Some students of literature would state, with certainty, that Fyodor Dostoevsky (also Dostoyevsky) was one of the first of existential writers. As students of philosophy know, this classification is problematic, as Dostoevsky’s writings include characters with existential natures, but the writer himself was dedicated to religious mysticism and not radical free will.
Dostoevsky (Фёдор Миха́йлович Достое́вский) is one of the most important figures in world literature, and closely associated with his beloved Russia.
According to some biographers Dostoevsky was prone to drink and a gambler who wrote about men with even more anti-social tendencies than himself. According to these accounts, he more closely resembles the orgy-loving father Fyodor Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s last novel than the religious and pure son Alyosha in the same novel.
Other biographers insist Dostoevsky remained true to his Orthodox religion — and its accompanying guilt. Not that either alternative seems cheerful, I cannot say without doubts which view is accurate. It is up to historians and biographers, aided by whatever records exist, to determine what made Dostoevsky so cheerful a writer.
It is possible that his life made him what he was: bitter, cynical, miserable…. Any number of negative adjectives can be applied to Dostoevsky. The defining moments in Dostoevsky’s life were the murder of his father and his own imprisonment for treason.
His father was an army doctor, who demanded order and morality. While Dostoevsky was studying at an army school, his father was killed by serfs on the family estate. This murder made no sense to Dostoevsky. He never escaped a fascination with murder and crime, trying to understand why the poor might be illogically violent. Much of Dostoevsky’s writings deal with death as a result of his obsession to understand it.
In 1846, after serving in the army, Dostoevsky wrote Poor Folk, a psychological novel. It was recognized as a masterpiece by many, and secured a good income for the author. It would be nearly two decades between this success and his next popular novel. One reason for this dramatic gap in creativity is Dostoevsky’s involvement in the political upheavals of Russia.
With money came access to Western European ideas and culture. Dostoevsky, like many of the Russian middle-class, found himself wanting Russia to adopt Western political structures. He began writing and publishing calls for democratic reforms, an illegal and dangerous undertaking. Because of such activities, Dostoevsky and other writers were arrested, tried, and convicted as traitors to the tsar. On the day of his planned execution, Dostoevsky was bound and blindfolded, waiting to die. Then, a messenger came to deliver word of a commuted sentence from the tsar. The writer was sent to Siberia, after a severe emotional torture the tsar had planned all along.
While in Siberia, Dostoevsky’s political and philosophical views changed radically. In fact, his views began to mirror those of his father. Dostoevsky became a nationalist; he believed that Russia would become the primary world power within his lifetime. More importantly, he believed that Russia was a chosen nation, with a sacred future blessed by God. Dostoevsky became a religious zealot, telling all who would listen that suffering as the only way to purify a sinful soul. Russia’s suffering made the country pure.
Notes from Underground, published in 1864, reflects the pain and suffering of a man — but not Dostoevsky, as is often assumed. The narrator is fictional, the values expressed in contrast to the writer’s own religion. It is a study of what Dostoevsky thought the human condition was creating, not what humanity should become.
Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment in 1866 to illustrate how suffering leads to redemption of a lost soul. The book’s anti-hero, Raskolnikov, commits an irrational murder. Dostoevsky did not want to trivialize the crime, but instead wanted to explore the process of redemption. Unlike Camus’ The Stranger, Raskolnikov’s crime is meant from the beginning to test his beliefs. For Raskolnikov, murder is an experiment in morality.
Sometimes, Dostoevsky gave little thought to what he wrote, especially when writing merely to settle gambling debts. Dostoevsky could write novels at incredible speeds, when he had to pay bills. At other times, he gave a great deal of thought to philosophy and human nature.
One very important note to students: do not confuse the writer with his characters. The existential ideas presented in Dostoevsky’s works are not his own, in fact they often conflict with his beliefs. Remember this, and it changes how one approaches his works. Walter Kaufmann describes Dostoevsky as follows:
Dostoevsky himself was a Christian, to be sure, and for that matter also a rabid anti-Semite, anti-Catholic, and anti-Western Russian nationalist. We have no right whatsoever to attribute to him the opinions of all of his most interesting characters.
