Notes from Underground | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Fyodor Dostoevsky | Biography


Early Life

Fyodor Dostoevsky (also spelled Dostoyevsky) was born on November 11, 1821 (per the Gregorian calendar; October 30, according to the Julian calendar). His difference in class and the hardships he suffered distinguish him from his two great contemporaries: Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev. Unlike these two aristocrats, Dostoevsky was born into the middle class.

Dostoevsky's father was a physician who first worked in the military and then took charge of a hospital for the poor. He and his family had a house on the same campus as the hospital, so the young Fyodor was exposed to sickness and poverty from an early age. He had several siblings but was closest to his brother Mikhail, a year older than him. His father was a bad-tempered disciplinarian who probably suffered from depression. Both of the writer's parents were religious, but his mother's teachings of a joyful and openhearted Christianity likely played a role in Dostoevsky's depictions of such characters as the Elder Zosima and the novice Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov (1879–80). Dostoevsky's portrayal of mystics and mystical states in The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot (1869) was also influenced by his own spiritual experiences, brought on by epilepsy. No one knows exactly when the writer suffered his first seizure, but he was plagued by epilepsy all of his adult life and would typically experience an "aura" before having a seizure. This prefiguration warned him the fit was coming but also gifted him with feelings of spiritual rapture and oneness with all creation.

Art, Politics, and Family

Both Fyodor and Mikhail pursued artistic and literary endeavors from an early age, but their father insisted they enroll in engineering school to pursue careers in the military. Fyodor completed school and received a military commission but resigned at age 23 to become a full-time writer. He experienced early literary success, first with a translation of Balzac's novel Eugénie Grandet, and then with his own novel, Poor Folk (1846). His writing career was cut short when he was arrested in 1849 for subversive political activity against the czarist (or tsarist) government. It is doubtful Dostoevsky advocated violent revolution, but he and other radicals were caught up in a government dragnet. The czar's punishment was draconian: Dostoevsky and some others were sentenced to death. While he was facing the firing squad, Dostoevsky got an official reprieve. The near-death experience affected him—and his writing—profoundly, as did the deep religious conversion he experienced while in jail. Dostoevsky was incarcerated for four years of hard labor in Siberia, followed by four years of forced military service and continued exile. Only after 10 years' punishment was Dostoevsky allowed to return to his life in St. Petersburg in 1859 to resume his writing career.

Publishing Life

Dostoevsky threw himself into writing and publishing. He founded two literary journals in which he (among others) published articles and short works of fiction. Most of his writing revealed a commitment to a Russian society based on fair social principles and Christian spiritual values. Initial success was followed by tragedy and adversity. The government shut down the journals, which was a terrible financial blow to Dostoevsky. His brother and his first wife died, and Dostoevsky became addicted to gambling. It was during this terrible time that Dostoevsky began writing Notes from Underground (1864), which has been lauded for its literary social satire and for the introduction of a new type of fictional character: the existential man.

Notes from Underground was soon followed by the publication of Crime and Punishment (1866), one of Dostoevsky's masterpieces. The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoevsky's last novel. He wrote it over a three-year period and published it in serial format in the magazine The Russian Messenger. By that time, Dostoevsky had a settled family life with his second wife, a more stable financial situation, and the love and admiration of a wide public, including Czar Alexander II. The death of his three-year-old son, Alyosha, cast a shadow on Dostoevsky's life, however. The mystic Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov was named after this son. No doubt the grief Dostoevsky suffered in losing this child informs his portrayal of Snegiryov, the unfortunate captain and father of the boy Ilyusha, who dies of consumption.

Idealism and Disenchantment

Dostoevsky's early partiality to socialism and the ideal of achieving a perfect secular state on Earth were entirely erased by his imprisonment and exile; he categorically rejected the beliefs of socialists, nihilists, and atheists. Furthermore, he negatively portrays them in his works of fiction, including Notes from Underground and The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky was a devout Orthodox Christian even before his imprisonment, but he became more religious afterward. Nonetheless, he wrestled with doubt until the end of his life.

Death and Legacy

Dostoevsky died at age 60 on February 9, 1881 (January 28 by the Julian calendar), shortly after completing The Brothers Karamazov. He left behind a rich legacy, ranging from short works of fiction to timeless novels to the nonfiction compiled in Diary of a Writer. His experiences of imprisonment, chronic epilepsy, addiction, and poverty gave him a singular window into the lives of the poor, the outcasts, and the criminals of society. Along with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky is considered to be one of the greatest of Russian writers. While Tolstoy masterfully depicts discernible states of consciousness, Dostoevsky brilliantly renders the workings of the unconscious mind and shines a light on the darkest corners of human motivation and behavior.
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