series of other complications. Ultimately, this became a cause for his death. He died on January 28, 1881, in St. Petersburg. Nevertheless, he could finish his last great novel ‘Brothers Karamazov’ two months before his death.

We all know that Dostoevsky’s mind was in much better working order than almost everyone else’s, but his body was most certainly not. He had been constantly suffering from illnesses. However, in spite of the health issues he produced greatest literature which would never get stale with time. Dostoevsky lived only 59 years.