This Day In Writing History
On November 11th, 1821, the legendary Russian novelist, essayist, and philosopher Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in Moscow, Russia. The second of six children, Fyodor's father Mikhail was a military surgeon and a violent alcoholic. He practiced at the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in Moscow. Although his parents forbade it, as a young boy, Fyodor would visit the patients in the hospital garden. He loved to listen to their stories.
Mikhail Dostoevsky was known to exercise despotic rule over his children. After coming home from work, he would take a nap and force his children to keep silent, stand by him while he slept, and swat any flies that came near his head. In 1839, two years after losing his wife to tuberculosis, Mikhail died as well, supposedly from natural causes, though legend has it that his serfs, tired of his abuse, finally snapped during his latest violent, drunken rage and murdered him, restraining him and pouring vodka down his throat until he drowned.
In 1837, after his mother died, 16-year-old Fyodor Dostoevsky and his brother were sent to the Military Engineering Academy in Saint Petersburg, as their father was determined to make soldiers of them, even though Fyodor was epileptic - he suffered his first seizure at the age of nine. He would use his experience with the condition to create epileptic characters in his novels, such as Prince Myshkin in The Idiot (1869) and Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov. (1881)
At the Academy, Dostoevsky hated mathematics, but came to love literature as he studied the works of William Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Blaise Pascal, and E.T.A. Hoffmann. He was a good student, did well on his exams, and graduated in 1841, receiving his commission. During his senior year, he wrote two romantic plays, influenced by the works of German playwright and poet Friedrich Schiller. Unfortunately, these early plays have been lost.
While serving in the army, (where he would be promoted to the rank of lieutenant) Dostoevsky translated Balzac's novel Eugenie Grandet into Russian. It received hardly any notice, so after he left the army in 1844, he began writing his own fiction. The following year, his first work, an epistolary novella called Poor Folk, was published in the magazine Sovremennik (The Contemporary) and received great acclaim. Legend has it that poet Nikolai Nekrasov, the editor of Sovremennik, said of Dostoevsky, "A new Gogol has arisen!"
At the age of 24, Fyodor Dostoevsky had become a literary celebrity. Unfortunately, his second novel, The Double (1846) didn't fare as well as his first. The Double, a psychological study of a government clerk who goes mad, believing that a co-worker has stolen his identity and become his doppelganger, was trashed by critics, despite Dostoevsky's eerily accurate depiction of one man's descent into schizophrenia. After the failure of The Double, Dostoevsky's fame began to fade.
In 1849, while struggling to get his writing career back on track, Fyodor Dostoevsky suffered another devastating setback. He was arrested for being a member of the Petrashevsky Circle, a liberal intellectual group founded by Mikhail Petrashevsky, a follower of French utopian socialist Charles Fourier. The Petrashevsky Circle opposed the czarist autocracy and Russian serfdom. Their members included writers, teachers, students, government officials, military officers, and others. Czar Nicholas I, fearful that the revolutions being waged in other countries would spread to Russia, mistakenly believed that the Petrashevsky Circle was a subversive revolutionary organization and ordered the arrest of its members.
After being forced to endure the psychological torture of a mock execution, Dostoevsky and his fellow Circle members had their death sentences commuted to prison terms. Dostoevsky was sentenced to four years of hard labor at a prison camp in Omsk, Siberia. While serving his time at the squalid, freezing, and filthy prison camp, he became disillusioned with Western ideas and converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity, planting the seeds of the next phase of his literary career. He was released from prison in 1854 and returned to the Army, where he was required to serve in the Siberian Regiment.
Dostoevsky served for five years in the Regiment's Seventh Line Battalion, stationed at a fortress in Kazakhstan. While there, he began an affair with Maria Isayeva, the wife of an acquaintance from Siberia. He married her in 1857, after the death of her husband. In 1859, the couple moved to Saint Petersburg, where Fyodor ran a series of unsuccessful literary magazines with his older brother, Mikhail. Their last magazine, Ephoka (Epoch) was shut down as the result of its coverage of the Polish Uprising of 1863.