— Existentialism; Kaufmann, p. 14
|1821november11||Born, the second of seven children.|
|1831||Father purchases the village of Darovoe.|
|1832||Father purchases villege of Cheremoshna. Family estate is approximately 1400 acres with 100 serfs.|
|1834||Sent with brother to boarding school.|
|1835 July||Mother develops tuberculosis.|
|1837 February 27||His mother dies.|
|1838||Enters the Russian Engineering Academy as an army cadet.|
|1839 June 8||His father dies, apparently murdered by his serfs.|
|1839 June||Has his first epileptic seizure.|
|1843 August 12||Graduates from the Russian Engineering Academy.|
|1843 December||Renounces any claim to his family estate in exchange for money from his brother-in-law.|
|1844 October 19||Resigns army commission as an lieutenant.|
|1846||Publishes Poor Folk, The Double, and A Novel in Nine Letters.|
|1847||Publishes The Landlady and An Honest Thief.|
|1847||Ends friendship with literary critic Vissarion Grigorievich Bielinsky after argument about Bielinsky’s atheism.|
|1847||Begins attending political meetings. Does not agree with violence against government, however.|
|1848||Publishes A Weak Heart, White Nights, and Another Man's Wife.|
|1849||Convicted of conspiracy against the Tsar. While in front of the firing squad, Dostoevsky and his companions are reprieved, as the Tsar intended the firing squad as a form of emotional torture. The writer is send to a labor camp in Siberia.|
|1854||Released from prison, Dostoevsky is forced to remain exiled in Siberia. The period from 1849 through his exile shapes the writer’s view of life.|
|1854||Meets Maria Dmitrievna Isaev, wife of a bureaucrat.|
|1855||Maria's husband dies.|
|1857 February 6||Marries Maria.|
|1859||Resigns army commission again, this time as a second lieutenant, and receives permission to return to European Russia. Dostoevsky returns to St. Petersburg.|
|1860||Relationship with actress Alexandra Shubert.|
|1861||Publishes The Insulted and Injured and The House of the Dead.|
|1862||Visits England and France. Western Europe are both an attraction to Dostoevsky and a threat. He fears Western Europe might influence Russian culture — something for which he once hoped. Publishes Nasty Story.|
|1862||Relationship with feminist writer Apollinaria Suslova.|
|1864 April 15||His wife dies.|
|1864 July 10||His brother, Mikhail, dies.|
|1864||Publishes Notes from Underground, now considered one of the major works in philosophical literature.|
|1865||Publishes The Crocodile.|
|1865||Borrows 10,000 roubles from his aunt, Alexandra Kumanina. He loses much of the money gambling in Wiesbaden.|
|1866||Publishes Crime and Punishment, featuring an existential anti-hero. Also publishes The Gambler.|
|1867 February 15||Marries Anna Snitkina, his stenographer. Lives abroad, in Germany and France, until 1871.|
|1868||Publishes The Idiot.|
|1868 March 5||Daughter Sonya born.|
|1868 May 24||Sonya dies of pneumonia.|
|1869 September 14||Second daughter, Lyubov, born in Dresden.|
|1871||Returns to Russia after living in Western Europe. Vows to never gamble again.|
|1871 July 26||First son, Fyodor, is born.|
|1878||His three year-old son, Alyosha, dies|
|1879–1880||The Brothers Karamazov is published.|
|1881 January 28||Dies.|
Dostoevsky, while not an existentialist, does represent the roots of the philosophical movement with which he is often associated. According to Kaufmann:
I can see no reason for calling Dostoevsky an existentialist, but I do think that Part One of Notes from Underground is the best overture for existentialism ever written. With inimitable vigor and finesse the major themes are states here that we can recognize when reading all the other so-called existentialists from Kierkegaard to Camus.
— Existentialism; Kaufmann, p. 14
As stated earlier, in my opinion The Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky’s major link to existentialism. I consider this novel a more definitive explanation of Christian / theological existentialism than any other work in literature. The poemThe Grand Inquisitor, delivered by the intellectual Karamazov son, Ivan, explains that faith is not easy to understand. The poem also explains that free will is the single greatest burden placed upon any individual. Freedom, according to Ivan’s poem, is intolerable.
Notes from Underground
Marking a departure in literary style and content, Notes from Underground heralded the arrival a new form of literature. The narrative is a story with neither a happy ending nor a history, as many novels of the time had been. Notes from Underground represents a fictionalized diary of sorts; we explore a man’s inner thoughts and struggles, not necessarily his story.
Professor and critic Walter Kaufmann describes Notes from Underground as “one of the most revolutionary and original works” published. Today we are confronted with preoccupied, self-obsessed narrators — often the authors are these narrators. One cannot blame Dostoevsky for the tenor of modern literature, but the narrator of Notes from Underground could easily be transported into the literature and experimental works of the 1960s. A phrase from the time represents a summation of the narrator’s view: “I know so much I’m miserable.” Throughout the Notes, we experience the narrator’s moods — in particular his anxiety.
The following excerpts from the opening pages of Notes from Underground present a good introduction to the narrator’s character.
Underground, II am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I belive my liver is diseased….I was lying when I said just now that I was a spiteful official. I was lying from spite. I was simply amusing myself with the petitioners and with the officer, and in reality I never could become spiteful.It was not only that I could not become spiteful, I did not know how to become anything: neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascal not an honest man, niether a hero nor an insect. Now, I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot become anything seriously, and it is only the fool who becomes anything…. I am forty years old now…. To live longer than forty years is bad manners, is vulgar, immoral. Who does live beyond forty? Answer that, sincerely and honestly. I will tell you who do: fools and worthless fellows.
As we were asked not to trust anyone over 30 by the “Flower Children” of the 1960s, we are advised by the narrator ofNotes from Underground that men over forty lived so long by being worthless. He makes no attempt to offer himself as an example for all; there is no ideal. Unlike heroes and narrators featured in the literature of the time, Dostoevsky creates a character without traditional values.
Dostoevsky’s narrator represents a break from all European literary tradition. Foremost, the narrator does not believe in God or Christian values; he is an individual, free to do as he wants. He, the narrator, is an existentialist.
A real gentleman, even if he loses everything he owns, must show no emotion. Money must be so far beneath a gentleman that it is hardly worth troubling about. The Gambler, Chapter 2 (1866)
Sarcasm: the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded. Notes from Underground, Chapter 2, section 4 (1864)
The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the man who calls himself a fool at least once a month.