Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky
(1821 – 1881)
Dostoyevsky was a Russian novelist, highly acclaimed as one of the greatest of all novelists, who penetrated the human mind and heart with exceptional insight and whose fiction has had profound influence on the modern intellectual climate. Born in Moscow on November 11, 1821, Dostoyevsky was the son of a former army doctor. At the age of 17, he was sent to the military academy in Saint Petersburg. In early writings 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 down-trodden. 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 behaviour of the underprivileged.
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. 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 behaviour. Released from prison in 1854, Dotoyevsky was sent to a garrison town near Mongolia. Dostoyevsky completed 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 dramatises 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 centred 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. 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.
Dostoyevsky anticipated 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.