Dostoevsky’s works and characters give a detailed image of 19th C Russia



Fyodor Dostoevsky, one of Russia’s most influential writers, Culture Trip says, was influenced by the many hardships he experienced in his life. In an oppressive Tsarist Russia, he was arrested in 1849 for belonging to a literary group that discussed banned books critical of Tsarist Russia and was sentenced to death. But the sentence was commuted at the last minute. He spent 4 years in a Siberian prison camp and 6 years of compulsory military service in exile.

His barracks in Omsk, Siberia, as he describes it, in summer was intolerable closeness, in winter unendurable cold. All the floors were rotten. Filth on the floor an inch thick; one could slip and fall, “We were packed like herrings in a barrel. There was no room to turn around. From dusk to dawn it was impossible not to behave like pigs”. Classified as one of the most dangerous convicts, Dostoevsky had his hands and feet shackled until his release. In prison he suffered a lot of seizures, burned by fever, trembling and feeling too hot or cold, every night. Dostoevsky suffered a great deal and his suffering is reflected in his works.

His experiences helped him to create memorable characters that together formed a detailed image of 19th C Russia. Culture Trip says that Dostoevsky’s works bring forward the ‘little man’, a person you would pass on the street without giving a second thought, but in fact represents the life of the majority of people. They are the backbone of a country and only through understanding the life of a voiceless human can the psychological portrait of a country begin to be painted.

Thus, Crime and Punishment (1866) is the story of a poor man that commits a crime in order to survive, but then deals with a greater struggle than poverty- extreme guilt. Along the way, the reader encounters some of the lowest and pitiful creatures that inhabited the streets of St. Petersburg.

The Idiot (1869) has Myshkin as the main character, who is one of the most gentle and kind characters in literature, stuck in an imperfect world of judgmental and cunning people. Returning after undergoing treatment in a mental hospital, his involvement in a scandalous love affair leads him to be mistreated by people around him. That brings him back to where he started- a mental institution.

Dostoevsky’s first novel, Poor Folk (1846) is based on an exchange of letters between two people in St. Petersburg- the elderly Makar Devushkin and his beloved Varvara Dobroselova, a social novel that gives voice to the disadvantaged people in society. Devushkin’s love for his distant cousin Varvara leads him to continuously search for money to help support her, hoping one day he will eventually marry her. In the end she loses interest in him, after a rich widower, Mr. Bykov, proposes to her.

The other acclaimed novel, Demons I 1871-72) is a social and political satire, a psychological drama and a large scale tragedy. Demons is an allegory of the potentially catastrophic consequence of the political and moral nihilism that were becoming prevalent in Russia in the 1860’s .A fictional town descends into chaos as it becomes the focal point of an attempted revolution orchestrated by master conspirator, Pyotr Verkhovensky . The mysterious aristocratic figure of Nikolai Stavrogin, Verkhovensky’s counterpart in the moral sphere dominates the book.

Dostoevsky’s last novel, The Brothers Karamazov, (1880) is a passionate, philosophical novel that enters deeply into questions of God, free will and morality. It is a theological drama dealing with problems of faith, doubt and reason, in the context of a modernizing Russia with a plot that revolves around the subject of patricide.    

He also wrote what is called a Writer’s Diary, a collection of his writings. Despite a gambling addiction he acquired and times when he had to beg for money, he became one of the most widely read and highly respected Russian writers. Just as he was influenced by a wide variety of philosophers and authors including Pushkin Gogoi, Augustine, Shakespeare, Scott, Dickens and others, in turn he influenced a great number of later writers , including Russians such as Solzhenitsyn, Anton Chekov, philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean Paul Sartre. His books have been translated into 170 languages.

Dostoevsky’s body of work consists of 12 novels, 4 novellas, 16 short stories and numerous other works. His most acclaimed novels include Crime and Punishment (1866), the Idiot ( (1869) , Demons  (1872) and the Brothers Karamazov (1880).His 1864 novella, Notes from Underground is considered to be one of the first works of existentialist literature.   

 Compiled by Janina Gomes


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