Fyodor Dostoevsky is renowned as one of the world’s greatest novelists and literary psychologists. Born in Moscow in 1821, the son of a doctor, Dostoevsky was educated first at home and then at a boarding school. When Dostoevsky was a young boy, his father sent him to the St. Petersburg Academy of Military Engineering, from which he graduated in 1843. Dostoevsky had long been interested in writing, and he immediately resigned from his position as a sublieutenant to devote his time to his craft. His first book, Poor Folk (1846), was immediately popular with critics.
Dostoevsky’s early view of the world was shaped by his experience of social injustice. At the age of twenty-six, Dostoevsky became active in socialist circles, largely because of his opposition to the institution of serfdom. His political opinions were influenced by his experiences as a young boy—his father was murdered by his own serfs while Dostoevsky was away at school. Another experience that greatly affected Dostoevsky, and that found its way into his writing, was the time he spent in prison. On April 23, 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested for his participation in a group that illegally printed and distributed socialist propaganda. After spending eight months in prison, Dostoevsky was sentenced to death for membership in the group and was led, with other members of the group, to be shot. But the execution turned out to be a mere show, meant to punish the prisoners psychologically. Dostoevsky then spent four years at a labor camp in Siberia, followed by four years of military service. Raskolnikov’s time in a Siberian prison, described in the Epilogue of Crime and Punishment, is based on Dostoevsky’s own experiences at a similar prison, and he devoted many passages in his other books to scenes involving criminal justice, including the courtroom scenes of The Brothers Karamazov.
Dostoevsky’s time in prison affected him in at least two important ways. First, during his imprisonment Dostoevsky began suffering from epileptic seizures, a condition from which he suffered for the rest of his life. He portrays the experience of epilepsy through the character of Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov. The second important change that Dostoevsky underwent in prison was his rejection of the radical socialist positions that had led to his arrest, and his development of a conservative concern for traditional values. His conservative religious and philosophical inclination is evident throughout his works written after this period, including The Brother’s Karamazov. For instance, Dostoevsky specifically questions whether good and evil can exist in a world in which there is no God. Through the character of Rakitin, Dostoevsky parodies the progressive theories of his contemporaries, intellectuals who move from popular idea to popular idea according to the whims of fashion, without regard for the truth.
In 1857, Dostoevsky married Mariya Dmitriyevna Isayeva, who died of consumption seven years later. He spent much of the 1860s in Western Europe, experiencing the culture that was slowly invading Russia. During this time he struggled with poverty, epilepsy, and an addiction to gambling. But with the publication of Crime and Punishment (1866), his fortunes improved. The novel’s popular and critical success allowed him to keep ahead, albeit just barely, of daunting debts and the burden of supporting a number of children left in his care after the deaths of his brother and sister. In 1867, he married a second time, to Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, who helped him cope with his epilepsy, depression, and gambling problems. Anna had served as his stenographer for his novel The Gambler (1867).
After writing Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot (1868), and perhaps his greatest masterwork, The Brothers Karamazov (1880). The Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky’s deepest and most complex examination of crucial philosophical questions of human existence. In it, he addresses the conflict between faith and doubt, the problem of free will, and the question of moral responsibility. The Brothers Karamazov is one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century, and remains the capstone of Dostoevsky’s achievement today. Dostoevsky died in 1881, only a year after The Brothers Karamazov was published.
Some people have seen Dostoevsky’s novels as prophetic depictions of life under the Soviet regime. The existentialist movement that took shape in the middle of the twentieth century looked to him for his descriptions of human beings confronting mortality, despair, and the anxiety of choice. Writers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre valued Dostoevsky’s writing for his profound insights into human dilemmas, which, along with his style, themes, and unforgettable characters, continue to influence writers more than a century after his death.
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