The Idiot | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Get the eBook on Amazon to study offline.

Buy on Amazon Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "The Idiot Study Guide." Course Hero. 4 Oct. 2019. Web. 19 Aug. 2022. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2019, October 4). The Idiot Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved August 19, 2022, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2019)



Course Hero. "The Idiot Study Guide." October 4, 2019. Accessed August 19, 2022.


Course Hero, "The Idiot Study Guide," October 4, 2019, accessed August 19, 2022,

Fyodor Dostoevsky | Biography


Early Life

Fyodor Dostoevsky (also spelled Dostoyevsky) was born on November 11, 1821. His social class and the hardships he suffered distinguish him from his two great contemporaries: Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) and Ivan Turgenev (1818–83). 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 Dostoevsky was exposed to sickness and poverty from an early age. He had several siblings but was closest to his brother Mikhail (1820–64), who was a year older. His father was a bad-tempered disciplinarian. Both parents were religious, but his mother's teachings of a joyful and pious Christianity likely played a role in Dostoevsky's depictions of Christlike characters such as the Elder Zosima and the novice Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov (1879–80) and Prince Myshkin in The Idiot (1868–69). Dostoevsky's portrayal of mystics and mystical states in these two books was 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 his adult life and would typically experience an "aura" before having a seizure. This prefiguration warned him the fit was coming but also filled him with feelings of spiritual rapture and oneness with all creation.

Becoming a Writer

Both Dostoevsky and his brother Mikhail pursued artistic and literary endeavors from an early age, but their father insisted they pursue careers in the military. Dostoevsky completed engineering 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 French author Honoré de Balzac's (1799–1850) novel Eugénie Grandet (1833), 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 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 profoundly affected him and his writing, as did the deep religious conversion he experienced while in jail. The fullest telling of surviving the firing squad appears in The Idiot, a novel about the meaning of mortality. Dostoevsky was incarcerated for four years and did hard labor in Siberia, followed by four years of forced military service and continued exile. Only after 10 years' punishment was he allowed to return to his life in St. Petersburg in 1859, where he threw himself into writing and publishing.

Publishing Life

The author founded two literary journals in which he and 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 introduced a new type of fictional character: the underground man or man of ressentiment. Constrained by law and morality, the man of ressentiment cannot fully act out his envy and hatred and thus turns some of his destructive impulses on himself. Notes from Underground was soon followed by the publication of Crime and Punishment (1866), the first of Dostoevsky's large masterpieces. The Idiot, the author's second big novel, was deemed a failure by the critics of his day as well as some modern pundits but understood by more perceptive readers as a flawed masterpiece, and a precursor to his magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov (1879–80), his last and greatest novel. In The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, as well as in many of his other works, Dostoevsky gives full voice to opposing political and moral viewpoints and wrestles, along with his characters, with faith and doubt.

Death and Legacy

Dostoevsky died at age 60 on February 9, 1881, leaving behind a rich legacy of short works of fiction, timeless novels, and 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 Russia's greatest 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.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about The Idiot? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!