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The Brothers Karamazov | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Fyodor Dostoevsky | Biography


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. Moreover, 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 the 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.

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 open-hearted Christianity likely played a role in his depictions of such characters as the Elder Zosima and the novice Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky's portrayal of mystics and mystical states in The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot were 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 fit. This prefiguration warned him the fit was coming but also gifted him with feelings of spiritual rapture and oneness with all creation.

Fyodor and Mikhail were both partial to artistic and literary pursuits from an early age but were enrolled in engineering school by their father and expected to pursue careers in the military. Fyodor completed school and received a 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. His writing career was cut short when he was arrested in 1849 for subversive political activity against the tsarist (or czarist) government. It is doubtful that Dostoevsky advocated violent revolution, but he was caught up in a government dragnet, along with other radicals. In a cruel act of punishment, the tsar sentenced Dostoevsky and some others to death and then issued a reprieve at the last minute. This moment of resurrection is portrayed in various ways, again and again, in the author's fiction. Dostoevsky was then incarcerated for four years and did hard labor in Siberia, followed by four years of forced military service and continued exile. He was allowed to return to St. Petersburg after 10 years and resume his writing career.

The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoevsky's last novel and is considered by many people to be his masterpiece. He wrote it over a three-year period and published it in serial format in the magazine The Russian Messenger between 1879–80. By the time he wrote it, 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 Tsar Alexander II. One shadow cast on his final years was the death of his three-year-old son, Alyosha, who died while he was writing this novel. Of course, the mystic Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov has the same name. 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.

Dostoevsky's 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 and negatively portrays them in his works of fiction, including in The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky was a devout Orthodox Christian even before his imprisonment, but he became even more so afterward. Nonetheless, he wrestled with doubt until the end of his life. All of the writer's major themes come together in his final novel, which is an enormous canvas on which he paints characters across the spectrum of belief and unbelief and works out his ideas about sin and salvation.

Dostoevsky died shortly after completing The Brothers Karamazov, on February 9, 1881 (January 28 by the Julian calendar), at age 60. He left behind a rich legacy, including short works of fiction, large novels, and nonfiction (compiled in The Diary of a Writer). His major works, beside The Brothers Karamazov, include Poor Folk (1846), Notes from Underground (1864), The House of the Dead (1862), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), and The Possessed (1872; also called The Devils or Demons).
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