The following year, Dostoevsky was devastated by the deaths of his wife and brother and plunged into depression and gambling addiction. Although he had published several memorable novels, including The Village Of Stepanchikovo (1859), The Insulted And Humiliated (1861), Notes From The House Of The Dead (1862), and Notes From Underground (1864), he gambled away what little he earned from them. By 1865, he was broke. While working on Crime And Punishment, a novel that would become one of his masterpieces, he also wrote a novella called The Gambler in order to fulfill his contract and avoid losing his copyrights to his publisher. It was a grim drama about a tutor who plunges into the depths of gambling addiction, inspired by the author's own ordeal.
With the publication of Crime And Punishment in 1886, Fyodor Dostoevsky established himself as one of the greatest novelists of all time. The landmark novel told the story of Raskolnikov, a poor student who drops out and moves into a tiny room in Saint Petersburg. Desperate for money, but too proud accept help from even his closest friend, Raskolnikov finally reaches his breaking point and decides to rob and murder Alena, a nasty, elderly moneylender. Unfortunately, Alena's half-sister Lizaveta walks in on the crime, forcing Raskolnikov to kill her as well. Tortured by guilt, Raskolnikov falls into an unbalanced state, drawing the suspicion of police detective Porfiry.
Raskolnikov falls in love with Sonya, a devout Christian woman driven to prostitution by her father. Seeing her as a spirit guide, Raskolnikov confesses his crime to Sonya. When she reads him the gospel story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, Sonya gives Raskolnikov hope for his own redemption. He goes to the police, confesses, and is sent to a prison camp in Siberia. Sonya follows him, and the novel ends on a note of hope that Raskolnikov will be redeemed under her influence.
Dostoevsky would follow Crime And Punishment with another masterwork, The Idiot (1869). The tragic story of the love triangle between Christ-like, epileptic Prince Myshkin, fallen woman Nastasya Fillipovna, and Myshkin's friend Rogozhin, would not be translated into English until the 20th century. In his tragic quest to defend her honor from ridicule and contempt, Prince Myshkin's love for Nastasya is a pure, Christian kind of love, while Rogozhin's love for her comes from lustful passion, which eventually drives him to murder and madness. Meanwhile, another man, Ganya, wants to marry Nastasya just for her dowry, with which he hopes to improve his social status.
Dostoevsky's last novel is considered by most to be his masterpiece - and one of the greatest novels of all time. The Brothers Karamazov (1881) is a deep, philosophical 750+ page epic novel that explores and debates the nature of God, morality, and free will. Part satire of human corruption, part a meditation on faith in an age of skepticism, and part murder mystery and courtroom thriller, the novel follows Fyodor Karamazov, a buffoonish, lecherous miser, and his grown sons. When Fyodor is murdered, his oldest son Dmitri becomes the prime suspect. Each of the Karamazov brothers represents a part of the Russian character. Dmitri is a selfish lout, Ivan is a tortured intellectual, and Alyosha is the spiritual seeker. Although Alyosha is Dostoevsky's heroic prototype of the Christian idealist, the Church is not spared from criticism. As Russia stands on the brink of socialist revolution, Ivan presents one of the most potent criticisms of organized religion ever written.
Although much admired as a writer, Dostoevsky courted controversy with views that were considered anti-Semitic. In A Writer's Diary, a two volume collection of essays and short stories, he perceived the ethnocentrism and influence of Jewry in Russia's border regions as a threat to Russian peasants living in those areas. However, he would later argue in favor of giving Jews equal rights in Russian society, advising Czar Alexander II to give Jews the right to assume positions of influence such as professorships at universities. He also expressed a desire to peacefully reconcile Christians and Jews so they could come together in brotherhood.
Fyodor Dostoevsky spent his last years living at the Staraya Russa resort in Northern Russia. He died of a lung hemorrhage from emphysema and an epileptic seizure on February 9th, 1881, at the age of 59. He still remains a major literary influence.
Quote Of The Day
"The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the man who calls himself a fool at least once a month." - Fyodor Dostoevsky
Today's video features a reading of the first chapter of Dostoevsky's existentialist novella Notes From Underground. Enjoy!